The crowd couldn't get enough. A blonde in a tiny tank dress elbowed me as she pumped her fist--"Hey! Hey! Hey!"--and the two of us shoved some swaying, lip-locked couple as they threatened to topple us. An old bald guy with a cigar pushed me, and I pushed him back. Something wet thwacked my face. Needless to say, no one apologized.
By that Saturday night--or Sunday morning, whatever--I was numb and surly. My toes throbbed with blisters, and I was shaky from too much booze. I had spent hours walking up and down Sixth Street, a blues riff in one ear and Dutch people screaming in the other, and the only way a band could have kept my attention was by spitting on me (which the Riverboat Gamblers did, bless their hearts). There was nothing I wanted more than big, dumb punk rock. And if the Riverboat Gamblers didn't offer the perfect SXSW set, it was, at least, the perfect ending.
Fuck you and goodnight.
Let's get something straight: SXSW is a beating. For all it offers--celebrity sightings, free barbecue, music pouring out of every conceivable orifice--there is something cruel in its luxury of options, with more than 1,000 bands in over 50 clubs. People thrust fliers in your face and ply you with free beer. The rain comes, the sin stays and the evangelists, apparently, never give up. Young bands are everywhere, waving signs, chalking the streets with their stupid names. One band played in the flatbed of a truck. Another musician plastered the sticker "Dancing Monkey" across his chest and promised that for a dollar he would (you guessed it) dance like a monkey. Every hour presents another exhausting dilemma: Do you want to see unknown acts or reliable ones? Local bands or foreign? Serious music or Vanilla Ice? Maybe you just want a nap. I know I did.
Like the Gamblers, the best shows at SXSW seized me by the shirt collar. That's why I can't agree with the woman who said to screw the Hives--their show at Friday afternoon's Spin party was one of the festival highlights. The delightfully cheeky Swedish punk rockers couldn't have sounded tighter--no real surprise, as front man Pelle Almqvist admitted, "The Hives have been playing the same songs for about two and a half centuries." Their 2000 debut, Veni Vidi Vicious, is packed with short, atomic anthems like "The Hives Declare Guerre Nucleaire" and "Hate to Say I Told You So." I bought the CD, along with the hype, and listened to it three times in as many years. But even if their upcoming album, slated for summer, is somewhat unlistenable, the Hives' live show is electrifying. Howlin' Pelle Almqvist is a graduate of the Mick Jagger School of Preening Cock--a handsome and lithe performer who paused the show to get his photo taken and chastised the crowd at one point, "I don't think you're supposed to stop clapping so soon." In a festival packed with people clamoring for exposure, isn't it great when someone finally admits it?
After all, there is so much seriousness masquerading as art, so much volume masquerading as talent that it's nice to find performers having fun. That's why the Polyphonic Spree have made a splash every year since their debut in 2002. Their packed set at Stubb's was intoxicating, despite the fact that, like the Hives, their recordings have yet to match their tremendous stage presence. Same with the Trachtenberg Slide Show Players, a kooky family act that sings to a slide show of family pictures (not their own), and Petty Booka, two Japanese sisters who sweetly croon Patsy Cline. People at SXSW are waiting to be shocked, to be impressed and--most important--to be entertained. When jazz pianist Jamie Cullum took over the Driskill bar on Friday afternoon, I didn't expect much. "I saw him on TV this morning," whispered a man at the bar. "He's supposed to be the next Norah Jones," explained someone else. The cover of his album, Twentysomething, featured Cullum leaping Matrix-like over a grand piano. I took a seat and dared him to dazzle me.
He did. His cover of my favorite Radiohead song--"High and Dry"--segued magically into an a cappella version of "Singin' in the Rain." Who has that kind of nerve? Apparently, the same kid who dives under his piano to thump out a house beat to My Fair Lady's "I Could Have Danced All Night," then leads the audience in a jazz scat, leaping over furniture and planting himself on the piano stool just in time to nail the chorus. Cullum joined Pharrell Williams of N.E.R.D. onstage the next night and will probably be remembered as one of the festival's breakouts. Even if you didn't like the music, you couldn't resist this kid's joy.
Same was true of the "How's Your News?" crew, a group of handicapped adults who have become semi-famous through their participation in Arthur Bradford's cult-hit documentary of the same name. Bradford, a Brooklyn author who worked at a Massachusetts camp for the disabled, took five mentally and physically disabled adults on a U.S. tour in which they asked strangers on the street, "How's your news?" The nonsense question acted as a kind of litmus test for the way individuals dealt with the handicapped. The film was a festival favorite in 2002, but the Saturday-night musical concert opening for the Polyphonic Spree was something else entirely--a bold and unpredictable move that could have ended in disaster, especially considering how unprepared the hipster audience was. "I think this is a bunch of retarded people," complained the unbelieving kid beside me. But after Susan Harrington, who suffers from a visual and mental disability, waxed wonderment about the Grand Canyon ("How grand is this canyon? So deep, so wide.") and Ronnie Simonson, who has cerebral palsy, sang about his favorite celebrity (inexplicably, Chad Everett from the TV series Medical Center), the "How's Your News?" team had 1,200 new fans screaming and singing along to their theme song, "Hey, How's Your News?" The kid beside me marveled, "These guys are incredible!" And fun. And happy. And that's so nice.
