But what unfolds on this page and the next is not your usual series of blathering SXSW writeups. No sir! You see, the Weekly has the unique (read: bizarre) perspectives of Annie "Smoothie Technician" Holub, Curtis "I Love BBQ" McCrary, Linda "Oldest Working Female Rock Critic" Ray and Stephen "Jew Who Loves Holiday Tunes" Seigel.
So, without further ado: Enjoy!
That's a little bit like how I felt as I was standing in front of the stage at Antone's watching Superchunk set up. I mean, Superchunk. Superchunk. Right there, in front of me. I was shaking in my sneakers, incapable of normal chit-chat with my fellow show-gazers, who seemed more intent on securing a good spot for Robert Pollard's set later that night. I wanted to start jumping up and down and screeching like a wee weasel. But there were too many people around, and my damn purse was too heavy (the things men don't have to deal with at shows--I could go on ...).
But then the lights dimmed. The band came on stage and started playing my favorite Superchunk song, "Driveway to Driveway," and I felt like 30 defibrillators were attacking my chest. I had no idea Superchunk was this amazing live--Mac McCaughan flew around the stage; Laura Ballance convulsed and headbanged (headbanged!); and Jim Wilbur grinned and glowed. And it was loud. Between songs, McCaughan made fun of bands who are at SXSW to "get signed" or "break out"--I think Superchunk is allowed to be the mean older siblings. After they left the stage, David Cross appeared out of nowhere and told the crowd that "all those bands you hear, walking down the street? They're all ripping off Superchunk!"
Hallelujah, David Cross. Hallelujah.
Superchunk was actually the last band I saw at SXSW 2006; I could have stayed for Robert Pollard, but I didn't want to be hanging out in the streets of downtown Austin until 2 a.m. searching for an available taxi. (Getting to and from downtown Austin is not rock 'n' roll--downtown may be hip, but the rest of the city is sprawling ugliness.)
SXSW 2006 didn't start out so well, though; First was Morrissey's flabby, sweaty chest and endless amounts of drunk and equally flabby audience members who wanted to fondle every female in sight. Despite the gong and gigantic bass drum on stage, I could only take so much ass-grabbing, and I headed for a more hands-off love fest: the Barsuk/Saddle Creek showcase at The Parish. After the Two Gallants' set, the guy behind me said to his friend, "Now, that's the kind of energy I need in my life," and then the Mates of State helped wash away the dirty Morrissey show feelings.
And it only got better from there. Tim Fite led to The Heavenly States at Antone's. At the Red Eyed Fly for the Sub Pop showcase, Band of Horses (aka ex-Tucson band Carissa's Wierd) seemed nervous; every time the crowd cheered when the songs exploded into shimmering texture, lead singer Ben Bridwell would beam. Then, back at Antone's, Neko Case opened her mouth, and brilliance poured out. The two guys behind me were drooling the whole time--toward the end, one said to the other, "She is just so beautiful; she's like a force. It must be hard to be a guy in a band with her." Tucson's The Beta Sweat rocked Red River, and Rainer Maria took over an offensively sleazy club.
But there was nothing compared to seeing Laura Ballance headbang four feet in front me.
Welcome to the Inaugural Curtis J. McCrary South By Southwest Awards! Wherein your author bestows kudos of Great Significance upon people, places and things that will have no idea that they've won, or won't care if they do know! I'll let the reading public decide if these awards will be nicknamed the "SouthbysTM" or "The CurtiesTM," but either way, there will be a sweet statue of indeterminate nature involved. Perhaps a gum sculpture?
· Achievement in Ubiquity: Senon Williams, bassist for Radar Bros. and Dengue Fever, who was spotted at nearly every venue your author patronized. That man has great taste. Furthermore, he's about 6-foot-8, which leads us to ...
· The Easiest to Spot Award: Senon Williams. As he himself describes it, friends are frequently told to "meet by the Senon."
· Deathtrap Award: Exodus, a nightclub on Sixth Street which was host to World Party and was so crammed full that I was actually typing my will on my PDA as Karl Wallinger and his new band delivered an uneven but ultimately satisfying set.
