In 1994, would-be producer Kim Fowley, the man who claims to have created Joan Jett and the Runaways, came to South by Southwest with three little kids trailing behind him. Fowley, the kind of guy who could only be a legend in L.A. (and even then, only in his own house), at the time was trying to get anyone with a record-company credit card to listen to his latest find, these little moppets with the last name of...what was it? Oh, yeah. Hanson. Which only goes to show you how today's novelty bullshit might turn out to be tomorrow's one-hit wonder: For proof, all you needed to hear was Imani Coppola's dance music played on fiddle Thursday at Stubb's, where her career faded faster than the echoes. What's the sound of 100 audience members standing still?
The real star of Thursday night was Eszter Balint, who, until that moment, was best known as the star of Jim Jarmusch's Stranger than Paradise--which is, actually, a fitting description for her brand of hypnotic pop. Balint, who's recording now in Austin, performed for a small, early-night crowd that included Janet Billig--the woman who once managed Nirvana and now handles Courtney Love's business. It must have been the place to be.
Speaking of the Woman Formerly Known as Mrs. Cobain, it was shocking to realize how much Love has stolen from Come frontwoman Thalia Zedek, whose performance Friday night was an absolutely thrilling, revelatory experience. With the word Electric blazing behind her in red neon--after all, the show was at the Electric Lounge--Zedek spat out words like broken glass and gravel and played guitar as though the strings were barbed wire; listening to Come was like being trapped beneath a runaway train. Not for nothing did someone yell out during the show: "Finally, a good band!"
An hour after the show, the buzz was still there--lasting just as long as it took for Alex Gifford and Will White, better known as the English dance duo Propellerheads, two British electronic wizards, to set up their turntables and keyboards and drum kit. At long last, nonbelievers, here's a dance-floor band that can play the big halls: This English duo filled every space of La Zona Rosa with beats so big and heavy, they sat on your chest and left you breathless. Rock is dead, long live rock.
But not Molly Ivins--yes, the Molly Ivins--who actually had the audacity to get on a stage on the University of Texas campus and sing with a band that included Jimmy LaFave, who knows music when he plays it, unlike Ivins. Her next book ought to be titled Molly Ivins Sings Worse than You. Dreams do come true, but for the rest of us, they turn into nightmares. The Gourds, joined by former Dallasite and Wilco member Max Johnston, washed the taste out of our mouths an hour later at the Hole in the Wall across the street; it was a hometown crowd for the hometown heroes, who played "Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother" and "Sweet Home Austin, Texas" until the beer ran out and the lights came on. (The Gourds play Club Dada this Friday night, and they're never to be missed.)
But when the music business' spring break-spring training came to an end, the buzz of tomorrow's great band seemed to fade too quickly. On Friday night, those who had come to Austin representing Warner Bros. Records discovered--some, during the middle of bands' sets--that dozens of their colleagues had been laid off hours earlier. It was a stark reminder of the music industry's financial troubles during a conference meant to celebrate its alleged indestructibility. "I feel so guilty," said one Warner's publicist. "I'm out running up an expense-account tab while my friends are getting fired." Here was more sad proof that even in Austin during SXSW, the business often isn't about music at all.
We all guessed that the half-orphaned boy might grow up and sell out. We had a suspicion he'd enter the glow of the pop-culture spotlight through the door of privilege--how could he not with parents like his? And we also guessed that he, like other spawns of celebrity, could turn out to be far less compelling than Mom or Dad.