Shoving room only
Standing in the middle of the tiny stage at Maggie Mae's, Stereophonics drummer Stuart Cable let loose a stream of garbled Welsh insults that ended with the unmistakable phrase "fuckin' wanker." Singer-guitarist Kelly Jones simply shrugged and said, "Blame him," pointing at the nearby stage manager. As the audience looked at one another in confusion, the band was shooed off the stage, and the vilified stage manager meekly offered, "We have to keep a schedule." That's how one of the best--and most frustrating--shows at South by Southwest ended.
About an hour earlier, the city fire marshal had interrupted the proceedings by demanding that at least 100 people exit the club. Naturally, not that many people were keen on leaving, but that didn't matter to the security team working the club, a group of beefy, slow-witted goons who practically began ejecting unwilling members. As the stage manager continually begged people to leave, Maggie Mae's Gestapo shoved and berated the audience until a sufficient number had been evacuated, some 30 minutes after the band's announced start time.
The band took the stage as though nothing had happened (Limeys) and showed the club personnel why so few were willing to leave. Creating a rock sound that has less to do with bands of the past (although they do give a strong nod to the Kinks), Stereophonics are one of the best new bands to come out of the U.K. since the heyday of Britpop in 1995. All the right elements were there: the anthemic chorus of "A Thousand Trees," the hold-your-lighter-in-the-air balladry of "Traffic," the sly humor of "Too Many Sandwiches." For 20 minutes, Stereophonics transformed the erstwhile frat bar into Wembley Arena. And then they had the plug pulled.
Of course, it should also be noted that the band only needed 20 minutes to squeeze in all of its radio singles, even though the show was unexpectedly cut short, but read nothing into that: Stereophonics proved it is every bit as good as the hype surrounding it. Sounding like Oasis if Noel Gallagher grew up idolizing the Davies brothers instead of Lennon and McCartney, Stereophonics have an arena-ready sound that could make them the band that alternarock radio has been looking for ever since Oasis stopped selling records.
Mister Mojo's rising
The venue is called Mojo's, and it's a bit off the beaten track from the Sixth Street epicenter of South by Southwest. A quick survey of the crowd reveals that there are almost no little white badges in attendance--which means no industry moguls or journalists hoping to be the first to spot new talent. Camika Spencer (aka Emotion Brown), a 26-year-old African-American Dallasite, steps up to the microphone, right beside her partner Gno, who might be mistaken for a linebacker in overalls. When the duo get going, traces of hip-hop collide with samples from Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, and Parliament-Funkadelic. But there's not a single guitar, drum, or even a DJ on stage. And though the crowd is certainly groovin', the drink of choice is not Shiner Bock, but cappuccino and latte.
Welcome to the forgotten stepchild of SXSW--spoken word poetry. Few people are even aware that SXSW has included spoken word in its repertoire for the past four years, and far fewer are willing to miss out on the glamour of bright lights and loud music to sit in a quiet cafe and listen to the ravings of a guy who claims to be a junkie "hooked on phonics." But then, perhaps they don't realize what they're missing.
In this time of confusion and stagnation in the music scene, when the industry isn't sure whether 12-year-old pop stars or 50-year-old bouzouki masters are going to be all the rage, the spoken-word showcase did manage to register more than a mere blip on the radar. Robert Smith, the man credited with conceiving the slam tradition in Chicago 20 years ago, even performed this year, as did the impromptu jazz-poetry ensemble Albuquerque Poetry Experiment.
The spoken-word star--which is the oxymoron it sounds like--was hometown hero Wammo, the Austin spoken-word artist who landed a deal with Mercury's new spoken-word division Mouth Almighty Records, based largely on his performance at SXSW last year. But Wammo's Fat Headed Stranger didn't quite cause the stampede at record stores Mercury had hoped for, so needless to say, there were no parallel-parked white limos outside Mojo's during Wammo's Friday-night gig. And the Saturday-afternoon barbecue held at the apartment complex swimming pool of SXSW poetry emcee Genevieve Van Cleve was hardly the posh kind of open-bar schmoozefest going on over at the Four Seasons hotel. Catering--a pot of vegetarian chili and a bag of barbecue-flavored Lays potato chips--was provided by her mom. And cocktails, a 12-pack of Schlitz, were supplied by the poets.