I hate flying, and this particular trip is made worse by the plague of music industry stormtroopers on our flight. The leeches behind me refer to SXSW's bands only in terms of what companies work with them: "Oh, yeah, they're supposed to be really good. ... I think Bill represents them." "Oh, I thought they were with Tom's firm. ..." These people talk about bands like products, and I'm about to be surrounded by them for five days. When we reach Austin we first hit Emo's, one of the more well-known clubs in the city, to catch Jet By Day, a four-piece from Athens, Ga. I've seen them several times before, but they've tightened up a lot; they pound out several fierce, sweaty, over-the-top rock jams. One song takes about a minute to end, thanks to the Smashing Pumpkins' style of finishing a song by banging the same chord out for an extended period of time.
I leave my companions, who stay to see the Jungle Brothers, and head to a club called Maggie May's to see Austin's own Okkervil River. All these clubs are basically on the same street (6th), so moving from place to place is like going from the Cradle to the Local 506. At Maggie May's, the beer is more expensive, the waitresses wear next to nothing (that helps generate tips from all the sexually-frustrated, drunk music industry schmucks with cable-knit sweaters), and Okkervil River is underwhelming. Their albums are magnificently recorded portraits of sorrow and angst, full of accordions, lap steel, and tremolo keyboards, but live they end up looking and sounding like the First Baptist Church of Austin's prayer group. It doesn't help that over half the population of the club is chatting loudly in front of them.
I meet up with my friends at Buffalo Billiards a block and a half away to see the Startime Records mini-showcase, featuring The Natural History and The Joggers. Startime is a label from Brooklyn that in the past two years has released some of the greatest pop music of the new millennium. New York in general has been spawning heaps of late '70s-early '80s redux bands lately, but few have actually added something to their influences as well as the groups on the Startime roster: The French Kicks, The Walkmen, Brendan Benson and The Natural History. Instead of merely dressing the part and vomiting up half-assed versions of Blondie or Elvis Costello songs, Startime's bands put their own 21st-century spin on pop music by twisting choruses into dissonantly catchy hooks and drumbeats that run circles around the expected rhythms. I've never seen The Joggers, a very recent signing to the label, and the four of them don't fail to deliver the sort of quality the label's other bands emanate. Their singer sounds more like The Fall's Mark E. Smith than anyone else who's ever been described as such, and he plays guitar with the ferocity and twisted phrasing of Tom Verlaine placed in Chicago's brilliant melody-twisters U.S. Maple.The Natural History come next, and they are simply brilliant. Their songs are as perfect as pop songs can be without laying on the schmaltz; dissonant, bouncy guitar lines blanket the perfectly timed bass notes in songs that rarely exceed three minutes. And their drummer is one of the best I've ever seen. His 6-foot-plus frame's long arms keep the beat perfectly, and none of his drum parts are filler. On several songs, he opts to leave the bass drum out of the equation completely, giving the songs enough room to breathe and sink into the audience's memory like ink dissolving over a white cotton shirt. He's the perfect example of how great drumming isn't just technical skill and impeccable timing--none of that matters if a drummer doesn't know how to make a song out of some chords that get handed to him or her.
THURSDAY, MARCH 13: It's "cussingly" hot, as one of our fellow lodgers says. So the best remedy, we all suss out, would be to start drinking at 3 p.m. after some heavy tacos and a milkshake. Between this chaotic and potentially disastrous consumption, we go to Tower Records to see NYC's The Mooney Suzuki play an in-store. These guys put out a record called Electric Sweat about a year ago on an independent label, but in the wave of the new garage-rock revival they were scooped up by Columbia Records and now have loads more cash at their disposal. That wouldn't necessarily be a bad thing if they were doing something original or uncontrived. At 2 p.m. they make their way down the steps of Tower's second floor, all dressed in matching black outfits. In front of a giant banner with their name above a drawing of hands throwing the international sign for rock ("throwing the goat" with index and pinky extended), the band churns out 30 minutes of forced poses, ripping whole chord progressions out of MC5 songs and dropping them into the middle of faux-retro turds even a deaf person could predict. And the crowd loves it. I end up reading magazines at the back of the store, but I look up just in time to see the two guitar players climbing up onto one of the CD racks and ripping down the 6-foot album displays off one of the walls. This revolutionary disobedience is met with some more misplaced worship on the crowd's part, and then the band runs away, leaving their crew to take care of the messy things like turning off amplifiers and picking up guitars.All this nonsense prompts a visit to The Showdown, a bar down the street that, from 3 to 3:15 every afternoon, features "Happy Minutes," when all domestic pints are 90 cents. We plow through a few of those as CNN broadcasts both the Elizabeth Smart fiasco and the departure of U.S. bombers from their stateside bases to areas where they can start bombing Iraq at a moment's notice. It's hard to reconcile the "ultimate-party" surroundings with current world events. I start to view the weekend as a sort of farewell party--goodbye to the semblance of stability and the anticipation of an unthinkable world war, for it comes closer with each beer, each band, each broadcast. To hell with poverty (and war)--we'll get drunk on cheap beer.
