SXSW Reflections

Our music writers journeyed to Austin for the big conference; here's what they have to say

The TW SXSW Index

Approximate number of bands that performed at SXSW-sanctioned showcases: 1,100

Number of bands that performed at SXSW-sanctioned showcases from Arizona: 9

Ratio of bands that performed at SXSW-sanctioned showcases from Tucson to bands that performed at SXSW-sanctioned showcases from Arizona: 1:3

Number of bands The Weekly had to choose from for its selection of Weekly-sanctioned bands for SXSW: 5 (official number of bands from Tucson that applied is N/A)

Number of bands The Weekly is allowed to select for its sponsored band for SXSW: 1

Estimated amount spent by Weekly staffers at Iron Works Barbeque, 1998-2004: $2,400

Estimated number of hours spent rationalizing this expenditure as part of a new "SuperAtkins" diet: 3.5

Chances that giving the finger to a televised image of George W. Bush at the Quality Inn's continental breakfast will result in the threat of bodily harm by a Texan good ol' boy: 1:1

Estimated number of alcoholic beverages consumed by Weekly staffers at SXSW 2004: 325

Estimated amount of time elapsed at SXSW 2004 before a Weekly staffer witnessed a dude puking into a garbage can: 2 hours, 45 minutes

Number of Ozomatli members, including band manager, arrested for disorderly conduct at SXSW 2004: 3

Number of ironic "Free the Ozomatli 3" T-shirts spotted the following day: 9

Number of Miramax film actresses making their singing debuts at SXSW 2004: 2 (Julie Delpy, Minnie Driver)

Rank of Troubled Hubble in an informal poll of worst band name at SXSW 2004: 1

Rank of I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness in an informal poll of best band name at SXSW 2004: 3

Rank of the letter "K" in intentional misspellings of hip-hop groups at SXSW: 1 (Akrobatik, Fakts One, Mystik Journeymen, Dok Holiday, Lik, Kris Kristofferson)

Number of years in a row it was possible to see Camper Van Beethoven at La Zona Rosa in Saturday night's final time slot, then walk across the street accompanied by a member of Sun Zoom Spark/Black Sun Ensemble, yell "Does anyone have a joint?" and be given marijuana by a complete stranger: 2

Chances that this complete stranger went to high school with Weekly Editor Jimmy Boegle: 1:2

Approximate number of guitar strings broken mid-performance at SXSW: 137

Attendees that would have noticed a difference: 0

Minutes spent by the Weekly's music editor dancing onstage at Austin Music Hall during N.E.R.D.'s performance: 5

Number of times same music editor hugged N.E.R.D.'s Pharrell Williams while drunkenly telling him he was "the shit": 1


Big Stars of Texas

Upon taking the stage at the Austin Music Hall, Cake lead singer John McCrea looked almost as guilty for performing at South by Southwest as I felt for being at the show. Why would a band so popular (deemed too lamestream by some new music die-hards, even) perform at a music festival originally designed for the unsigned? And why wasn't I expanding my musical horizons at lesser-known shows going on in the same time slot, like Ian Moore or the Austin band, I Love You but I've Chosen Darkness?

Not that I was there just because I recognized their name. That's what McCrea thought about us, the way we wailed when hearing "Sheep Go to Heaven" and "Never There." It's an easy trap to fall into at SXSW, because the unknown majority of the 1,090 acts performing is utterly daunting and tempting.

"Have any of you even heard of our first album, Motorcade of Generosity?" he asked, very doubtful.

Damn right I have. And so had five other people in the crowd. He shook his head in mild disgust but played a beautiful version of "Ruby Sees All." Our applause was rewarded with a preview of the new album due this summer. He even let us sing along to "No Phone," a witty protest to cell phones.

Cake is recording the new work in their home studio in Sacramento, which reminded me that Motorcade was also self-produced in 1993. Ah! The bohemian music spirit is still alive, after all.

Yet my musical copout continued, interrupted by a wonderful discrepancy. I was making my 25-minute jaunt to see the B-52s (not that I am a fan; I'm just bitter I missed them the year they cancelled a tour in the '80s), but some amazing music lured me off my trail. Fox and Hound's British showcase brought Thirteen Senses onto the stage. Although they are signed to Vertigo (an imprint of Mercury), the sprightly Truro, Cornwall, youths only formed in 2001. How redeeming for me! They are an enchanting version of Coldplay and had me in a trance before I realized I was missing the 52s.

