Every year, a handful of Weekly scribes makes their way to Texas to attend the festival and do God knows what. Then, they return to tell us (some of) what happened. This year, those scribes were Curtis McCrary, Linda Ray and Stephen Seigel.
1) I was in my jodhpurs faster than you can say "Rock Safari" when I was told I'd get an opportunity to see the mighty Spoon at a taping of Austin City Limits, for an episode that will air in the fall. My esteemed colleague Lee Gutowski ran out of other people to ask, and unwittingly invited Spoon's Biggest (in reference to fanhood, but come to think of it, I may in fact be Spoon's largest) Fan.
There was a pre-taping Frito Pie social that included my favorite variety of beer--free. The news kept getting better--due to a cancellation, Spoon would fill the entire hour, largely with selections from their forthcoming Gimme Fiction LP. Singer Britt Daniel's parents were on hand, and apparently Mrs. Daniel is not familiar with The Who. Either that, or Britt and his mom were doing a rock version of "(The) Who's on First?"
2) After an inordinately long wait to get into the undersized venue where Sri Lankan superstar-in-the-making M.I.A. would be performing, I began girding for disappointment upon hearing scuttlebutt that she had run afoul of the INS. But lo, at the appointed time, this daughter of the Third World took the stage as if by coup, along with an unknown sidekick and DJ Diplo(docus) of Philly's Hollertronix. In front of a backdrop of chaotic art school imagery (created by M.I.A. herself), she spat wise in the vaguely revolutionary manner of her heroes, Public Enemy. When's the last time you heard a hip hop artist (aside from The Coup) kick a refrain like "Pull up the people! / pull up the poor!"?
3) Chango Malo played SXSW for the first time this year, in a less-than-ideal circumstance--small stage, out-of-the-way venue--but they may as well have been rocking the Hollywood Bowl for all it mattered to them. They turned in a downright inspired set, and I'm not just saying that because of the backrub I later got from guitarist Ian Philabaum.
4) Buck 65 is an affected, skinny white dude from Minneapolis who channels both Tom Waits (in that he raspily chant-sings and occasionally sprinkles glitter about the audience) and Mixmaster Mike (in that he's a mean mother of a scratcher). He's also: Awesome.
5) Seeing former TW staffer/current Magnet editor Fred Mills wander through Waterloo Records with a giant strand of teepee trailing from his shoe was perhaps the best note on which to end my 2005 SXSW experience.
... It Was the Worst of Times
1) Avoid getting sick the day before you leave for SXSW at all costs cough>. I should have perhaps not begun my breaking training (12 and 16 ounce curls, sleep-deprivation marathons, Olympic situps, etc.) on Wednesday of the week before.
2) Lines, lines, everywhere lines--it seemed this year's fest was perhaps the most poorly scheduled of any I've attended. From putting the heavily anticipated LCD Soundsystem and M.I.A. showcase in a 200-capacity club to making a person choose among Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, The Wrens and Sleater-Kinney in the same time slot, the SXSW powers-that-be scheduled as if teleportation was already commonplace. The pain of standing there like an idiot when you could be seeing something rock, somewhere, was almost too much to bear.
3) Rappers (C-Rayz Walz) who get attendees to chant their album release date (May 17) when other, better rappers (Aesop Rock) are scheduled to be onstage should be strapped to a chair and forced to listen to Tori Amos for all eternity--or at least until they bug out and thereby become better rappers (see Bastard, Old Dirty).
4) Please, please, please: Never end your set by simply playing the record of your forthcoming collaboration with Linkin Park. I'm looking at you, Z-Trip!
5) Ratatat's self-titled debut was on my year-end Top 10 list. Naturally, I looked forward to seeing them. But these DJs-in-rocker's-clothing relied on more backing tracks than Ashlee Simpson covering Milli Vanilli. After barebacking (going earplugless during an exceedingly loud set ) my way through Ratatat's "performance," I concluded that the next time I want to hear someone wank over the best parts of a Yes record ... well, hopefully that'll never happen.
· The New York Dolls and Mavis Staples rocked harder than 100 earnest indies.
· Former Howlin' Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin packed one of the larger venues for a set, with Elvis Costello sitting in and Robert Plant in the audience.
· Mekon Jon Langford's performance piece opposing the death penalty took place on the day after Scott Peterson was sentenced, across from the capitol of the state with the most executions.
· The film Lipstick and Dynamite, a fun and thought-provoking documentary about lady wrestlers, featured a soundtrack with Kelly Hogan, Neko Case and Los Straightjackets.
· Debuted at a listening party, Bruce Springsteen's Devils and Dust, a Dual Disc set for April 26 release, revealed a collection of gorgeous songs in the spirit of Tom Joad.
· For Social Distortion fans, there were The Priests: tricked out like Prince, voice like Waits, swagger like Jagger, fans dressed like a commercial for Hot Topic.
· Earlimart was even better than last year, still a fave, as was Stephen Malkmus.
