THE QUEST FOR COOL: The Utne Reader's December '97 issue was devoted to the question of cool, with several articles attempting to deconstruct, disseminate or otherwise define what we as members of pop culture construe to be "cool." At the end of it all, the simple truth was that cool is immediately recognizable and generally unqualifiable. "Cool" is specific to the tastes of a small group, or a single individual, and is subsequently discovered and exploited for cash. But the catch is that once too many people know about it, it's no longer cool.
Case in point: What could be more cool to the avid music fan than choosing five or six bands among hundreds each night for four nights? A small crew of Weekly staff departed last Wednesday for Austin's celebrated South By Southwest (SXSW) Ordeal, one of the largest multi-media, film and music industry conferences in the nation. More than 800 performers played dozens of venues, and thousands of badge-bearing journalists, label reps and execs swarmed the city like the famous bats that emerge from under the Congress Street bridge at sunset. In the midst of all this high-profile activity, the subject of cool was very much everyone's minds.
I had occasion to talk to Rhett Miller of the Old '97s during the Olivia Tremor Control show at the Flydaddy Records showcase. Miller was there acting on behalf of his label, Elektra Records, attempting to put in the good word with members of the unsigned Tremor Control.
From our conversation, I'd say his take on cool is that there are two kinds: the real kind--like watching an interesting band go all out for an enthusiastic crowd; and the kind that pays--for example, the haircuts he opined that said band should think about getting in order to sell more records. I could buy that. Judging by the number of Spin writers and white-shoed A&R salesmen in the room, the buzz was big and the show was cool in a way that could pay. The band itself was pretty cool, too, long beards, trombone and all. We were pulling for them to buck the trend and stay that way...and perhaps were a little disillusioned to hear one of their peers already plotting their sell-out.
The reality is you can't even hope to see half of the bands you might want to at SXSW. There's simply not enough time and it's often the case that many of the big buzz shows are scheduled for the same time at opposite ends of town. Some of the cooler shows our troupe did manage to take in were: Princess Superstar, John Wesley Harding, the Gourds, Self, The Handsome Family, Servotron, Trailer Bride, Dylan Hicks, Propellerhead, Amy Rigby, the Little Rabbits and Sonic Youth.
The best performance witnessed completely by accident was by Rufus Wainwright, Canadian singer/songwriter and son of Loudon Wainwright III. He was a true showman, putting on a sensational performance that rivaled Nick Cave for candor, and Broadway for largess.
As a rule, though, the coolest shows are those where demonstrating cool is doesn't matter. Several of the best were the low-key, afternoon performances at the Austin Convention Center's acoustic stage, on the trade-show floor. Highlights of these personable and mellow affairs included candidly entertaining performances by Billy Bragg, Robyn Hitchcock, Jon Langford and Sally Timms of the Mekons, the French band Louise Attaque and of course, John Doe.
Many of the older hands made plain their disdain for the crazed circus of bands, merchants, media and industry people. Doe sang specially penned song called "Too Many Goddamned Bands" (with the refrains you watch your past pass you by/now it's totally fucking out of hand/too many goddamned bands). As if on cue, the loudspeakers announced a series of raffle winners in the midst of his performance. Very cool, nonetheless.
Along with the many showcases I had to miss due to time conflicts, there were a few bands I regret missing just because of their cool names: Peglegasus, Flaming Flames of Fire and REO Speedealer, among them.
Ribbing aside, SXSW is without a doubt one of the coolest music events of the year--despite its unwieldy size and overwhelming industry presence. Though the focus again (as it purportedly has for some years past, now) falls upon big draws and major labels, still the hard-working locals maintained a strong presence.
The Austin band we profiled as part of last year's fringe SXSW/anti-SXSW scene was called Morningwood, an all-female pop-punk quartet with great promise. We were glad to see them have their own showcase this year, with a write up in the SXSW catalog that cited them as "causing quite a stir on the local scene of late." Good for them.
The occasional maverick aside, the industry has taken over. Which sounds an awful lot like some other very cool ideas that grew away from their initial concept and into a lumbering cash cow, endeavoring to make cool pay. Lollapalooza comes to mind. For any in doubt, the truth was plainly stated in the slogan on every SXSW volunteer staff T-shirt: "Resistance is Futile."
LAST NOTES: Last in town nearly a year ago opening for ZZ Top, Los Lobos met with less than a big Tucson "Howdy!" during their performance. The crowd at the TCC spent most of Los Lobos' set milling around and waiting in line for beer, taking their seats just in time for the last few songs. It was a less than ideal format to truly appreciate Los Lobos--a band that held its own opening for PiL in L.A. in 1980, playing unplugged.
The Mollys, a local fave that's been conspicuously absent from Tucson stages in recent months, warm up the big stage at 9 p.m. on Friday, March 27, at the Rialto Theater, 123 E. Congress St. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the door. And don't wait another moment--the show was nearly sold-out as of press time. Doors open at 8 p.m. Call KXCI at 623-1000 for tickets and information.
Growing up in Oakland, California, blues and R&B diva E.C. Scott started as a gospel singer in the choir at St. John Missionary Baptist Church. Influenced by R&B artists like Gladys Knight and Dinah Washington, she made the transition from churches to nightclubs.
In the course of her career, Scott has built a substantial following in the San Francisco Bay area, sharing the stage with the likes of Lou Rawls, Patti La Belle, Ray Charles and John Lee Hooker. She signed to Blind Pig Records in 1994, and is currently touring her newest release, Hard Act to Follow.
Scott performs at the Boondocks Lounge, 3306 N. First Ave., on Friday, March 27. Tickets are $10, $8 in advance and for TBS members. Call 690-0991 for information.
Most followers of the Reverend Horton Heat will agree that his first three albums wrote the script for the rest of his increasingly predictable career, and that the departure of drummer Taz Bently let some of the air out of the Rev's tires.
Since leaving the Rev, Bently's hooked up with Colorado band the Hillbilly Hellcats, producing hardcore psychobilly that doesn't wear Dean Martin suits. Guitarist Chuck Hughes and bassist Lance Bakemeyer were the original Hellcats, joined by Bently in 1996, who produced their debut CD Rev It Up with Taz. The band's next new release, Our Brand, is due out any day now. The Hillbilly Hellcats raise the roof with locals James Dead on Sunday, March 29, at the Double Zero, 121 E. Congress St. Call 670-9332 for information.
And the fabulous Al Perry returns to the stage following last month's unexpected cancellation on Friday, March 27. D-Liar opens the show at 9 p.m. at the Club Congress, 311 E. Congress St. Call 622-8848 for more information.
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