South by Southwest Film 2005: A Field Journal
Day One: Jet-Lagged and Frustrated in Long Lines -- Elvis Costello rocks the house, while two 10-years-olds charm the masses and our crew queues for hours and imbibes bad beer. Oh, the joys of SXSW.
Wedesday, March 16
The Glass Family
THE GLASS FAMILY � 12.30pm, Emo's Inside Stage
Austin's best songwriting rock group also happens to be its best kept secret. Luckily, an early day show slot didn't deter folks from coming out to hear some music, and I can only hope that those who experienced the Glass Family for the first time left with a lasting impression. This is a band that laces every song with melancholy but thankfully avoids bumming out its audience, due in large part to a big, loud wall of sound. Even more impressive is the way they weave distinct and generally simple beats, riffs and hooks into a layered, sonic tapestry that's almost orchestral in nature. The music definitely requires patience, so those seeking immediate gratification will probably move on quickly. Those who appreciate a good Yankee Hotel Foxtrot or OK Computer, however, will find rich rewards in devoting some time to the Glass Family.
What Made Milwaukee Famous
WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS � 1.00pm, Emo's Outside Stage
If I were a major label A&R guy with dollar signs in my eyes, I'd sign What Made Milwaukee Famous and lock them into a live spot on The O.C. quicker than a Seth Cohen Death Cab name-drop. Their brand of lap-pop rock (less lap, more rock, all pop) certainly fits the bill. They've got the hand-clapping sense of irony of Phantom Planet and the musical chops of all Ben Gibbard-related projects, but they're more challenging than the former and much less cheesy than the latter. Live, these guys exude amiability and a genuine love for playing. Bottom line, they're fun AND talented -- a cut above the rest, in other words. This is why I hesitate to see WMMF get swept up in the teen trend of the moment. The risk of being discarded when the fickle masses move on is just too great, and WMMF is simply too good for that.
Panel: How to Sell Your Music Online � 3.00pm, Austin Convention Center
So You Want to Be a Rock N' Roll Star. Bands wanting to promote themselves online got an earful on Wednesday at the "How to Sell Your Music Online" panel. Top 10 suggestions from the panel: 1. build your band a Web site and be sure to include a way your fans can donate money to you; 2. sell your CDs online through places like Amazon.com and CD Baby; 3. work with an aggregator like The Orchard, Iota, or DRA to get your music to fee-per-download services like iTunes; 4. try to get your tracks on Web-based subscription services like Rhapsody and Napster; 5. sign up with BMI, ASCAP, or SESAC so you get your songwriter's royalties; 6. sign up with SoundExchange so you get your online radio royalties; 7. put up a page on an online community like myspace or purevolume; 8. put your music on P2P networks; 9. create an electronic press kit (EPK) at a site like Sonicbids; and 10. advertise on Google. Best observation, which I can verify from personal experience: Web-based subscription services are exposing people to much more music than ever before, since the incremental cost of listening to additional songs and albums is zero. As one panelist aptly pointed out, these services can help people, no matter how rich or poor they are, become just as musically knowledgeable as Jack Black's character in High Fidelity, if they want to be.
BOYSKOUT � 8.00pm, Lava Lounge Patio
Boyskout kind of sounds like a less accessible Elastica, with a shot of The Clash and a dash of Blondie added for good measure. The three androgynous women behind the guitar, bass, and keys gave the packed outdoor patio a nice, early kick in the ass, providing the moves to match the sounds from the speakers. Credit must also be given to the guy behind the drum kit who kept it steady and fast on the 1-2-3-4. The performance itself could be likened to the salad days of a burgeoning relationship -- slightly awkward and more than a little rough around the edges. At the same time, it was sexually charged, exciting, and like all young love, full of potential.
MARY GAUTHIER � 10.00pm, La Zona Rosa
The promo card from the label says, "Gauthier has beaten back demons, learned from the streets, hit rock bottom, and risen from the ashes." Take one look at her and her band -� a grim, grizzled crew that seems to have been through a war (or three) -� and you know that this description is no idle boast. Get into a barroom brawl with any of these people, you might not walk out alive. Listening to them was an entirely different experience. Gauthier sings deep, uplifting songs about despair and hope, with a definite spiritual edge, and her band is sharp as a razor's edge. This is real country music, folks.
Photo by Curt Doughty
SMOOSH � 10.00pm, Maggie Mae's
My first day in Austin was my 13th straight on the road, and I had had only four hours sleep. I had traveled by car, plane, foot, boat, and train, and now I was up too late in order to see a couple of pre-adolescents known as Smoosh. It's unfortunate that Smoosh still has the cute factor -- drawing "aww"'s every time the vocalist closes a song with her trademark "thanks" -- because the band's good. They've got tight, catchy songs and a unique sound. The keyboardist/vocalist shows a strong voice at times, but she'll need to learn to maintain a fuller sound as she ages. The drummer certainly has the energy and apparently has the talent to become quite good. It'll be interesting to see if they end up going more toward pop or rock. A couple of songs now are just a fuzzed guitar away from a nice hard sound, but they've got a definite pop influence at the root. As it is, though, they're doing just fine. At the end of Smoosh's set, a drunken man with a MOZ tattoo talked me into staying for Ocean Blue (for Pennsylvania Pride). His friend offered to show me his penis. I stayed for a few songs. Post-Smiths goodness, but I was too sleepy to make it. Sorry, Scott, wherever you're recuperating.