· Best Celebrity Barbecue Sighting: This would go to Morrissey on some kind of "lifetime achievement" basis, but for some reason, he didn't seem to frequent the Texas 'cue joints of which I am so fond. So instead, Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth wins for sitting at a table next to my confreres and me at Ruby's Barbecue.
· Worst-Kept-Secret Show: Ordinarily this would go to the Flaming Lips for playing two "secret" shows at this year's SXSW. But it was the Beastie Boys set at Stubb's on Thursday night that was as secret as my proclivity for chocolate.
· Achievement in Loveblindness: In a landslide, this year's award goes to Harry Shearer, whose overwrought and talentless wife Judith Owen assaulted my ears throughout much of the live broadcast of "Le Show," which was also aggravated by the fact that it was held in a frackin' Baptist church. Harry, if I'm to tolerate your wife's self-parodying warblings, there better be some booze available.
· The Gallagher Brothers "Feigned British Brattiness Award": Goes to Alex Turner of Arctic Monkeys for repeatedly complaining about all the photographers there to make him famous, and all the ways that their hotly anticipated showcase was "everything a gig should not be." In trying to deliver the award to him on the spot (aka, "heckling"), I was thanked with a petulant "shut up." Perhaps he doesn't recognize the value of a CurtieTM yet.
· Best Showcase Show: Jason Collett, erstwhile member of Broken Social Scene, performing material from his two Arts and Crafts albums at Momo's on Saturday night. He sealed the victory with a leaping rock move that went horribly wrong.
· The "Quit Loafing" Award: Goes to Neil Young, who as keynote speaker perhaps didn't understand that at SXSW, you should perform (music) at least once. Unless he was invited there for his skill on the lecture circuit.
· And finally, the award for Achievement in Outstanding Goofiness: John Vanderslice, who, like me, had completely tired of music by Saturday night and, with crew of anti-music acolytes in tow, traipsed up and down Sixth Street for top-quality people watching. It certainly had to be more entertaining than the listless Effigies set I attended instead.
Well, that wraps it up for this year's "CurtiesTM." Next year, I'll see about renting a hall and a red carpet. Or am I just delusional about this thing taking off?
Researchers at Dartmouth have studied the phenomenon Germans call "ohrwurm," those tunes that get stuck in your head for days. If it happens to you, you're likely to have other weirdnesses, like twirling pencils and twitching oddly in response to Enya's music--traits that, along with tolerating beer creeping up your pantleg via capillary action from a SXSW venue floor, are considered perfectly normal among music nerds like me.
The oddest "earworm" dogged me for a couple weeks before SXSW. It was the Charles Wesley (1707-1788) hymn, "O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing." Freddy Fender's "Tell It Like It Is," when heard on the PA at The Parish, replaced Wesley's hit as the broken record in my mind. It made perfect sense by Sunday morning.
In contrast to my 2003 experience, when I looked in vain for any sign that popular music was paying attention to the world around it, SXSW 2006 seemed to offer a thousand tongues singing hymns of one sort or another, telling it like it is about the environment, the demoralization of the working class, anger and bewilderment about corporate excesses and human inhumanity in general. There was also a lot of choler about religion, and pleas for mercy and understanding.
Josh Ritter's "Girl in the War" (an urgent conversation overheard between Saints Peter and Paul); Rosanne Cash's "God Is in the Roses"; the Drive-By Truckers' Patterson Hood's "Puttin' People on the Moon" (an intense personal narrative about poverty, love and cancer); and Billy Bragg's encouraging "I Keep Faith in You" (meaning struggling Americans) hang longest in the mind, as does a memorable conversation about Buddhism with Alejandro Escovedo.
The most memorable event, and one of the hottest tickets, was Saturday's late night Anti- Records Hootenany at the Central Presbyterian Church, with its huge banner proclaiming "Deliberately Diverse and Fully Inclusive." Savvy Elders welcomed the half-staggering crowds (more than one friend smuggled in a six-pack) with fair trade chocolate (the best!) and hot cocoa for sale.