·Favorite new finds of the conference: The Rogers Sisters, a Brooklyn garage-rock trio like The Donnas but with range and smarts; Two Gallants, a powerfully moving duo with painful poetry and brooding melodies; and especially Stars, a chocolaty, high-energy treat, heavy on the bottom.
Forty-plus bands and a week later, though, what hangs in my mind are the songs: Mary Gauthier's "Mercy Now," the Frames' anthemic "Lay Me Down," Tift Merritt's "Shadow in the Way," Calexico's "Not Even Stevie Nicks," the Kings of Convenience covering Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'." Great songs like that stick with you, because they seem familiar from the beginning, as if they'd been hanging around to be discovered, refined and given life. They're as much gifts to the writers as they are to us.
For all its party reputation, the magic of SXSW is the intense, almost palpable experience of this presence of creative dynamism, of the place where human experience meets the inspiration that generates art--a glimpse of creation itself. It moves in trends over time. This year, apart from the abundance of hip hop acts (including the 70-piece, hip-hop orchestra, daKAH), most apparent was the resurgence of the groove in rock music--not the sleazy jam infrastructure it descended to in its last incarnation, but the genuine, all-connecting groove, like a heart throbbing, with the bass alive and purposeful after a decade or so in the inept hands of people's roommates.
Even the twee is now made for woofers. SXSW also highlights new technological trends that can alter the course of popular culture. This year's hit was Dual Disc, combining a CD with a DVD on one disc, an inevitable notion that should prove a boon to independent-film producers. It's the next logical step in a distribution trend that increasingly finds CDs, DVDs and interactive video in the same retail space.
The most arresting developments, though, continue to be in online music distribution, particularly as an outlet for any artist without a label. Fidelity problems remain substantial, but it's a matter of time before some provider finds a market advantage in sound quality, and others follow suit. While downloads still have the music industry in twisted knickers, those of us who remember the 45 RPM can't understand the fuss; 99 cent MP3s are just a return to the single. With luck, the trend could lead to a greater emphasis on individual songs. After all, despite whatever artistry is applied in sequencing and concept development, rare is the full-length album without clunkers.
In the end, it's only the great songs we remember.
Despite the fact that I am growing too old for such a venture (my yearly mantra has become "If Linda Ray can do it, I can"), I still attend the South By Southwest conference/festival/thingy each March. Each year I swear to bow out, because it's the kind of vacation in which you need another vacation to make you feel human again. It seems to me that the breakup-recovery rule probably applies equally here, but in reverse: It takes half the time you dated someone to get over him/her.
And I still am--recovering, that is. But I'm finally pulling out of it enough to share a few observations and accolades.
Best place to be a fly on the wall: Robyn Hitchcock, Robert Plant, and Elvis Costello all had dinner together on Wednesday night. Plant said he hadn't had a drink since '78, while Costello's year to get clean was '86. Hitchcock refrained from comment.
Best reinstitution of a tradition: The free Alejandro Escovedo show at Town Lakes. After a near-death battle with hepatitis C, Escovedo looked and sounded as good or better than he has in years. And rocked harder, too. When was the last time you heard him dig up his cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog"?
Best proof that old dudes can still rock: I saw an abundance of shows by folks hovering around the 50-year mark, and each one of them was great. In addition to Alejandro, former Mott the Hoople frontman Ian Hunter sounded just like he did when I played his records on my Fisher Price record player; John Cale was as interesting as one might expect; Robyn Hitchcock never disappoints; the Blue Nile's Paul Buchanan's voice still sounds as gorgeous as ever; and Elvis Costello's two-hour-plus sampling of his almost 30-year career was one of the best shows I saw all week. Reportedly, sets by Robert Plant, the New York Dolls (or, the Two York Dolls, as only two members are still alive), and Roky Erickson were uniformly excellent, too.
Best proof that people who aren't Tom Jones make music in Wales: Goldie Lookin' Chain, an eight-piece comedy-rap ensemble of Welsh kids who come on like a cross between Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys and Ali G. All eight members never stopped mugging during their entire performance, jumping around like caged chimps while chanting lines like "Guns don't kill people, rappers do!"
Best guerrilla band promotion technique: Peachcake, who placed tiny stickers that said things like "This Peachcake sticker serves no purpose at all," and defaced posters advertising other shows with cryptic messages like "Peachcake will not be playing this show."
Most confusing SXSW tradition: Trying to figure out who or what the hell Titty Bingo is. Every year, someone takes out full-page ads in the Austin Chronicle and distributes color stickers advertising www.tittybingo.com. Despite my confusion, I have never been sufficiently compelled to spend five minutes to figure out what it is.
Most anticlimactic end of a show: Each year, dozens of bands pay homage to Guided by Voices by playing one or two of their songs at an event called the GbV Hootenanny. Because GbV recently broke up (they played their last show on New Year's Eve in Chicago), and because the entire band was in attendance, they were expected to get up and play a few songs at the end of the night. Alas, frontman Bob Pollard was--shockingly--far too drunk by the time their slot rolled around, so no GbV reunion. The Hoot did, however, provide me with the priceless moment of witnessing Pollard attempt to make sense to a chuckling Stephen Malkmus.