SXSW FAILURES (PART 1) � 10.00pm
The worst feeling you'll ever get while attending SXSW hits you in three waves. First, you arrive at a venue (in this case, Buffalo Billiards) at about the time the artist you wish to see (in this case, Mike Doughty) is scheduled to go on, only to find an interminable and seemingly immovable line. Secondly, you then realize that everyone in line -- and quite likely most folks currently inside -- are waiting to see the guy after the guy you came to see. Finally, there's the panic. Where do I go now? Is there a chance I can get in? Would it be worth it, even if I only see Mike play for 15 minutes? Time's a wastin', Dave. You better make a decision.
My decision: I went to a place called Exodus and paid four bucks for a shit beer. On stage were a couple of Canucks who go by the name the Nice Ones. The Nice Ones pretty much make the case that the male/female combo trend has run its course. What I got was an attractive woman singing innocuous and fairly unremarkable pop while her partner, the lone instrumentalist, played electric guitar. This might have been OK had they not been playing and singing along to generic sampled drums and backing tracks. At best, it resembled a strange, enhanced karaoke session. Guys, get a band, and then we'll talk.
Outside the bar, I saw a couple of kids chatting up one-time sorta celebrity Matt Pinfield. I resisted the urge to approach him, rub his big, shiny head, and scream, "MATT! WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN, BIG GUY?!" I figure if I'm going to get arrested, I should at least wait until Saturday.
TIFT MERRITT � 11.00pm, La Zona Rosa
Maybe Tift Merritt can get over on somebody with her good looks, but not me. She and her hipster band didn't move me at all. A precious doll with flowers in her hair, Merritt runs across the stage, theatrically shaking her maracas. I guess it's fun for her to dress up and play rock star, but it sure wasn't fun for me to watch. She even sang a song called "I Am Your Tambourine". Give me a break.
ELVIS COSTELLO & THE IMPOSTERS � 12.00am, La Zona Rosa
This was my fifth time seeing Costello, and clearly the second best show I've seen him give. Though it had its peaks and valleys, about half-way through Elvis turned on the gas and never let up, finishing his set after 2.00am. Wearing a blue & pink tie with orange-tinted glasses, Elvis was, as always, the epitome of cool, and he seemed quite pleased to be at SXSW, reporting that he had just jammed with Hubert Sumlin up the street. Elvis ripped through dozens of songs, connecting his newer material with his classics and demonstrating again and again the incredible depth and breadth of his artistry. Jumping from frenetic, Northern soul to offbeat, discordant ballads, from straight-ahead rock to pure, traditional country, he somehow managed to tie everything together cohesively. Some of his classics, like "Radio Radio" and "Watching the Detectives", sounded kind of tired, but many others he breathed new life into, especially "Blame It on Cain", which turned into an extended jam. "High Fidelity", "I Don't Want to Go to Chelsea", "Clubland", and "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace, Love, & Understanding" were other highlights, but for me, the show's best moment came in the juxtaposition of two fantastic soul songs. The best song on Elvis's latest album, "Either Side of the Same Town", sounds to me like a very successful tribute to the soul classic "The Dark End of the Street", and Elvis followed it with his cover of "I Can't Stand Up for Falling Down", which flowed slowly out of "Either Side" at first and then exploded into a full-fledged romp. As I exited the show, I saw Elvis, drenched in sweat and satisfied, board his bus and head on out into the Austin night. Indeed, the King had left the building.
MANEJA BETO � 12.00am, Flamingo Cantina
When you put a bunch of guys together with different influences, several things can happen. They can opt to go 100% in one musical direction, with very little in the way of deviation. Some artists go 50/50 in an attempt to mesh two distinct styles (remember rap metal?). Some try to throw as much as they can into the pot, with results ranging from interesting to artsy to completely void of groove. But Maneja Beto, a Latin music outfit, realize the value of the sonic twist of lemon. They provide everything you'd expect from Latin music -- Spanish language, auxiliary percussion, and groovy beats. Every now and then, however, they'll slip a new wave synth line, indie pop vocal hook, or straight up rock beat into the mix. It's all very subtle and seamless -- almost subliminal. It's just enough to make those typically indifferent to Latin music bend an intrigued ear, while the Latin fans get enticed by the added spice. The result? Maneja Beto's 90/10 approach to playing music turned the joint into an all-inclusive dance party.
CANOE � 1.00am, Blender Bar Balcony at the Ritz
For the second time this evening, I was shut out of where I wanted to go. This time, it was Billy Idol. But when you're second choice is the best live band in Austin, things could be worse. For a group comprised solely of synthesizer, drums, and guitar, Canoe sure manages to wallow in sonic excess. Part of it is the intensity with which skins are pounded and keys pummeled. Give credit to singer Justin Preston's crazy volatile voice, which is never quite contained and prone to shrill falsetto when the moment feels right. Set up in the corner of a converted movie theater balcony, the band rocked the quirk while the diehards gleefully surrounded them in drunken abandon. Industry showcase? Pshaw! More like a house party. I challenge you to find music this (almost) noisy that's as fun and catchy as the curious Canoe