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Monday, March 27, 2006

SXSW 2006: Finding Some Hope In Austin

Neumu's Jenny Tatone writes: Even the Born Again Christian waving an enormous "Jesus Loves You" sign on Sixth Street can't deny the power of this year's 20th version of the South by Southwest music conference. "It's an exciting festival," he tells me before returning to his duties, asking the wayward-walking stream of concertgoers: "If you were to die today, where would you spend all eternity?"

And if they weren't already busy laughing and pointing, surely they'd answer: Here, in Austin, Texas, soaking up the frenzy that is the world's largest music-industry gathering.

SXSW is a whirlwind. A blur of concert flyers (in gutters and wallpapering fences), sly advertising (woxy.com — don't know what it is, still can't peel it from my brain), marketing goodies (Napster lighters, tiny buttons, CD samples), the hippest of trends (laughably large sunglasses, fashion denim galore), skinny black-clad band dudes (sitting slumped on beat-up amps), eye-grabbing T-shirts (postulating such profound ideas as "Get Money, Stay True," "God Damn the Majority" and "Fuck Y'all! I'm From Texas"), Blackberries (everywhere) and noise.

Blaring inescapable noise. It bends backwards, sideways and constantly out of dive bars, slick clubs and outdoor tents along Sixth Street. It crushes, it crashes, it yells, it bumps, it hollers, it bites, and, unless you can find a way to get the hell out of Dodge, it does so without end. But the 1,500 musicians playing SXSW all day and all night aren't the only responsible parties. Industry schmoozers yammer. Local kids get giddy ("My Chemical Romance are playing Emo's!," "Look! It's the drummer from Foo Fighters!"). Street musicians slap guitars, sirens cry, and stalky bouncers with spiky hair yell: "No cover! Free music! $2 shots! Come on in!"

SXSW exhausts the senses. Standing in the thick of it, you feel heavy. The crowds, the humidity, the noise, the promotion, the colors — it all becomes overwhelming. Meanwhile, your body becomes a temple of SXSW-ness. Multiple ink stamps stain the inside of your wrist, plastic fluorescent wristbands count the parties you've attended (one morning I wake up, pull at my temples and find I've accumulated five), band buttons pin to your hoodie, and your shoulder bag bulges with CDs, magazines and the free Vitamin Water you snagged from the Levi's/Fader party. And to complete the portrait, you often have, what else, a drink in hand. Maybe it's a Red Stripe (courtesy of Levi's and Fader), Shapiro (courtesy of Factory People), Lone Star (courtesy of Texas) or, if you're a cocktail fan, a small plastic cup with a short, wide straw. Once you get your fill of those, you're destined to end up with a bratwurst from Sixth Street's famous "The Best Wurst" stand — that is, if you can hold your pee, waiting in a half-hour-long line.

SXSW devises a new world, fashioning a culture of its own built on a trash-strewn main drag, red-roped private parties, a sleek black MySpace.com tour bus, and "cool" people; so many cool people, their collective coolness evaporates into sameness. Everyone, no matter how unique their style is meant to be, begins to look the same. Never have I seen so many black-rimmed glasses, vintage-style ASICs sneakers, Diesel jeans, Chanel shades, torn, off-the-shoulder shirts, sequin flats, tattoos, Converse and striped leggings in one place (except at last year's SXSW). It's hipness united. And in unison, it looks quite silly. Take the coolest circle of kids from your town, multiply that times a gazillion (10,500 registered this year), stick 'em all within a few blocks of each other, and you get a feel for SXSW.

Which brings me to an interesting thought on the state of music today, something one can't avoid pondering while visiting Austin on the second weekend of March. We all know underground music was long ago excavated and introduced, after a little fine-tuning, into the mainstream (courtesy of "The OC"'s Seth Cohen, Honda's psychedelic commercials, Apple's iTunes, etc.). And since then, some of us have been waiting eagerly for a new and exciting something to come alive down under. Maybe I'm not paying close enough attention, but I've yet to find anything here that doesn't already fit in somewhere with the indie/punk/hardcore/experimental set that's been kicking around for years. I then begin to wonder if my train of thought might be all wrong. It's not like "Rock is dead." It's like "The way we rock is dead." The attitudes and ideals have changed. Selling out is a good idea. Genre-blending is smart. And Rupert Murdoch's MySpace.com is fantastic.

