There have been, at the time of this writing, approximately 23 million* words written about South by Southwest, and that's just by one intrepid local "fiery redhead." (*Note: not an actual fact.) Regardless, I feel it is Important that I share with you all of the Observations and Scuttlebutt that one Area Man's experiences and 600 words will permit.
• Van Bore-isson: In theory, it's a treat to get to see living legends like Van Morrison as part of SXSW. But I'm not really a committed fan, and thus, spending 70 minutes with that old Irish curmudgeon (sample complaint: "We can get going again as soon as that person turns off their cell phone") was a snoozeworthy way to kick off TOTAL ROCK IMMERSION. Van also prohibited all beverage sales during his performance. I was parched, dude. WTF?
• Checking In With Irascible Former Tucson Badger Linebackers: After catching the tail end of a white-hot set by Columbus, Ohio's Times New Viking, I made my way to the street to wait for some cronies. I noticed a Hannibal Lecter-looking mahfucka staring me down from the sidewalk. He approached: "You know those things you wear around your neck mark you all as tourists," he said, in reference to the ubiquitous badges worn by myself and my fellow music industronians.
"I'm not trying to pretend any different," I told him. "I'm from Tucson."
He did a double-take, and then said, "What's this look like to you?" as he dropped into some kind of old-man linebacker pose.
"You're preparing to be attacked by a bear? Dunno."
"Tucson High Football, class of 1954," he growled.
"You are a Badger, then," I said.
"Yeah, I guess so. I don't have time for mascots."
• The Fader/Levi's TOTAL CONSUMER IMMERSION: This was the first year that I properly RSVP'd for events at "The Fort," which was a large former warehouse building set up in maze-like fashion with an outdoor tented stage. To get to it, you had to wend your way through a disorienting array of consumer products and advertising messages. The point of it clearly was not music, but rather inducing a dissociative fugue, such that the next time I'm purchasing jeans for all the members of my cult, I will choose Levi's Brand Denim Dungarees. My confusion was so total, I'm not even sure if I really did walk right past Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo (of N.E.R.D). They could have been Levi's Lifestyle HologramsTM.
You May Know Me From Such Books as Our Band Could Be Your Life or Come As You Are: As SXSW ground to a close on Saturday, David Slutes of Club Congress spotted a dude who looked as though he could be related to Tucson Weekly music editor Stephen Seigel. I asked this person if I could take his picture; he acquiesced and was curious to see if I had any pictures of the friend who I said looked just like him, which I did not. I told him that Seigel is a writer and editor with the Weekly, and he then said, "Well perhaps you've heard of me?" and showed me his badge. It was Michael Azerrad, author of the best book on the American independent-rock scene of the '80s and '90s, Our Band Could Be Your Life.
Azerrad was clearly a sufferer of Glory Deficiency Syndrome, or "GDS," to which all rock writers are subject. Mike, if you're reading this: You're a total fucking rock star in my book. That I'm writing. It's called My Book Could Be Your Life, about the most important American writers of books about '80s and '90s independent-rock bands. So far, it's mostly about you.
Insulated from the real world by barricades in every direction, Austin's bustling Sixth Street is strewn with the detritus of hope. A zillion band fliers sop up spilled beer amidst a squalor of cigarette butts and the obscene remains of sausages and pizza. Every few feet, there's a shiny CD with a band name hopefully scrawled in Sharpie, having fallen from someone's hand a discreet distance from the hand that passed it on. The CD seems to echo, faintly, "You gotta hear these guys."
Aboveground, the scene is a sea of bad haircuts, book bags and impossibly hip, well-worn T-shirts. (The mark of a tourist is a spanking-new knockoff of an original Uncle Tupelo T).
Your intrepid reporter waded yet again through the poseurs and the muck, notebook in hand, to bring great tidings to pop-starved Tucsonans from the land of head-bobbing rhythms, jangly guitars, textured strings and horns, and killer harmonies. To wit:
• Shout Out Louds. My first pop crush of SXSW. From Sweden, they're steeped in '60s Brit-pop charm, but it's processed through that Scandinavian sensibility that also brought us Sportsguitar and the Hellacopters.
• Grand Archives. A tip from my club-owner pal in Seattle put her homies on my must-see list, earning my eternal gratitude. Listen to "Swan Matches"--a road song of sorts, lovely and moving--and you'll relate to the reference to "dry Arizona faces." Still, it's the crunch that gets you.
