[30 March 2005]
Bound for Texas, the average uninitiated international traveler, like many a national one, tends to harbor certain stereotypical images and assumptions about the state. Recent years have highlighted Texas not only as the home of the President, but as the very source and embodiment of his “rough justice” philosophy and cowboy ethics. Driving through Waco, one’s associative mind is cast further back to the David Koresh/Janet Reno stand-off, an international news story that showcased Texas as the haven for gun-wielding fundamentalist fanatics. And as one enters Austin, the state capital, there is a feeling of being at U.S. political ground zero, where once-Governor Bush molded his “good versus evil” worldview by advocating, prescribing, then facilitating an unprecedented level of death sentences upon the state’s murderous felons. A signal mantra has echoed loudly around the world: don’t mess with Texas. It is, thus, somewhat ironic that for a week in March thousands of counter-cultural hipsters from around the globe should gravitate to Austin for its annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference’s five days of bohemian rock and roll decadence.
Of course, Austin is hardly a conservative frontier outpost; it has long been renowned for its rock credentials as the U.S. town with the greatest density of live venues within a two-mile radius, as well as one that produces a constant and eclectic range of locally-based musical product. Indeed, during SXSW, Austin’s music venues (numbering over 60) host bands (over 1,000) from all corners of the world, new and established, allowing the city to boast itself as the “Live Music Capital of the World” between March 16th and 20th. This rock invasion is enabled not only by the multiplicity of venues, but also by the clearing out of much of the student populace for spring break, the frat-culture heading for the hills and beaches to avoid the in-coming forces.
Now in its 19th year, SXSW is larger and more diverse than ever, accommodating all strains of contemporary music, squeezing it into almost all minutes of the 24-hour clock. Though initially intended as a festival to showcase up-and-coming rock talent searching for a record deal (or a better one), SXSW has grown to embody a broader spectrum of musical success, with established acts stopping by to share their wares on the larger stages (and/or to speak at the conferences), or dreamers taking their acoustic guitars and saxophones to any downtown street corner space that will allow them to gather a dozen onlookers or passers-by. Consequently, Austin during SXSW takes on the flavor of a carnival, with a multitude of variant offerings available within a stone’s throw; it is the proverbial “kid in a candy store” phenomenon for any music lover.
In such an environment, with its microcosmic condensation of talent, it is impossible to get any accurate sense of the state of rock music. For every great or grating show one witnesses, there is the awareness that you have just missed hundreds of others. As we strategically survey our official show rosters, we bemoan the fact that four or five bands we had our hearts set on seeing must be sacrificed by necessity. By the end of the festival one is as saddened by the acts you did not get to witness as you are thrilled by those that you did. Such is the bitter-sweet experience that is SXSW.
Recognizing the futility of any general theses about what SXSW 2005 tells us of trends in recent and up-coming alternative rock culture, from my less-than-1% of sights and sounds, a few curious signifiers did rise to the surface: early ‘80s-style guitar/synth-pop is unashamedly back, complete with joie-de-vivre stage performances and sing-along melodies; beards of abandon have returned to grace the edgier hirsute boy hipsters, whereas the equally untamed Leif Garrett “mop” flows from the tops of the more commercially-inclined (in both cases, the fixtures have just that requisite camp coiffure); the Cheshire cat grins and communal clapping/stomping featured in many of the new bands evoke an eerie cult-like quality that either appears to mask a cultural psychosis or symbolically proclaim that the apocalyptic judgment day is imminent. Somehow one senses a common thread between these ubiquitous developments, a cultural metamorphosis perhaps better left to prophets and fools to ponder. On with the music…
SXSW starts and ends with a bang; there is no easing into this festival, no graduation from local to national to international acts. Crowds swarm in like armies throughout Wednesday, registering, retrieving laminates (industry types) and wristbands (the rest of us) and jostling for position in the already-packed day showcases. That evening, Elvis Costello, Billy Idol and Sleater Kinney all played the midnight hour at different venues. Fearing the log-jam for these acts and in search of some pop sustenance my comrades and I headed west to Tambaleo, an intimate bustling club with a conspicuously large local clientele. Here, youth was served and represented from across the breadth of the nation. Los Angeles’ Jason Falkner crooned and wooed the adoring popsters with his stripped-down melodies and a fine head of hair. Chicago’s The Redwalls followed with an uplifting set of Beatles-esque songs, frankly, uplifted from the Beatles’ set. The fact that not one Redwall appeared to be over the age of 15 suggests that they still have time to grow into their own musical skins. The highlight of the night was Brooklyn’s Palomar, an all-female four-piece combo of 20-somethings going on teenagers. Their adorable combination of hypnotic guitar-pop riffs and cheeky stage innocence had me whistling their songs and dreaming of Bananarama as I skipped merrily back to the hotel at the close of the night.