After a Levi's/Fader party with free beer, pizza, snacks and copies of the crappy magazine, we hail a cab driven by a man with long lavender fingernails on his left hand, and he takes us to the Diesel store, another uber-bourgeois waste of space, full of Austin's ugliest 90-dollar sandblasted jeans. The French Kicks are playing an in-store here, their second show in as many hours. The band is visibly chagrined about the arrangement, but they make the best of it despite the inept soundman and bloodsucking fashion vampires. Their lead singer used to play drums while he sang, but in the past couple months the band has added a new drummer to free the vocalist up. There's a slight awkwardness palpable in the new dynamic, but it doesn't affect the songs at all; they play a handful of gems from their most recent release, One Time Bells, and a substantial number of awesome new songs. Like The Natural History, the French Kicks' songs are nearly flawless and always catchy. Startime Records has really pulled off a coup of sorts in the new wave of NYC bands. It sucks that we ate so much pizza at the Fader party, for we don't have room to take full advantage of the tuna steaks, brisket, pork dumplings and fancy vinegary mini-corncobs served while the French Kicks play. Oh, did I mention the absurd fashion? After I frantically search outside for a bush to relieve the gallons of Lone Star (the PBR of Texas) I've consumed since 3 p.m., I come back to find my spot on the faux-velvet couch taken by a woman in super-tight jeans of red and blue--there's even suede drawstrings on the legs and a patch that reads "69" on the left leg--whose name is--no shit--Treasure. She's nice enough, though, and seems to have better taste than the girls wearing bobby socks, high heels and trashy skirts. I have to remind myself that I'm here to see a band play.
We bid goodbye to the rock 'n' roll high school scene and start walking to La Zona Rosa, where, rumor has it, Blur will play their first show in four years. While in line I run into sometimes-local photographer Daniel Coston, who tells me that he's going to shoot the reunited Yardbirds, who are playing later that night. He's gotten the word from someone that Steve Vai, possibly the world's cheesiest guitar shredder, is holding down the "axe" position for the Yardbirds. How did this happen? I assume this means Terence Trent D'arby is going to sing for the Small Faces reunion?
Blur gets a cheesy introduction ("Gimme a B! Gimme an L!") from a tacky industry drone (this is the MTV2-sponsored event of the evening), and they bound onstage as a seven-piece behemoth, with several vital elements missing. First, their guitar player, Graham Coxon, quit the band almost a year ago, and in my opinion he's what made the band so brilliant; Damon Albarn's songs are great but require some sort of editing from someone with a different angle. Second, the bass player, Alex James, couldn't get into the country, so they've got some guy they apparently recruited less than 24 hours before. He plays well enough, but when there are only two original members of a band with seven people onstage, the scales seem unfairly balanced. The three backup singers and lifeless replacement for Coxon (Simon Tong, former guitarist for The Verve--he replaced that group's original guitar player too!) don't help much either. The new songs are decent enough, but the band just isn't the same without Coxon, so the show ends up being a slight disappointment.
FRIDAY, MARCH 14: The previous day's imbibing has presented me with the inevitable sensation of my skull being scraped from the inside when I awake. I figure I should take it easy for most of the day, so I go with Greg Bloom, who's covering the festival for the Duke Chronicle, to a screening of 12 short films that are part of the SXSW Film Fest. A wise decision, it turns out, for almost all of the shorts are great. There's a hilarious mockumentary for an exclusive preschool done Best in Show-style and starring Spaulding Gray, Sex and the City's Cynthia Nixon, and Mick Jagger's daughter Lizzy. And Flood, an Israeli film about two brothers, one mentally handicapped and the other getting ready for his bar mitzvah, is one of the most beautifully moving films I've seen in a long time.