• Ha Ha Tonka. Loved the record; had to see for myself this reinvention of roots pop, with their goose-bump harmonies and twisted Ozarks influences, principally warped religion and methadone freaks. Check out "Caney Mountain."
• Sea Wolf. High energy; sounds like sunshine on a jagged cliff. This Los Angeles outfit has the cello, harmonium, keyboard and alt-pop drumbeats we love, but mainly Alex Brown Church seems to write and sing like a cross between Jeff Tweedy and Kurt Cobain. Then there's the red-plaid flannel shirt.
• Luke Temple. Mesmerizing mash-up of Elliott Smith and Rufus Wainwright, or maybe Tiny Tim. He's from Brooklyn, but sounds like San Francisco--perhaps a more romantic Mountain Goats.
• Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin. Ha Ha Tonka insisted I see their fellow Missourians, and it was my, "Where have I been?" experience of the week. Turns out they've been showcasing for years. I marveled at the durability of Big Star's influence on Midwestern pop, and was glad.
Some wannabe showcase band almost poached that set before SXSW honchos mustered them off the stage. A time-chewing disentanglement ensued, so I wandered to the venue's patio to wait out the setup. That led me to my magic moment of the week, the moment you can count on at SXSW, but you can only wait for it. Namely, I discovered ...
• Headlights. I must've texted five friends in my excitement, but SXSW sets are so short that nobody got there in time. Out of Champaign, Ill., they offer more proof that boy-girl harmonies; tight, stop-and-go musicianship; and pop-rock tension flourish in Midwestern loam.
• The Redwalls. These guys played the Rialto last year in a stealth set opening for Neko Case. Note to self: Never miss the opener. Download their "Build a Bridge," and hope for a return engagement.
You gotta hear these guys.
In case you hadn't heard, the music biz is in a bit of flux these days, and you didn't have to look too far for evidence in Austin.
For that matter, South by Southwest itself is in a bit of flux, too.
First, the business of the business: While the record labels are still railing against illegal downloading--filing a few lawsuits here and there against file sharers, hoping to scare the rest into opening iTunes accounts--it seems that most of the people actually making the music have moved on. They realize that there's simply no way to stop illegal downloading, and they've adopted a different model: making their money primarily through touring. Recorded music and MySpace pages are basically becoming calling cards for the live show: Give it away, and hope the fans like it enough to pay a cover charge when the band visits your town. It didn't seem the least bit surprising when, at the Sub Pop showcase, Love as Laughter frontman Sam Jayne announced from the stage, "We've got T-shirts and CDs. If you want anything, just ask us. It's all free."
So how do bands get anyone to care about those calling cards? SXSW is a crucial platform for bands in all different stages of their careers, given the amount of coverage and exposure that can be derived from it. Nearly every tastemaker in the country (and many from the world over) is represented, and thus SXSW can make or break like nothing else.
But the fallout is starting to become more evident. Record labels are starting to make the cutbacks necessitated by the implosion of their business model, and now, everyone else is feeling the pain. Just as Th' Legendary Shack Shakers were starting a daytime set, I ran into veteran music scribe and former Tucsonan Fred Mills, who for the last couple of years has served as managing editor at 7-year-old Harp magazine. He had just found out that he was unemployed. "Harp is dead," he said, the latest in a string of music magazines shuttering due to, among other things, a lack of advertising dollars from the labels.
Meanwhile, at SXSW itself, the scales finally tipped this year in favor of renegade events: Each year, there has been an increasing number of unofficial parties that served as satellites to the festival, most with free drinks, food and giveaways sponsored by such indie stalwarts as Dell computers, Levi's and Rachael Ray. The festival organizers have gone to great lengths to stifle these events, going so far as to provide lists to the fire department of parties that may be in violating code. But this year, there were more of those parties than ever before--so many, in fact, that they appeared to have outnumbered the festival's official showcases. Why buy a badge for up to $650 when--as long as you know where to send an RSVP to gain entry to those unofficial parties--you can see most of the bands in town for the week for free? That sound you hear is the churning cogs of SXSW organizers' brains trying to figure out how to answer that question. (For the first time since the festival's inception, registration was flat this year.)
But even as labels, magazines and SXSW itself are suffering from shifting paradigms, there are probably more bands--and more great bands--than ever before. And all of us reap those rewards.