South by Southwest 2000

Thomas Swiss

Last night, in a cold rain, with thunderclaps and lightening no match for the the wattage of the 100-plus bands playing in this amped-up conference-driven town, people stood in lines to see some of the headliners — including Steve Earle who played, like many others, outside, and who turned in a raucous, passionate, hour-long set. As a contrast, John Cale, by all reports, had a good night at the Student Union, playing his polite form of piano-art-music that is wonderfully melodic with surprising flourishes that recall his sound-art genius, reaching all the way back to his days in the Velvet Underground.

At another venue, saved from the rain by a leaking awning, the Poster Children were on fire. Their noise — which has never translated well to CD — was as complex as it was loud. Performance-tested, they played their hearts out, to a crowd clearly in their corner.

On another note, the conference today, Friday, was mixed in quality-or at least those presentations I was able to attend. A morning panel was composed of mostly folks (CDNow, Wall of Sound, etc.) — journalists and editors who brought the audience, in various guises, what is probably the truth: print versions of pop music-related news and stories are probably headed for the graveyard. The "alternative" 'zine is increasingly Web-based; the mainstream magazines Web-based; even the music gossip columns are Web-based. What was once Web-assisted (a supplementary site for the print version of the magazine) will be shortly Web-based: the technology are a 'changin'. But wait: even while this panel was discoursing, I came across the new print magazine, Revolver, which is very smart: a mixture of the British music magazines Q and Mojo, the premier issue includes critically astute pieces by Ann Powers, Jim Derogatis, Matt Diehl, and others. While not quite cultural studies-inflected, it nevertheless scans the pop music horizon with eyes more open than those at, say, Rolling Stone and Spin. Wish them well...

Dave Marsh chaired a panel on Woody Guthrie — who, as he said in his introduction, has been a guiding spirit behind alt-country, roots-rock, and the singer-songwriter revival. I wish I'd learned more. That is, the the panel included some interesting writers and musicians aligned with what we might almost now call "Guthrie Studies" (he's that big), Marsh let Woody's youngest sister ramble on far too long. Though she kept losing her train of thought, and while Marsh tied to steer her, not much could save her performance. The highlights were the music (Guthrie's and Woody-inspired tunes) and the sense that, yes, the panel and the audience agreed: freedom and community still matter in the music business. Finally, a panel on the making and marketing of under-age (read: kid) stars was largely a bust. That is, while most of the panel consisted of players involved in the developing career of Shannon Curfman, and one panelist was involved in the "making" of Jessica Simpson,there was really only one point to the whole thing: child artists are like adult stars, with one difference: their parents usually co-manage and travel with them.

Onwards: Patti Smith plays tonight in a rained-on park; Whiskeytown, Kim Richey, and others play alt-country in a club, and then — well, in Austin, the beat goes on and on and on...

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