Over the years, the role of South by Southwest--the much-copied, much-publicized music industry convention in Austin, Texas--has gone from being a proving ground for young bands looking for a recording contract to a full-on industry schmooze-fest. SXSW, now in its 15th year, has weathered the post-grunge slump, Napster and industry downscaling. Even with the festival having raised the bar, so to speak, local artists The Comas, Caitlin Cary, Thad Cockrell, Tift Merritt and the Carbines, Portastatic and Ryan Adams all played the fest. Local labels Merge, Yep Roc and Sugar Hill Records all sponsored showcases.
With hip hop, garage rock, world music and other genres all represented, it's telling that some of the hottest tickets during the five-day fest, which ran from March 14-18, were shows by '80s groups The Cult and the Soft Boys, as well as celeb-rockers The Black Crowes. The Lost Highway night--the new alt-country label seemingly named after David Lynch's film of the same name--was another ballyhooed event.
With a staggering 50 stages and hundreds of events to choose from, SXSW 2001 seemed to emphasize music over networking and free grub, which hasn't always been the case. To be exposed to a veritable EPCOT's worth of bands, as well as music-related panels featuring heavies like former Creem scribe Dave Marsh and übermanager Sharon Osbourne (Ozzy's better half), there's really nothing like SXSW for sheer quantity. Although it's impossible to do more than scratch the surface, here's a "tour diary" of the shows I elbowed, begged and snuck my way into:
SXSW Diary (Sort of like Guadalcanal Diary 2001: mud, discomfort, and enforced marches from club to club):
Thursday, 3:30 p.m.: To save bucks on the flight and rental car, my pardner and I flew into Houston and drove like Jehu to Austin. With only one of those wretched airline chicken sandwiches for fuel (pressed and formed with faux grill lines painted on to suggest flavor), we pulled into town at 8 p.m. and hurriedly checked in at the Convention Center. Finding out that French popsters Mellow were playing their first (and possibly only) American date, we hightailed it to the Waterloo Brewing Company, where the six-piece, ambient pop, retro-synth prog frogs were setting up. Sucking down two pints to dull the hunger pangs, I stood outside, listening to the band's analog synths (Moog), Wurlitzer piano, mellotron and baritone brass flourishes, as well as cool, weather-like noises coming from an old black box monophonic synth. Two guys were seated, manning a table covered with ancient crappy gear connected with a tangle of cords, and they traded lead (sometimes vocodorized) vocal duties. This all added up to Piper at the Gates of Dawn, recut by Brian Eno with Air as the backing band. I was mesmerized by the three-part harmonies and layers of funky keyboard sounds, sort of like finding a never-released psychedelic album by The Association.
Thursday, 10 p.m.: Screeched onto Congress Avenue and somehow mojo'd a parking spot across from the Continental Club, the venue for the Yep Roc showcase. The line ran down the block, but Zeke Hutchins from the Carbines was near the door so we scammed in line--we couldn't miss Chapel Hill's The Comas. The place was packed and sweaty, and the band was still shaken from having their van sideswiped five miles outside Austin. Luckily, both the band and their gear were intact, and they played an inspired show to an attentive house (they'd gotten picks in the local rags). Front man Andy Herod was dead on the money, with Margaret White's violin arpeggios ringing through the club. Unfortunately, it was a brief set, so we stayed to see part of the new power pop super-group Swag (members of Cheap Trick, Wilco and others) minus Tom Petersson. Definitely a buzz show: They snuck former Kink Ray Davies in the back door.
Thursday, midnight: We had a helluva time getting into Merge night to catch Austin homeboys Spoon cap the evening with their smart, arrhythmic pop. A little after 1 a.m., we ran next to catch the King Brothers, an amazing Jap-rock band that made Guitar Wolf look like Hasil Adkins. Imagine The Cramps circa '78, hopped up on goofballs, or Loudness gone punk. The trio (two guitars and drums) sang exclusively in Japanese, slapping their butts and gesturing rudely. Whatever it translated as, they were slaying the Japanese hipsters in the audience. Two of the guys had tight black suits--early Jam--and skinny ties. The drummer had a navy blue shirt spangled with white stars and a white blazer with lapels as big as the Texas horizon; his hair looked like Tony DeFranco's. The King Brothers jumped off the P.A. stacks, screamed, sneered, and jerked like they were standing in puddles of water with poorly grounded amps. I don't know if their "sound" would translate onto vinyl, but it was priceless live.
Friday, 1 p.m.: Ran into a huge Carolina contingent at the Bloodshot Records party--a daytime event staged in the courtyard behind the Yard Dog Art Gallery (outsider and primitive art). The Blacks, notable for a tall chick straddling an upright bass, were warming up the hung- over crowd, but people were there to see former Whiskeytown front woman Caitlin Cary's solo set. Cary was joined by her husband Skillet Gilmore, with Mike Daley (Whiskeytown), Chris Stamey and local Thad Cockrell doing vocal duty for a couple of George and Tammy, Patsy and Ferlin style smoky duets. It was cryin' time in broad daylight. Cary's lonesome alto vocals warm your bones like a shot of Maker's Mark, and her poignant, down-home lyrics chronicle the bittersweet, tiny victories that make up the human experience.
Friday, 3:30 p.m.: An afternoon party at Maria's Taco Express (Maria started the joint out of her trailer before buying the brightly painted ramshackle taquería), featuring Alejandro Escovedo, as well as The Dragons, his brother Mario's new band. Homemade tortillas, good rock, and cold cervezas.