'Cause you know what? SXSW can be a drag. The lines, the hangovers, the sheer excess. Some shows were straight-up terrible: Pretty Girls Make Graves were chronically off-key; thrash metal outfit The Bronx were chronically not-my-thing. But after a few days, even good bands started to bleed together. I heard a lot of acts I might enjoy some other time--Preston School of Industry, the Von Bondies, The Killers--but to be honest, they kind of bored me in the context of the festival. It is a live event, after all. If you're not yet famous, baby, you'd better put on a goddamn good show. Then again, there were plenty of famous people who didn't have to worry about all that: Little Richard, Camper Van Beethoven, Big Star, Robyn Hitchcock, Cake. Joan Jett still loved rock and roll, and everyone still loved the B-52's. Hell, even Hollywood actresses got in on the action--witness packed solo shows by French actress Julie Delpy and Minnie Driver, who is signed to Pete Yorn's Trampoline Records and whose Saturday showcase one friend dismissed with a two-word description: "Holiday Inn."
But you have to be careful with those marquee acts. You might stand in line for ages only to discover that Mission of Burma never should have gotten back together. Or you might find yourself stuffed among strangers and waiting more than 30 minutes for Los Lobos--as if there's anything new to say about them--while some drunk dude yells at the poor belabored sound guys, "You suck!" And when Los Lobos finally arrives, and the old white guys in the audience break into that embarrassing, off-tempo male wiggle, you might think, "What the hell am I doing here?" and high-tail it over to Emo's, where the Gamblers are screaming and pegging the crowd with snack packages.
Slave to Fashion
Trends of the festival
I Heart the '80s: Sweatbands are back, my friends. So are miniskirts over leggings, neon pumps and anything hot pink. While '80s relics like Joan Jett enjoyed headlining gigs, new bands like British Sea Power, stellastarr* and The Killers borrowed heavily from that decade. And there was no dearth of wink-wink '80s band names either--The Jessica Fletchers, The Pee Wee Fist, Say Anything and the Yuppie Pricks, a band of snot-nosed richies with songs hailing '80s greed and excess.
I Hate the Bushies: Guys walked around with "Impeach" painted across their chests. The band Weapons of Mass Belief screamed about all of us being terrorists. Patty Griffin and Kris Kristofferson garnered huge applause with their protest songs. There was even a showcase dedicated to railing against our president: "Rock Against Bush," a packed event featuring punk bands Alkaline Trio and NOFX along with comedian David Cross, whose set included goofs on Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."
Pretty Punny: The worst puns, and by that we mean the best ones--John Wilkes Booze, Blanche Dividian and Black Cock. That's not a pun, but isn't it funny?
And the Best Band Name Goes to: Volcano, I'm Still Excited!!!
"Have you ever seen so many goddamn cell phones in your life?" --Will Johnson at an afternoon show
"Put your barbecue in your pocket and finish your beers. Are you ready to rock?" --Hives lead singer Pelle Almqvist at the Spin party
"It's like they're saying, 'I have a little boy to rape, and he's got the sweetest, tightest ass, but I'm not going to marry him because that would be wrong.'" --David Cross, on the Catholic Church covering up its sex scandal while opposing gay marriage
"Hey, look! It's Joe Perry!" --smart-aleck to a gullible crowd at the Driskill bar
"I know nobody does this besides Justin Timberlake, but pretend I'm him." --pianist Jamie Cullum, leading the crowd in a round of singing
"Thank you, Austin. I mean, Dallas." --Sparrows guitarist Ward Williams talking to the (mostly local) crowd at the Summer Break showcase
"I think we raised the bar for rock shows. Not us, personally, 'cause Chris shit his pants during the set." --Bowling for Soup's Jaret Reddick at the band's free show
"What band is handing out whistles? Oh, of course. The Polyphonic Spree." --a bystander at the Driskill just before a Spree show
"Now that the record industry is collapsing, maybe record labels will go back to being run by people who actually care about music." --Rhett Miller
"I hate myself and I want to die." --a T-shirt worn by patron of Irish pub Bull McCabe's
"Too much irony makes an untrue heart." --graffiti in the girl's bathroom of that same bar