[20 March 2006]
I have little left to offer in terms of an anthropological gloss of the festival. Even if I weren’t sleep-deprived and committed to spending the next month locked alone in my room, my powers of description and observation have never been more spent. I spent all day forgetting the words for things and had to have my friends fill in the nouns. I only wish I could write this last piece as a mad lib. My friend Jessica did remind me of one sideshow event in the festival: the SXSW street fight. Four days of hard partying with your pals and colleagues tends to fray the tightest of bonds. On day four, I witnessed no fewer than four independent skirmishes in public. Throw that many people densely together, pump them full of narcotics, and eventually you scrape through to the Lord of the Flies layer. Even Austinites have lost their Southern hospitality almost entirely by festival’s end. You can see this most clearly at the crosswalks, where out-of-towners frequently ignore the signs, assuming that the cars will stop. I saw several drivers push those assumptions to the breaking point, aggressively inching forward, honking or whipping things from their car windows. If this festival were two days longer, it’d have a body count.
I’m exhausted. I had to pull this last installment out with pliers. My only conclusion is that this is fun designed for someone made of sterner stuff, someone with an infinite capacity to absorb music, someone that loves massive crowds, short sets, and bad soundsystems. I’ve tried it wasted. I’ve tried it sober. No thank you, Sam I Am.
On my final night, I had to try several experiments to stave off the diminishing returns of my attention span. After 20 or so bands, I practically had to put a cigarette out in my arm to realize that I was in a live music venue. At the nadir of my evening, I even thought to myself: “If this were food, at least I could throw a little bit up.” The Weary Boys are pretty much out of my critical depth. Though I thoroughly enjoy the classic country I own, I’ve never been an aficionado and I’ve only passively followed current acts that mine this material. I like that the Weary Boys manage not to simply Xerox their idols, but actually add a rock ‘n’ roll ferocity to the pickin’ and grinnin’. At one point, they even let the chugging two-step train crash into an impromptu wall of noise. Whether it was covering Hank Williams or sounding like Merle Haggard, the Weary Boys show that there’s creative life after Faith Hill.
Wanda Jackson actually made my SXSW. The rockabilly legend, overshadowed by the second fiddling moniker “the female Elvis” never properly got her due during her extensive recording career. Despite being the oldest performer I’ve ever seen live, she hasn’t lost her ability to convey the energetic, sock-hop-‘til-you-drop rhythms of rockabilly. Belting out “Mean Mean Man” her range almost totally intact, she stretched out and hollered with a voice that’s still honey on fire. I hope I don’t convey for a second a single ounce of “good for her age” condescension. Wanda Jackson isn’t your kid’s shitty drawing on the fridge. She’s a classy woman who can still convey the foot-stomping movement and hip-shaking pace of a genre where she is the once and future queen.
I don’t doubt for a second doubt that the Nervous Exits have every chance of ending up the next Austin band to go national. They certainly have the chops, having evolved into a manic, viciously loud rock assault with warring, jagged guitar fights and saxophone blasts that claw their way across the blistering Stooge grooves. Even though their lead singer had just lost his voice the day before, he still manages to barely tape their crossfire chaos together in his melodic growls. Oh, and not-so-incidentally, they are some of the hottest motherfuckers you’ll ever see. Go ahead and scoff at the superficiality of the observation, but part of rock ‘n’ roll’s danger has always been its ability to make us think impure and unholy thoughts. Check out the Nervous Exits live and you may never go to church again.
At this point in the evening, I figured I needed to check out someone who had actually forked over some hefty airfare in coming to town, even if it meant straying again into musical territory where I might not have the best sea legs. As it turns out, I didn’t really need them. Turner repeatedly sounds like he’s trying to invoke the spirit of Bob Marley through meticulous mimicry, which is disconcerting in striving for that level of total replication. That fakin’ Jamaican channeling only begs the question of writing original material. Why not just cover Bob Marley songs in tropical resort towns? I had more fun seeing Dread Zeppelin live. Everyone seemed fluent on their instruments but the overall sound lacked any kind of contrast; everything melded together into the sort of inoffensively pastel world music amalgam you’d expect in the Carnival Cruise buffet line. I’m not trying to be a dick, but even music that wants to be beautiful needs to have force if it wants to make contact with the audience.
Many of the acts I saw wore the stress of the festival in tamped-down performances. Either the crowd was sparse, the soundman an indifferent fool, or simply the prospect of being an assembly line cog in an entertainment machine left me with the impression that it’s difficult for a band to bring their A-game here. That is, until I saw the Jessica Fletchers. They remain one of the best rock bands I’ve ever seen live, pouring more upbeat, head-bobbing energy into every single song than you’d think possible to pull off once. I guess they figured that they’d need to keep this jaded crowd pumped, because they never let their tempo down once, jolting their bodies around every single rhythm and playing their instruments on a mission to resurrect the Kinks, the Hollies, and the Zombies in a non-stop collection of hooks and hummable riffs.
So this one makes me a hypocrite of sorts. Sovvie has the hookup with Jay-Z for her forthcoming LP and probably doesn’t need another lick of ink spilled in her name. But I adore her hooligan kid sister persona as much as I love the way she’s managed to thread a few pop hooks through the skittering dissonance of grime. I wanted my last show to have a prayer of shaking me out of atrophied pleasure. After a rough bit of technical difficulty that included an entire song laced in ear-splitting feedback, she commanded the stage with mugging, impish dominance. I have to admit that part of what’s so fun about Lady Sovereign comes from the sort of classic rock star personality that she projects. Like LL Cool J, standing around as the sexiest person alive in track pants and a kangol, she embodies fashionable delinquency. You just know she’s breaking all the rules you don’t want to follow. And for that, she’s a marvelous role model in music’s long history of contributing to the foul-mouthed, anti-authority corruption of today’s youth. Not to mention, she’s probably the only person on the planet who could manage to rock the sideways hair fountain.
Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/sawyer-060320/