South by Southwest 2000

Thomas Swiss

One of the best things about SXSW is the way it mixes things up — musically — and brings things together, socially. People from various music-related vocations and avocations are all here: professional and amateur musicians, publicists, journalists, publishers, talent scouts, music lawyers, and so on. And it seems to work: publicists schmooze with journalists, lawyers caution whomever will listen, web designers critique bands' sites, musicians counsel other musicians.

Talking, last night, at the Austin Music Hall, with Chris C., one could tell that SXSW was accomplishing exactly what she'd hoped before coming to this conference. She's a fledgling singer/songwriter, and had come here for both "inspiration" and with the hope of making helpful connections, hearing helpful stories from both the bigshots and others in her situation — others living in smaller cities (she lives in Santa Cruz) who have a body of self-penned songs and a good voice with which to represent them. Like me, she had come tonight to hear a handful of professionals play, having already heard these musicians in different day-forums, talking about the art of song writing, finding support, a manager, and so on.

She was here, more especially, to hear Jim Lauderdale, whose writing she admired. Lauderdale is a contemporary country-twang kind of writer who has sold more than a handful of songs to performers like George Strait. Lauderdale performed first in tonight's line-up and though the show was in every way professional and polished, it also seemed a bit remote.

Kim Richey was next up, and it was a terrific show: more rock than country, backed up, as she was, by the Continental Drifters. In striped, psychedelic pants (or "britches" as the MC called them) and strong voice (though in a "booming" venue), she played songs from all three of her CDs, and played them beautifully — with all the attendant melancholy and just-been-jilted rawness her lyrics embody.

The oddest performance of the night was by Whiskeytown — a band that has been troubled by high turnover, apparently because of the main Whiskeyman and songwriter, Ryan Adams. His talk the day before at a forum had been widely panned ("arrogant," "testy") by the local music press, but tonight his band shined in a way that the Replacements used to shine when one caught them on a good night. Loud, aggressive, and a bit ragged, Adams and the band made an intelligent and unpredictable noise that rocked the house and kept the audience wanting more — although the band surprisingly stopped and walked off stage after a wonderful rave-up on a new song. Total playing time: 30 minutes.

Finally, before I drifted off to another club, the much-praised Shelby Lynne played to a now-nearly-full house. While I still don't know what to make of her current record, I Am Shelby Lynne, in concert her Dusty Springfield meets American R&B meets Alabama party rock-style produced an exciting show: various, loose, great band (including a lead guitarist seen on Lucinda Williams' last tour). Lynne was in total control and in great voice, and the crowd went — as they say — wild.

Saturday, the final day of the conference, looks to be more low-key, both in terms of panels and the evening performances as SXSW winds down for another year.

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