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South by Southwest 2003: A Field Journal: Day Five / Music: You Down With V.I.P.?

Southwest 2003

Day Five / Music: You Down With V.I.P.? by 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.

Day Five / Music: You Down With V.I.P.?

On day two (of the music portion of the festival), I checked out the Tradeshow Showcase, in the newly remodeled Austin Convention Center which is built in Valhalla dimensions but can't help but look a lot like an airport. There were all kinds of service booths covering all aspects of the industry. Directories, magazines, studios, clothing, and health coverage were put in displays like an underground music gun show. Actually, it looked more like a job fair. If you had a business card (damn, I just write my info on matchbooks) you could have walked out of their with a pallet's worth of free merchandise. One booking agent I spoke to said that some of the information was useful to her, but the majority of it was just skiffle. The stage at the tradeshow was a shitty gig that looked like a dais smacked in the middle of a mall food court. Irish singer-songwriter, Roesy, had to take to the mic amid the yammer static of the tradeshow floor. His voice was one of those whiskey swabbed Irish punches that makes one instantly weepy and ready to drink sick amounts of the hard stuff on first listen. Roesy managed a breathtaking amount of intensity for a show that had all the atmosphere of a political fundraiser. Afterwards, I asked him what he was headed out to do and he looked weary and told me he was going out to the lake on some boat to get blotto with a bunch of fellow Irish musicians. I like a man with priorities.

During the tradeshow there were tons of hip-ly dressed people doing what I call the cell phone airstrike. To do this you need to talk in a crowd, plugging one ear while bellowing your phone call contents into the world. I only wish they really were carrying out airstrikes since I always carry a list of coordinates with me. Finally, on the way out, I decided to ask the woman from Spin, "So what do you look for in a writer?" She gave me a fangy grin of absence and told me flatly "I'm from marketing, I have no idea." Hey, maybe that should be the festival's slogan next year.

Parties. They are the hotly sought after sideshow of SXSW. I even overheard someone pleading for invites for some after hours exclusive where the A-listers of the C-list were apparently converging for post-gig decadence. I managed to score a couple of invites, but only accidentally. One of my club friends called me out of the blue and offered me invitations that he probably bartered in exchange for some black market sex simulator that he made in his basement (I like the guy, but he's shady).

It was refreshing to attend the Devil in the Woods afternoon party because it was free to absolutely everyone. The Jealous Sound played rough and tumble emo that easily bested much of what's out there like it (Jimmy Eat World, et al). Tegan and Sarah played infectiously sharp and sugary pop. They look like Joan Jett and I think they'd look cooling smoking cigarettes with an unfolded straight razor in their hand. Not only was it snarly fun, but the two sister's managed a couple witty arguments on stage to prove that Oasis have some competition in the area of sibling rivalry. Brighton natives, British Sea Power, put on one of the more bizarre sets that I've seen thus far. Adorned in duct taped tree limbs they played their Fall-inspired, cocky creep rock to a crowd simultaneously bewildered. One of the drummers played a wooden duck and wore some sort of military helmet. The lead singer lurched and bugged out his eyes, like one of the pcp people who take 15 rounds in the chest on Cops. Unlike many of the other things I'd seen, this daytime party felt much more like what I expected SXSW to be: good music and good people converging on a great place. More bands were to follow, but I needed a quiet coffee and some down time before heading out in the eve.

Vomit! Shit! Piss! The evening proved to be a recap of everything I hated about the tradeshow. Industry parodies spored the clotty streets. I never bothered going through the debasement required to be doled in to the Maxim party (remember those laminated passes I was so happy to score?). Those passes may as well have read "Suckers" because the only way to get in was to be on some other list or to flip your hair and shout the bouncer's name in a pitch only heard by alley dogs. I'm always saying I never get to New York or Los Angeles so I guess I should thank SXSW for bringing those cities here. Every couple of minutes, someone from the untouchable caste would breeze through and the bouncer would part the waiting throng like Moses splitting open the promised land expressway. Fuck that. Maxim is an artificial hard on of a magazine made for manchildren in love with airbrushed women who wouldn't mace them for a dollar. We left after ten minutes. On my way to see the first band, The Swords, I began to be plagued by all those doubts about why I was even there. Did I want to someday be that person cutting in line, relishing my "work" vacation and hoping to rub elbows with "real" stars like Sting who was supposedly going to be at the Maxim party. I felt like maybe I had become corrupted by two laminated tickets and the promise of sharing oxygen with some celebrity I'd probably hate. Not that I'm mewling about the opportunity of going to this -- the world already has a Billy Corgan -- I'm just saying that I think like any other critic, I was easily the victim of the stuff I so keenly loathe.

I never did shake that taint for the rest of the evening. Suddenly, I looked at every show through the cynical lens of an A&R person. The Swords Project would easily garner the My Bloody Valentine critic's choice award. Beautiful, paralyzing, loud and gorgeously dreary, there is absolutely no angle for promoting these sonic dreamers to any but the most devoted anglophile. Val Emmich, a teen idol from New Jersey, will be all over MTV by next year, I guarantee you. He's a nice guy, sincere about his Pete Yorn pop growl, but once a label's marketing people get a hold of him, it will be absolutely sickening. See, he's not just good looking, he's abusively pretty. Videos will show his nevercare hair caught on a breeze, his lips covered in Vaseline, and every straight girl and repressed frat boy in the country will be playing his record during spring break volleyball. When I walked in on "From Bubblegum to Sky, I actually proclaimed "Holy Shit!" There will be absolutely no way to market his quirky attempt to channel the Marvellettes (one person, mind you). With pre-recorded backing tracks and high pitched self-harmonizing, this highly improbable performer was a refreshing stick in the spokes of everything I'd seen for the rest of the evening though I only caught the end of his set.

My favorite part of the evening came while waiting outside of the Longwave show (they're good, they'll be in lots of articles soon) when I ran into singer-songwriter, Matt the Electrician. He's one of those musicians that gets shockingly cooler the more you talk to them. During the Longwave set, a local reporter asked to interview me about the recently media-created hysteria about the dangers of leaving your television (aka the Great White Inferno). He kept prodding me for a fear response. He wanted to know what I thought would happen in the Longwave show if suddenly the whole club burst into flames. I blanked for a second and said "Every man for himself." I have high hopes for tomorrow, because I guard my optimism like a precious illness. But at the end of day two I left feeling like a disappointed whore. And so I had to ask myself, "How exactly did I become a disappointed whore?"

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