Today, existing in the mainstream is fine — no, it's great, it's the way to go. Screw being a snob. Screw limiting yourself to a scene. Reach as many people as possible. We're going global, folks. Times are changin'. You gotta spin with them. OK, fine, but do we all have to think the same, talk the same, look the same and sound the same?

I suppose this makes me an old snob. But I miss having an underground. I miss musicians defying the norm, giving young fans fresh perspectives on the world and telling mainstream corporate culture where to stick it. Alas, I feel the music industry is enduring a major climate shift; we are in transition, and there is no time for rebellion. Give it some time though. Just wait until kids get tired of staring at their screens instead of each other; they'll be back, they'll be back.

And until then I'll get back to SXSW where, in between pondering, I see a number of incredible musicians — something that, amidst marketing-gone-wild, and sensory overload, becomes easy to take for granted. I'll thank Dr. Dog's singer/guitarist Scott McMicken for reminding me not to.

"Let's have a round of applause for everything here," McMicken says lackadaisically onstage at the Red Eye Fly, where the Philly pop-rock band performed one of the most powerful shows of SXSW. "You might have a home to go to and that's fantastic. Maybe you have a pet waiting. Maybe you're in love.

"Things are pretty great in general."

He smiles, tips his straw hat and bursts into "Easy Beat," the title track from their debut album, self-released two years ago. Flopping around on stage like a bunch of rowdy rag dolls, the quintet plays a fevered 40-minute set, banging out dirtier versions of songs from East Beat, in addition to a couple new tracks: "Living A Dream," with harmonizing as strong as a '60s girl-group song, and "Factoid," a speedy, tight, punk-ish number that had me thinking radio.

"I've been sleeping in the dumpster outside your home," a crowd member yells halfway through the set. "That's how I know your new songs."

"Really? Wow," laughs singer/bassist Toby Leaman.

Later, Dr. Dog's self-named biggest fan and supposed dumpster diver, a large, lumbering guy holding a bright yellow softball, leaps onstage, grabs the mic, sings along, dances and later screams like a schoolgirl at a Beatles show: "This is a my dream come true, my dream come truuuuuuuue!"

After the intensely energetic show, Leaman, wearing a blue T-shirt drenched in sweat (visible evidence of his hard work), breathing heavily, gasps, "I'm ready to go get as wasted as possible."

Leaman also tells me Dr. Dog, whose music brings to mind summer barbecues, garage rock crunch and The Beatles, are currently recording their next album and are still unsigned, which is just baffling.

It takes about three seconds for Alejandro Escovedo to convert me into one of his many followers. In the back of Manitas Café, where the brick walls are painted coral, transparent green screens block the sun, ceiling fans hang from wooden beams and the still-wet brick patio smells of disinfectant, I wait with about 50 others. Sipping on Dos Equis beer and picking at Mexican food, we wait. After about 45 minutes, Escovedo finally takes the stage, sits down and delivers the most beautifully engaging set I see at SXSW.

It's a late afternoon performance; sun rays beam in, casting a warm glow and hypnotic collection of shadows on the small, sitting crowd. Singer/guitarist Escovedo, two cellists, two violinists, an additional acoustic guitarist, drummer, keyboardist and Apple laptop manipulator come together to create what feels like a magical string section pushing through gusts of wind and broken hearts.

"This one is about the guilt of the body breaking down and then recuperating," Escovedo, who three years ago collapsed from Hepatitis C, says solemnly as the whooshing effects of "Arizona" begin to envelop the room.

"I've been straight, so straight, since Arizona," he croons, his delicate vocals worn and deeply moving.

"A couple years ago, I didn't feel that great," Escovedo says. "I wasn't even sure if I'd make another record. I've made several records but (The Boxing Mirror, his latest) is very important to me."

Escovedo's set, flavored by sparse Southwestern meandering, rattlesnake shakes and dark revelations, causes me to feel, for the first time, like I was visiting Texas, not SXSW. I'm truly touched.

"I believe in the truth/ But sometimes I lie," moans Escovedo, sounding on the verge of breaking. "Everybody says they love me/ But I don't know why."