After this pleasant oasis of calm we head back to the scene on 6th Street and kill several hours drinking, eating and people-watching before going to one of the two hip-hop showcases of the festival, this one featuring Jean Grae, Beans (formerly of NYC's pioneering avant-hop trio Anti-Pop Consortium), Aceyalone, and Def Jux's flagship producers-MC's Aesop Rock and El-P. (Mr. Lif, another Def Jux artist and the most politically outspoken of the bunch, was supposed to appear with them, but apparently he fell asleep waiting for his plane.) This show represents the cream of the crop of current independent hip hop: Jean Grae is a female rapper from the West Coast whose no-bullshit, daring social commentary injects a much-needed female outlook into the scene; Aceyalone I've never heard, but he rocks the crowd silly with some amazing KRS-One-style party jams until his DJ, Def Jux's RJD2, keeps fucking up the timing of the beat and they abandon the stage; Beans' solo debut is an incredible mix of Faust-meets-Autechre instrumentals, beat poetry and insanely twisting lyrics, and his performance proves that challenging electronic music can be fused with head-bobbing hip hop successfully.By the time Aesop Rock and El-P hit the stage, the club is unbelievably packed, and some tension begins to boil as people become more and more reluctant to let others move past them in the crowd. Fortunately, the two white MCs channel this energy into their galvanizing, politically fiery performance. El-P started the Def Jux label several years ago after his former group, the highly influential Company Flow, broke up; the label has since come to resemble a certain standard for independent rap. As a producer, he creates dirty, paranoid beats that have a undeniable brilliance about them; as an MC, he has united thousands of disillusioned children of the '80s and '90s who are fed up with the stale aspect of popular music and genuinely concerned about the state of the world ("this is for kids worried about the apocalypse," he sings on his debut from last year, Fantastic Damage, "DO SOMETHING, and stop talkin' shit"). Aesop Rock was signed to the label after managing to make a name as one of the eminent underground MCs. Last year's Daylight EP and Labor Days LP furthered the Def Jux aesthetic of keeping a non-commercialized finger on the pulse of American youth, and his lightning-fast lyrical flow and commentary about social decay have helped make him nearly without rival, save for his fellow Def Jux labelmates.
It sucks that Mr. Lif fell asleep at the Boston airport, because his recent full-length, I Phantom, is another modern masterpiece, full of searing diatribes about America's failing economic infrastructure and post-Sept. 11 confusion. All that is forgotten, though, when El-P makes the first political remarks of the festival that I've heard. After instructing the crowd to hold up a peace symbol he speaks out against the war, intoning, "This fucking country is going to hell RIGHT NOW! And I say this because I'm a PATRIOT!" Thank god somebody's got the sense to dismiss the music industry politicking of the festival (the rules were laid out in so many words at the opening speech of the festival--don't talk about current events, the SXSW committee said, because this week is about music, not politics), and thank god these kids were at the show to witness a popular artist utilizing his spine instead of cowering before the "don't rock the boat" bullshit flooding the media.
But don't think the Def Jux posse is all about gloom and doom. They insert the right amount of vitriol with an equal amount of crowd-pleasing into their set, both MCs backing each other on their respective songs and trading off amazing lyrical delivery. It's so nice to be in a packed club at SXSW full of people who actually came to see the music and not the spectacle--joints get passed around, strangers exchange nods of mutual excitement and no one gets hurt.
After three hours of hip hop, Greg and I head up the street to see The French Kicks play a real show, unfortunately without any fancy snacks or free beer. The sound is terrible in the club, but the band once again manages to make everyone smile with their soaring vocal hooks and sweet-as-can-be guitar licks. They finish with a fantastic cover of "Be My Baby," prompting most of the crowd to sing along drunkenly.