Friday, 4 p.m.: Went to Waterloo Records for an underwhelming performance by Idlewild. Granted, it was a three-man, acoustic version of the band, and about as effective as Radiohead or Blur would be in similar circumstances. Unless you were a slavishly devoted fan of the band--supplying all the missing musical flourishes in your head--this show was a throwaway.
Friday, 9 p.m.: Tift Merritt and the Carbines played a spirited set as people filed in for the Lonesome Highway showcase. Her band keeps getting tighter and Merritt is getting more control over her powerful voice. It was a strong show, and it's obvious that Merritt's new label is counting on being able to break her as big-time talent.
Friday, 10 p.m.: The rumor was that ancient popster Ray Davies (credited for inventing the amplifier, I think) was going to join The New Pornographers and Neko Case for a manic pop thrillride at La Zona Rosa. This was one of the most talked-about gigs of the fest, with popsters--basking in the glow of affirmation as their usually cloying genre was embraced by hipsters from all walks--went ape when Davies walked on for an encore of rarely performed Kinks' classic "Starstruck," off Village Green Preservation Society.
Friday, 11:15 p.m.: Back to the Austin Music Hall for Ryan Adams and the Pinkhearts. In true star style, his band hit the stage before Adams--his hair professionally streaked and mussed--made his entrance. There's something self-aware about Adams that makes it OK somehow, as if he's in on the joke. But his band--including the bassist, an Adams clone who kept storming the mike to say inane things--clearly doesn't know the capricious nature and, well, changeability of their young bandmaster. With cigarettes as prop--all the band members smoked at all times--the whole rocker-with-cigarette thing became unintentionally hilarious. For Whiskeytown fans, it was a slap in the face, as Adams and Co. ran through a batch of half-baked numbers that sounded like they'd been written expressly for him to perform with that group--in other words, songs that'll never see the inside of a studio, let alone a release date. "Country and Westerberg," commented a wag standing next to me. As a publicity move--performing a throwaway gig with a throwaway batch of songs at his new label's big shindig--it was pure Ryan. But the audience was not impressed.
Saturday, 5 p.m.: Stopped into Emo's to see Austin homeboys and Merge artists Spoon for the second time, then tried to see Hank III at one of those gnarly Jello shooter kind of clubs, but they weren't honoring SXSW badges. Forget it, Austin, you bleeder of wallets and purses.
Saturday, 5:50 pm: The weather took a turn for the nasty--a miserably damp wind chilled the huge line of poor saps waiting outside Stubbs BBQ's Revolver magazine party to see if bombastic hairslinger Ian Astbury (and the reformed Cult) could still recreate that mid-'80s post-Goth metal thing they did so well. As we waited (and waited) for the stars, Creeper Lagoon--looking cold and confused on the outdoor stage--ran through a brittle handful of numbers before giving up the stage to the Cult's toadies, who pretended to be busy for ages while Astbury readied his makeup.
As for The Cult, it's amazing what a prop good rock hair is. With no jet-black mane to toss, Astbury was just a diminutive goofball in a furry anorak. They sounded the same, but why shouldn't they? It's not like they've gone anywhere or done anything. Three songs later we made like a tumbleweed and blew. We debated trying to catch reformed spouse-abuser Ike Turner, but the line was down the block.
Saturday, 9 p.m.: It was with trepidation that we approached the Soft Boys reunion. Only Underwater Moonlight and the occasional early Robyn Hitchcock solo outing were amazing; people tend to forget Can of Bees or Hitchcock's whole whimsical '80s career as a self-proclaimed "British eccentric," where, given half an ear, he'd prattle on about vicars and prawns and knickers and any other word combinations we poor Brit-besotted yanks find hilarious. (He also took to wearing those horrid, loud-printed garish shirts that middle-aged tea bags wear when they're going to Florida or Ibiza.) As far as Hitchcock goes, the scales fell from my eyes long ago. Still, the reunion show was an event, so off we trudged to the Austin Music Hall. Maybe it was the light jazz drumming on "I Want to Destroy You," or the beach-music strumming on "Underwater Moonlight," but it was underwhelming.
Saturday, midnight: Needing an aural palette cleanser, we rushed off to see the White Stripes (a brother-sister duo in the vein of the Flat Duo Jets) and the Bellrays with their Afro-driven garage sound, but there was no chance of getting in. So it was back to Austin Music Hall for Scot darlings Mogwai: layers of noise with Polvo-esque duel guitar arabesques floating over our heads like a sonic magic carpet. As far as beauty of noise, Mogwai ranks up there with My Bloody Valentine, but minus MBV's catchy songs.
Sunday, 1 a.m.: We ended the fest with Austin local Alejandro Escovedo, an event that brought everyone from novelist Larry Brown (Escovedo's soul mate, drinkin' bud and soon-to-be collaborator) and Ryan Adams, who jumped onstage to improvise harmonies for much of the set. It was a fitting ending to a crammed three days of music: a life-affirming show to see Escovedo, who's played the fest every year, gather a band (a cellist, violin, another guitarist) and draw musicians in to see him. It was a purifying, non-hangover kind of show, with everyone from the Mekons' Sally Timms to Rolling Stone's David Fricke quietly paying attention and letting the songs wash over them.
I got sick as a dog and had my ears pop for a week. But I'd do it all again tomorrow.