Legendary folk singer and Woody Guthrie compadre Ramblin' Jack Elliott was billed as the headliner, but Marty Stuart's opening gospel set nearly stole the evening, particularly his encore, "Working on a Building," which inspired spirited "liturgical" dancing in the aisles.
Chicago quirk-meister/performance artist Tim Fite opened the Hootenanny proper and was shortly joined by Kelly Hogan and multi-instrumentalist Jon Rauhouse, who returned several times to back other acts. Minneapolis rapper P.O.S. sat in for "Wayfaring Stranger." Joe Henry followed, solo, then was joined by Billy Bragg for "I Still Miss Someone." Greg Graffin of Bad Religion allowed that the cross suspended from the ceiling behind him made him a little nervous as he sang his turn. After Bragg's solo set, Henry rejoined him for "Willin'" with Rauhouse singing harmony. Elliott held forth with winning brio through Guthrie standards "Deportees" and "Pretty Boy Floyd." Stuart joined him on mandolin for a duet of the Carter Family's "Engine 143," but was absent for the show's finale: It was a Bragg-led group sing, with solo raps by Fite and P.O.S., of Leadbelly's "Bourgeois Blues," transfigured to "Bush War Blues."
It's stuck in my head still.
South By Southwest is, among a million other things, an exercise in endurance.
How much music-related stuff (performances, panel discussions, Q&As, schmoozing, BBQ, beer, etc.) can you cram into four days, and how long will it take you to recover? There is absolutely no way to take in all you'd like, so you have to absolve yourself of trying from the outset. Still, there's always the nagging sense that if you're not witnessing something completely awesome at any given moment, you're missing out on something completely awesome close by. Ask 20 different people about their SXSW experience, and you'll get 20 different answers about what was noteworthy.
Here, then, are some of the completely awesome things I experienced during this year's sojourn:
· The best set I saw all week was also the one I most anticipated. Belgian band dEUS, who, due to their obscurity on these shores, hadn't performed in the United States in nine years, almost didn't perform in Austin at all. A combination of an inexperienced sound staff at Spiros and an all-Euro band lineup who didn't quite understand the SXSW formula (load in as fast as you can, play your 45-minute set, load out as fast as you can) forced a late-running schedule--a SXSW no-no. I arrived right at 1 a.m., when dEUS was scheduled to go on, but the French band Syd Matters was still playing. (When I heard live music upon arrival, I asked the first person I saw--a young Greek guy named Emmanuel--if dEUS had already started. "No, no, my friend. When dEUS is on, you will feel it," he replied, pounding his chest.) A full hour after a frustrated member of Syd Matters sent an audience member to the hospital by throwing a mic stand into the crowd, and following yelling matches between the dEUS and Spiros camps (not to mention yelling by the now-testy audience), the band finally launched into their set. Thirty seconds into a transcendent version of "Fell Off the Floor, Man," all was forgiven, the audience justifiably transformed into a swarm of true believers. Simply amazing. At 3 a.m., the set was cut short when the cops showed up to shut things down.
· Ridiculously hyped Brits Arctic Monkeys justified the hubbub to a rabid, packed audience, despite a snotty attitude from frontman Alex Turner. (Note to Washington Post writer J. Freedom du Lac, who noted "the presence of a few hecklers": There was only one heckler present, and his name is Curtis McCrary.)
· At the risk of sounding like a starfucker, it was mighty cool getting face time with longtime musical heroes the Beastie Boys and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck.
· Twenty years after I first fell in love with them, I finally got to see World Party, recently reformed by Karl Wallinger after a series of awful setbacks--i.e., betrayal by his former bandmates, the death of his mother and a brain aneurysm. Alex Turner could stand to learn a thing or two from the gracious attitude he displayed during the band's winning performance.
· The Beta Sweat did Tucson proud at their showcase, confirming to the Tucsonans in attendance what we already knew, and winning over those who had never seen them before: They're ready for their close-up, Mr. DeMille.