I got to Stubb's BBQ in time to hear them sing "Cosmic Thing." Although that gave me a headache, I stayed for "Love Shack," amazed at how ridiculous they still are. Fred Schneider still has that voice and looks no different. Despite Cindy Wilson and Kate Pierson's widening hips, the voices were golden-a-go-go.

It was enough to make me crave some jangly sounds from Sydney, which led me to see The Church at Elysium on Red River. After all these years, Steve Kilbey still blew me away with his surreal-as-ever singing, and Peter Koppes' haunting guitar playing was like a musical seance throughout the hour-and-a-half show.

All a famous artist can do is have fun with a SXSW gig, especially if you are Sean Penn's brother. Who knew Michael Penn had such a sense of humor contrasting his wickedly somber acoustic ballads? Between each amazing tune, Penn read excerpts from a hilariously obligatory guide to performing live on stage.

"The performer (me) should not let his hand go limp," Penn read. "That indicates weakness and will disengage the audience. Instead, turn the palm upward to welcome them to the music." Which he demonstrated, promptly flipping us off to our delight. He's not dour at all; he was one of the festival's best sleeper shows.

It was reassuring that Penn had the same earnestness in his eyes that McCrea had when he teased us about not being able to keep time and sing along with him.

"Aren't a lot of you people musicians? You can do better than this!" They still live for the music no matter how famous they are. Hopefully it inspired their novice counterparts just as much.


How Could You Pass That Up?

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the SXSW music conference can be likened to the Seinfeldian take on the way men watch TV: They don't want to see what's on; they want to see what else is on. Over the course of the music conference's five days, there's the perpetual conflict about what to attend, and I suppose an embarrassment of riches is preferable to a dearth. But hay-seuss marimba! What's a serious music fan to do when confronted with a choice between seeing Mission of Burma, Franz Ferdinand, the friggin' B-52s or Canadian comedo-rockers The Unicorns? And to think I forget my clones at home.

Here's an overview of the best things this intrepid reporter was too drunk, far from, tired, or logistically unable to see:


Rock doesn't take place in convention centers, despite the best efforts of Conference Daystage performers like Andrew Bird or Jolie Holland or Secret Chiefs 3. And even though Little Richard was the keynote speaker, and inveterate "maverick" Mark Cuban was sitting on a panel, and there were plenty of booking agents afoot with whom to shmooze, I'm somehow never able to drag myself to that shit. It reeks of "industry" in a way that makes me uncomfortable, and I much prefer slogging it out at day parties or showcases where there will be much more actual rocking (and free beer). In circumstances like this, I must ask myself, "What Would G.G. Allin Do?" and then go fuck a goat and shoot heroin. And watch some rock.

2) David Cross at Emo's, 10 p.m., Friday

This performance was part of the "Rock Against Bush" event organized by Fat Wreck Chords and Fat Mike of NOFX. Notice a theme? Anyway, despite the odd disdain for pussy (who the hell rocks against bush? Carson Kressley?), I would have liked to have seen Cross perform on the sta ... wha? One sec ... I've just been informed that the "Bush" of "Rock Against Bush" is the current resident of the White House, not poontang. That's funny; I always thought his name was "Chimpy."

Back to Mr. Cross--like every other big-bellied nerd in a black "obscure and perhaps apocryphal band" T-shirt wearing cargo shorts and sneakers, I, too, am a huge fan of Mr. Show, Cross' brilliant sketch comedy show with partner Bob Odenkirk; and his 2003 Sub Pop album, Shut Up You Fucking Baby, captured my shared disdain for the Fools of the Earth, most of whom, it seems, are in the current administration. But I ran into Robyn Hitchcock on Sixth Street, and we were right by the venue where Jesse Sykes was playing, with John Vanderslice following at 11 p.m., so I blew it off. (How do you like that name-dropping?) Good thing, too, because there was an hour wait to get into the overcrowded Emo's to see Cross, so I would have missed it anyway, in all likelihood.