SATURDAY, MARCH 15: After lunch, four of us head to Waterloo records to catch the in-store performance from a reunited Camper Van Beethoven. The line is really long when we get there and the band has already started, but we manage to get in for the last 15 minutes. They play well enough but I can't see anything. At the civic center downtown there is a rock poster convention called Flatstock, where artists from all over the country come together to display art they've made for rock shows. Local artist Casey Burns is part of the convention this year, so we head over to check the scene out. There's tons of amazing artwork here from hundreds of shows, even some non-music related posters, but the most striking thing I see are hand-made stickers of the shape of the United States with "I am an American" printed in Arabic on them. Perfect timing for those.
For our last night in town, three of us go to Emo's to see The Cherry Valence and Mudhoney. As The Cherry Valence are setting up, we move to the front, where the force from both drummers' bass drums shake the ground when they check the drum mics. After an agonizing period of the soundmen looking for a vocal mic that works, the band kicks into "Can't Get Enough," the first song off Riffin', their most recent album, and the crowd goes ape-shit.For the next half hour the band tears the place to shreds. There's no one person in the band to focus on; they're like an extremely well-oiled, Southern-rock machine. Guitarists Jamie Williams and Cheetie Kumar are whirling masses of long hair, cowboy boots and harmonized solos, while Paul Siler throws himself and his bass from one side of the stage to the other. And drummers-vocalists Brian Quasi and Nick Whitley beat the shit out of their kits with simultaneous fills and the aforementioned sternum-shaking bass drums. When Whitley leaves his kit to sing up front, his skinny frame flings sweat all over the crowd as he does his best Prince moves. Then the band starts playing Riffin's "Sweat All Over You," and the infamous Beatle Bob appears on stage right and does his famous dance. (Beatle Bob is the Ohio DJ who "hosts" Sleazefest every year and introduces all the bands before they play--his name comes from his amazing early-'60s McCartney hairdo, and his "dancing" is a combination of Bill Cosby and Elaine from Seinfeld's moves.)
It's a beautiful thing, and it doesn't seem like it can get any better until the band fires off a medley of Hendrix-Band of Gypsies antiwar songs, starting with "Machine Gun" and segueing into Buddy Miles' "Changes." No preaching, no soapboxes, just some tastefully placed appropriate covers. As they wind through the final drum rolls of the set, Siler lifts his bass into the air and pounds the top of his skull with it to punctuate the song's ending. They finish, and my girlfriend turns to me and says, "Raleigh just kicked Austin's ass!" It's true, and The Cherry Valence makes me proud to be from North Carolina.
Cookie-cutter stoner-rock trio Nebula plays next, but I know there's no way they can top the show I've just seen, and I don't really want to listen to the soundtrack to some bong hits. We sit outside for their set until Mudhoney comes on. This is one of the bands that I've been most excited to see, since Mudhoney was one of those crucial bands for me in high school, but the smoke from the bomb dropped by The Cherry Valence is still obscuring the stage. Hard as I try, I just can't get into Mudhoney's set, which seems lackluster next to TCV.
The final show I witness is next door to Emo's, where Louisville, Kentucky's VHS or Beta is playing. Using live instruments to create a combination of pulsing disco and smooth dance grooves, VHS or Beta get a huge dance party started. The light show is full of strobes and pink and purple shafts, and the band literally doesn't stop playing for the 30 minutes that I'm there. What they can do with two guitars, a bass, a keyboard/sequencer and an electronic drum set is amazing, and a lot more fun to watch and dance to than the synthetically created equivalent. I don't think I could ever sit down and listen to their record, though, because it would do their entire show a disservice.
SUNDAY, MARCH 15: I don't want to leave. I don't want the party to stop. I don't want to go back to reality. But I can't spend any more money, and our hosts are growing tired of waiting in line for their own bathroom. Back at the airport, we run into some fellow Triangle residents as exhausted as us, which is somewhat comforting.As our plane rumbles through turbulence and I grip my seat's armrest with clammy palms, resisting the urge to use the barf bag, I know that in a few days my country will start a war in Iraq, and consequently start a war throughout the world. While people my age face sandstorms and mustard gas and are told to kill Iraqis our age (when I return to class on Tuesday I learn that one of my classmates has been sent off to Iraq), I've been partying all weekend and doing trivial things like "brunch" and "cocktails." I know the paradox is evident, and clever prose can't hide me from this, but I return to that feeling of leaving a farewell party. When faced with what looks like the beginning of the end of the world, I think self-indulgence is a human reflex. Unfortunately, I also think it's primarily an American one; we wouldn't be in this mess without it.