As sweet memories of Palomar shaved the rough edges from my Thursday morning hangover, I pondered the perennial verity number one of SXSW: it is the chance discoveries, rather than the planned certainties, that make this festival so thrillingly invigorating. One pleasant discovery that day was the arrival of crystal clear blue skies, sunshine and 70-degree temperatures. In celebration of St. Patrick’s Day, my posse headed off to the city’s leafy suburbs for a low-key outdoor party headlined by alt.country mavericks, The Gourds. There are two things that equal the joy of great country music played outdoors on a beautiful spring day: they are free beer and free food, and this gathering had plenty of both. Sat amongst Ladybird Johnson’s wild flowers on the grassy terrain, we reveled in the glories of sunny Texas and The Gourds’ fun-loving jigs, rounded off with a Pogues song as a hat-tip to the day.
In search of more Irish flavor, we headed back into town for an afternoon session with The Frames, from Dublin. Their majestic and soulful set was one of the more moving experiences of the week. As evening approached I headed off to La Zona Rosa for the BBC Radio 1 showcase. Across the SXSW roster, this was the show I was most excited to see, as it included 4 bands back-to-back whose music I loved and who ranked high on my must-see list: Be Your Own Pet, Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV and The Futureheads. Despite my early arrival at said-venue I was soon to realize SXSW perennial verity number two: you can’t always get to see what you want. The waiting line that snaked around the block indicated that those four bands would just have to remain on my must-see list, as I headed off into the night in search of alternative action.
For Friday night’s must-see show (there are just too many of them!) at The Eternal, I decided that I wouldn’t get fooled again, heading off at an even earlier hour to secure a spot for the array of young British alternative rock talent on the agenda. I walked in as Manchester’s The Longcut were starting, armed, as is only sensible if you have ever heard bands at The Eternal, with my trusty set of old-fart earplugs. The band certainly lived up to its hometown roots, combining the baggy rhythms of the Happy Mondays with the Germanic bass lines of Joy Division and the disheveled disinterest of Oasis’ Gallagher brothers. Next up were art-grungers Biffy Clyro, from Glasgow, Scotland. Their on-stage histrionics and loud-soft-louder structures were about as interesting as their 30 minutes could sustain. After unsuccessfully attempting to nap through the Jesus & Mary Chain-like one-dimensional dirges of The Warlocks, The Ordinary Boys, from Worthing, England, stormed the stage like a latter-day Jam. Their sparkling set of mod anthems was a breath of fresh air, Townsend leaps and communal “Oi”‘s awakening a mini-frenzy in the pleasantly surprised punters. How far their Fred Perry-pop will take them remains to be seen, but at SXSW sometimes it’s all about the seeing. Firmly in touch with my Brit-roots and inclined for some more lad-rock, I ventured across Sixth Street for the last set of Buffalo Billiards’ British Showcase. Headlining were Embrace, one of the many buzz bands from Leeds performing at the festival. Their mid-tempo epics had U2-pretensions and elicited a few lighter-waves and handclaps, but despite their hot and hyped pedigree back in the UK, they left me rather cold.
Saturday ushered in another beautiful day of blue skies, bright sunshine, and more to-see bands than you could experience in a decade. First up was a daytime show at the Red Eyed Fly, where I was pleasantly integrated into the new day by the teenage cult-collective, Phosphorescent, who serenaded the gathering with a collection of singer-songwriter acoustic ballads pepped up by a rousing brass section and the gospel-spirited chanting, clapping and percussion shaking of the eight or so kids dancing around the stage. Sensing the spirit of something awaken inside, I headed to the Irish pub across the road to take in the bluegrass revelations of Jim & Jennie and the Pinetops, and a pint or two of Guinness. Tucked in the corner of the pub, the sweet harmonic strains of Jim and Jennie brought the enraptured congregation a little closer to heaven.
As the final day unfolded, things grew a little more hazy as the rush to consume all one could in the final hours was not limited to the music. After stumbling back and forth across 6th Street, from power pop to blues rock to hard rock, my friends and I settled into The Parish for the grande finale: Jon Langford’s Waco Brothers wrapping up the Bloodshot Records showcase. This truly turned out to be a chance case of saving the best until last. Langford led the charge of his Anglo-American troops through a blistering 45 minutes of country-punk, punctuated by inspirational sing-alongs, sly political barbs and (as befits their Clash-inspired sound and aura) a celebratory concluding tribute to Joe Strummer with “I Fought the Law.” Drained yet rejuvenated, we all piled out into the 6th Street carnival with the satisfied exhaustion that the best rock bands can sometimes instill.
Last nights at SXSW can go long, the kids understandably reluctant to leave the candy store. As a result, the Sunday morning departure can be a struggle, the sensory overloads of the prior night crashing down like the close of the festival itself. From party town to ghost town, Austin’s city center just shuts up, as if all life had been squeezed out of it over the prior five days and it had all been a dream. So, as we headed North on I35, into the expanse of Texas, one felt the calm after the storm, memories and band-debates the only remains to sustain you until SXSW 2006, when, once again, you would pack your plans and expectations, and try to do it all over again.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/ellis050330/