South by Southwest 2003

A Field Journal: Final Weekend/ Music: Of Redemption and Round-Trip Tickets

by Tobias Peterson and Terry Sawyer

2 April 2003

Today’s report by Terry Sawyer

Final Weekend/ Music: Of Redemption and Round-Trip Tickets

Determined to have a good time, I started drinking way earlier. After yesterday’s bilious outburst, I realized that I simply wasn’t properly self-medicated for strangerland. After much meditation, I decided to try to flip my knifey anger at the festival and skim off the doomy gristle that had brought me to that place of mismanaged rage. I set out on Friday to eliminate the chances that I might get chafed in the commercial tentacles that warmly embrace SXSW. No Studio 54 gauntlets, no more starfucker buffets, and no more “sponsored-by” cheap beer. After all, only the burlap sacks on the slide to hell are truly free.

My morning began with one of the more altruistic responses to SXSW. South by Soup Fest is organized by Laura Thomas a local booking agent who runs Combo Plate Booking. Legend has it that Austin was once an affordable oasis where people in love with southern weather but not southern conservatism could congregate and kick around their ideas while still making enough money to afford top shelf margaritas once a week. Remnants of that Eden remain in events like South by Soup Fest. The festival grew out of the fact that Thomas had been organizing music at Caritas, a local agency that provides food for the homeless 365 days a year. Then, she says “I remember walking out of Caritas each day that year during SXSW and thinking this is fucked up, all these musicians were walking down the same sidewalks as my clients, there was no intermingling, too much separation, it seemed wrong that these people did not know each other.” In terms of this being a response to SXSW Laura said “I guess on one level South by Soup Fest is a response to SXSW, but really it’s more about bringing my two worlds together, being real and my love of music.” Damien Binder, Val Emmich, The Decemberists, and The Reel Time Travelers all played spectacularly and with as much energy and heart as they would at any other gig (Damien Binder did even while recovering from the previous evening’s pints) Laura and I met as hospice volunteers and she has been the person chumming around with me the past four days, interrupting me when I was being too boorish and acting as a foil to my hissy negativity. I think that South by Soup Fest speaks volumes about this city and of all the musicians who play there each year.

I decided that for the first show of the evening, I would head out to support one of the musicians who had done Soup Fest. The Decemberists make music that sounds like it could be the soundtrack for a Merchant Ivory porno. I rarely use the word brilliant because it assumes a shelf life much longer than most critical observations realistically have. But if I did, I would toss it on the Decemberists with surly abandon. Colin Meloy crafts dented poetry for the mad, horny and cleverly unsophisticated. Introducing one song, Colin deadpanned “This is about dead babies.” It doesn’t hurt that most of the band looks like cuter versions of Edward Gorey drawings. For me, the best moments of the show were in the untethered romanticism of his verse. Believe it or not, I’m not a bitter person. I’m in love, I’m happy, which is why I don’t get bullshit. The Decemberists seem to be of the same school of loving the world as it is rather than how you think you need it to be. During one song, Colin narrates taking a lover for a walk to try to calm them down and set things straight after a fight. His voice is like a much more piercing and boyish version of Stuart David from Belle and Sebastian and keeps the cadence of a troubadour passing along a bit of beautiful tragedy. This show alone made leaving my home worth every minute of it.

Since I was supposed to be interviewing Sondre Lerche the following day (something I really suck at), I thought I would check out his show. Sondre is a gutsy little corker. His entire set felt like some cocky street kid walking in off the sidewalk and telling you how to chill out and live your life. He’s also one of those young, gifted people who fill you with a stomach crinkling combination of admiration and resentment. He even burst out of his music’s usual languor when he played what he dubbed an “illegal attempted rock” rendition of “Sleep on Needles” from his full length, Faces Down. He has many elements of Rufus Wainwright’s cabaret nonchalance and a lazy hazy purr of a voice. I met my first soccer hooligans at this show. (They’re just like our rednecks, who knew?) We had to move around a couple of times to see if we could find spots in the room with lower asshole densities. But away from the cell phone conversations that couldn’t wait and the hugging futbol thugs, Lerche had the people in the room who were actually listening caught in a one big smirking swoon.

Musically, SXSW does a nearly flawless job of making sure that a broad spectrum of musicians gets their shot to play. As one person I ran into from Austin said, “At least it gives us a chance to see bands that can’t afford to tour here during the rest of the year.” The one gaping omission in the genre spread, however, would be indie hip-hop. Though a few of the luminaries can be found wedged into the program, this smattering hardly represents the strides and massive amount of talent in hip hop’s under-championed periphery. I ended the evening at the Aceyalone show and it was best decision I could have made. Aceyalone is one of those rare underground rappers who understand that consciousness-raising doesn’t have to eschew the wonder working powers of booty shaking. The crowd was completely energized by the performance, one of those shows where you can literally feel waves of kinetic joy slamming through the room.

Aceyalone Stripped of all of the cancerous pretension that comes with encountering the machines which poisonously distribute our arts, SXSW is quite simply a wonderful opportunity to see show after show of incredible music. Yet, I was relieved to hear two label reps from Los Angeles complain about Austin at the Aceyalone show. “This city is a shithole. I haven’t had a decent meal since I’ve been here.” Apparently in LA, all the best restaurants are within blocks of those discerning chain hotels. I wonder if Donna Karen knows that her clothes have become synonymous with undeserved gall? Thanks for visiting. We appreciate your business, but most of all, your round-trip tickets.

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