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South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: SXSW vs. American Idol

Tobias Peterson and Terry Sawyer

Day Two of our daily coverage of SXSW 2003 looks at the buzz-worthy film highlights, the Robert Duvall vehicle Assassination Tango and an Australian caper film entitled The Hard Word.

Today's report by Terry Sawyer

SXSW vs. American Idol

I'm effortlessly in love with this city. One night, getting doused on margaritas with a good friend and her hippy mother, my friend's mother said: "Good old Austin, it's easy to get stuck pickin' the poppies and never leave." That's a figure of speech, of course, we don't grow poppies here or else you'd see government commercials proclaiming that people who move to Austin support terrorism. She meant that Austin was such a relaxing, sensual oasis, that you could stop here and forget everything else you may have wanted to do with your life. Even though growth and Starbucks have tarnished that myth, it's still a city where an artist or lover of artists could spend forever without finishing the city's supply of creativity.

A festival like SXSW is a thorny field of contradictions. On the one hand, it is wonderful for Austin to be spotlighted as a city that fosters a thriving music culture. On the other hand, what makes this city so great is that anyone can go see great music for next to nothing on any given night. Hosting a festival that is literally only for people with lots of disposable income or those willing to mortgage their every spare hour in indentured servitude to the festival (they call this volunteering), cuts against the very grain of the city character. Like any good cultural immune system, Austin has many biting responses to the presence of the festival (which I will tackle in a future journal entry). Love it or hate it, it is undeniable that SXSW pulls in some of the best bands working.

One of the more pernicious myths of the festival is that somehow someone completely unknown and undiscovered will break out and fall into the loving arms of one of the dream-makers trolling the venues. Many of the bands at SXSW have already received mad, lapping praise from the indie press and those bands on the first night were the only ones where people with badges were actually lined up around the corner. Not to mention that tons of cash is poured into highlighting various showcases, clubs are rented for BBQ stuffed parties, videos are projected on alley walls, balloons are tied to parking meters and flyers literally tile the bathroom floors. Could an unsigned band, laboring in obscurity, actually afford to get noticed? There's something of a twinge of guilt that comes when you realize that SXSW is actually less egalitarian than American Idol.

Fortunately, dear reader, the editors of PopMatters have ethics to spare and specifically asked if I could cover people who weren't already picking the confetti of acclaim out of their carefully cropped mops. I set out on my first night to take in, with one exception, only bands that I'd never heard of in the hopes that I would stumble upon some tucked away gem and come away vindicated.

An atmosphere of awkwardness prevailed with the first musician to fit that bill, Matt Keating. I'm sure many artists feel as if they're on an auction block, not performing at a real venue, and consequently probably can't pull out the performance of their lives. Singer-songwriters usually require a finely attenuated mood and atmosphere, the kind of night where all you want to do is stare through your drink and listen to someone else spill themselves plaintively. I was bored. Worse yet, the cramped theater seating and its closeness to the stage made it impossible to leave without stomping off inches in front of him. We stayed. Although clearly able to craft a decent folkish song, there was really nothing to distinguish him for hundreds of other singer-songwriters including those that clog downtown on Friday nights with guitars cases pebbled in change. My mood curdled gradually and I started to notice turns of phrase like "my photographic memory ran out of film," then Matt Keating's cell phone went off during one of his own songs. I looked for a gong.

The next goal was to find some rawk to cleanse our palette. On the way to the next venue, my partner in crime, Laura (a lifelong Austin native) started schooling me on the etiquette of wearing the SXSW badge. You see, many of the locals out enjoying their city during the festival come to loathe the badge as a sign of interloping elitism. Worse yet when someone wears it like they're in a bad hip hop video. Here I was, unbeknownst to myself, declaring to the world that I was an intruder, cutting in front of the few locals who could afford the wrist bands which only got you into venues once people with badges had finally trickled in. I decided to end my gaudy display and tuck my badge in my shirt.

We ended up stumbling across Andrew Kenny, formerly of American Analog Set, at the Mercury Lounge. What we caught of his spare, hushed set was amazing. His voice was so retreated and introspective, that it was really hard to hear in the festival atmosphere of people sizing each other up, checking out to see what label the other person was from, and the general blah-to-blah that characterizes networking. (It's those badges, I tell ya.) Eventually, we got tired of trying to hear above the din and decided to continue our original quest for an evening of ballsy rock and roll abandon.

Our next find would have qualified for that in say, oh, 1985. Spindle was a hair band with updated locks. They took a dirty stepdad ruining to the Replacement's "Bastards of Young" and we couldn't leave fast enough. Our destination was the Rockland Eagles, but we made one more duck in to catch a bunch of hottie young blues musicians called Blues Condition. Loud, cute, and talented instrumentalists, they really needed someone else to do their singing.

Finally, we trudged off the dreaded haunts of Sixth Street to see the Rockland Eagles. They put on the best, tongue-in-cheek rock show I've ever seen. It doesn't hurt that they're also a tight, blistering, cock-chord rock outfit. Replete with silver jumpsuits, a fog machine, and a drummer dressed in Evil Knievel pleather, the Rockland Eagles mine '70s rock clich├ęs without simply prostituting nostalgia. Krit, their punk rock go go girl, dances in the front with homemade glittery signs announcing each song and even joins to the band to sing a song and show off her bruisily sexy dance skills. This was exactly what I needed to believe that there really are bands out there that truly could blow away the competition if anyone cared to give them a bit of ink. Not that they would care.

After the Rockland Eagles small scale stadium set, we decided to try our luck one last time with The Spiders. Luck stuck. They turned out to be a wonderfully glammy, twitchy punk rock band with a singer who acted like David Byrne with a more than a handful of broken synapses. At this point I'd totally forgotten all those nettling inequalities built into the very fabric of the event. I was just happy to have randomly struck enough gold to put me to bed with a smile on my face.

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