3) Mission of Burma at Austin Music Hall, MIDNIGHT, Thursday

Drove thru Death Valley without AC to see that shit in L.A. in '02--what was I thinking when those rocking old fuckers were only 10 blocks away at Austin Music Hall? Well, I knew I wanted to get back to the other side of Sixth Street to see the reformed Don Caballero at 1 a.m., and more cab rides mean fewer beers, and I tried to see the overhyped Franz Ferdinand which I was shut out of, so ... shit happens. Stephen Seigel even tried to see that shit and missed it. Chump.

4) Toots and The Maytals, 7 p.m., Friday, Town Lakes Stage

Saw Kris Kristofferson do an intimate set at a huge outdoor venue, and wanted to stay around for Toots. But he did the old bait and switch, and we wound up seeing 20 minutes of some absolute crap band that evidently constituted the "and friends" portion of Toots' show. Lame.

5) Calexico, 1 a.m. Friday, Exodus

I always try to make a point of seeing Tucson homeboys, especially since I love 'em. But I saw surprise Barsuk guest They Might Be Giants and Big Star at Austin Music Hall instead.

6) N.E.R.D. and Clipse, 1 a.m. and 11 p.m. respectively, Saturday, Austin Music Hall

The Weekly was well-represented by its music editor at the N.E.R.D. show, as I'm sure his account reflects. And I was worried I wouldn't get my gat by AMH security when I saw Clipse, so it was a wash.

There you have it--things I didn't see. Now if you made it this far, you've probably got some paint to go watch dry, so get to it!


The Girls of SXSW

The South by Southwest Music conference is among the few places in the country where you can get right into the women's room, but the men's room line snakes around the bar. Liz Phair could write a song about that; it would fit right into the Exile in Guyville theme. Alas, as her SXSW showcase proved, our blue-tongued indie queen has been tempered to pabulum by motherhood and the very grown-up need to make a living. Elsewhere, though, girls rocked Austin to its timbers in big-buzz bands where their contributions were more driving than decorative.

Otha Turner's granddaughter, the 14-year old Shardé Thomas, launched the conference plenary session with her deep soul belting. Accompanied by siblings and cousins in The Rising Star Fife and Drum band, founded and mentored by Turner, Thomas was featured in Corey Harris' segment of the recent Martin Scorcese documentary series, The Blues. She first recorded on Harris' 2003 release, Mississippi to Mali, inspired by the documentary. The band's showcase carried the tiny, rustic Beerland venue, seething with fans, back a century to the rare and compelling tradition of fife and drum blues. The traditional "Station Blues" and gospel "Glory, Glory, Hallelujah (When I Lay My Burden Down)" brought chills. Thrills were provided by Turner's keyboard turn on the contemporary blues rap "Burn, Baby, Burn."

At the opposite end of the century, indie rockers Electrelane, a hypercharged distaff foursome from Brighton, England, electrified Club DeVille with dense, complex and unpredictable arrangements on guitar and keyboards, anchored in rock solid beats. Their updated British art punk is as accessible as it is angular (think Yo La Tengo meets Kraftwerk); not for nothing did these girls land a Top 10 spot in the 2003 Village Voice Pazz 'n' Jop poll with their debut, Power Out, which wasn't even released to the public until this year.

A surprise standout was little-known L.A. quartet Earlimart, featuring Ariana Murray on bass and vocals. She's also supplied artwork, mixing and mastering for the band's releases. The mid-tempo "We're So Happy (We Left the Piano in the Truck)," from Earlimart's 2003 Everyone Down Here, singularly represented the band's wits and smarts as well as its generally mid-tempo sound, but "We Drink on The Job" all but brought the Yard Dog tent down with layered noise pop.

Were it a Miss Rock 'n' Roll contest, The Decemberists' Jenny Conlee would be Miss Versatility. On the opening band's set at the hot-ticket private party sponsored by Levi's and Fader magazine, Conlee moved easily from drums to accordion to lead vocals and guitar as the band highlighted richly instrumented tracks from its two full-length releases and new ep, Tain/5 Songs.

It's girls on drums that best represent music's parallel to busting the glass ceiling. Tucson's Tasha Bundy propelled fellow Tucsonan Naim Amor's quirky, artsy and earthy set to a muy caliente reception at the Blender Balcony at the Ritz. As decorative as she is driving, Bundy learned her craft from the mother of us all, The Velvet Underground's Mo Tucker. --L.R.

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