I do — because he's in love with music as much as music is in love with him.

From the moment the Austin airport jazz band pipes out the dizzying notes of "When the Saints Go Marching In" while a slew of greasy punk kids march by toward the baggage claim, SXSW, in true form, delivers one delightfully ironic moment after another.

"There's band guys everywhere. What kind of hell is this?" cries Frog Eyes lead singer/wild man Carey Mercer as if he weren't one them. The B.C. post-punk band, by the way, play a frenzied, red-faced set. "I wanna get signed," Mercer adds. "Money's cool."

Minneapolis' Plastic Constellations guitarist/shouter Jeff Allen, who earlier revealed he is obsessed with Jay-Z (who isn't?), tells the crowd at Soho Lounge: "You're going to die. Literally," and then explodes into a fevered, manic onslaught of punk rock, jerking their sweaty bodies to and fro. Later, Hold Steady rabble rouser Craig Finn hops onstage to shout gleefully into the mic and stammer around drunk.

UK abrasive-punk band the Brakes speed through a mad set of jittery tracks, make fun of self-absorbed, coked-up scenesters ("I heard about your band," Hamilton snarls. "I couldn't help it/ You were screaming in my ear") and have a word with Cheney. "I know it seems loony for us to sing about your vice president but it's Dick Cheney," says Hamilton, disgusted, then breaks into a speed-punk song, lasting all of six seconds, designed to cry one thing: "Fuck Dick Cheney!"

Erase Errata singer/guitarist Jenny Hoyston, calling herself a "bird of prey," leads her post-punk band in a set of new, bland songs that do little more than induce yawning. The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne rolls down Sixth in a plastic bubble. Again. The Gossip's Beth Ditto has black ink smeared all over her face when she and her band blast out a mind-blowing 4 a.m. set at Factory People, the club hosting the obnoxiously elite Nylon invite-only after-hours SXSW parties. "My band is the only reason this party doesn't suck," Ditto growls. She's absolutely right. Miniature Elijah Wood pops up backstage after Gang of Four's ferociously wild performance ("Dave (Allen), look at him go, he's like the Flea of Gang of Four," I overhear someone say). And because the band plays the eighth floor of a parking garage — where heat lamps, white leather couches and free top-shelf liquor transformed the space from somewhere you'd only drink as a juvenile to somewhere you drink and feel special — there's no actual backstage; just a 10x10, cloth-enclosed space in the middle of a parking lot. Wood has no problem fitting into the cramped quarters.

Hilarious Art Brut lead singer/Charlie Chaplin lookalike Eddie Argos makes sure the crowd knows "this is not irony, this is my real voice," and tells funny stories straight-faced (like a good Brit would) between the group's AC/DC-fueled party rock set, which has crowd members jumping up and down and later saying "they killed it." And they did.

Austin rapper Los Lativos draws a small crowd at Emo's Main Room but doesn't care: "I don't care about nobody out there," he says, "all those badges and industry bullshit. This is for Austin. This is for the real people."

Meanwhile, British singer/songwriter Imaad Wasif, who looks like an Indian version of Yeah Yeah Yeah's guitarist Nick Zinner and is getting attention for touring with Zinner's band, has other frustrations: "I've been trying to maintain but it's always in vain ... I'm already gone," he mopes, hunched over his guitar, strumming sad, strangely beautiful music, and then coos softly: "I don't want to cry over dead things."

Ghostface Killah, however, does. Well, not so much cry as pay respect. He gets the folks at the Levi's/Fader party to shut off the lights, instructs attendees to hold their lit-up cell phones high (What? Did you think kids still carried lighters these days?) and wave them around in salute to the late Ol' Dirty Bastard. "We love you Dirty," he says. "Can we have six seconds of silence for Dirty?" The crowd hushes.

As the Born Again bids me farewell, holds his posture high and streams off down Sixth Street among concertgoers rushing to hit the next spot and kids without wristbands wishing they could, I'm approached by Johnny U.K. "I play and I'm bloody good," he spits in my face with a heavy and drunken English accent. "You haven't heard of me yet. But, trust me, one day you will. You will."

He's middle-aged, drunk and high. But, no matter, he has a glimmer of hope in his eye. Just like everyone else here at SXSW.

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