Austin Stories

Confused agenda of SXSW can't obscure the many musical highlights

Sonic Youth wasn't hitting the stage for another hour, but by 6 p.m. the line outside La Zona Rosa stretched all the way around the block, and halfway up to Tarrant County. Meanwhile, two guys in huge paper hats strolled by, selling ear plugs with the panache of a hot dog vendor at the ballpark.

Actually, there were two lines outside. The shorter one on the left was for South by Southwest badge holders, the privileged many, who nervously wondered whether they would make it inside. On the right were wristband wearers, the much-abused Cinderellas at every SXSW ball. Most of these people weren't so nervous, 'cause they knew they weren't getting in.

In a way, the Sonic Youth gig had little to do with SXSW. It was essentially a show booked for a private party, until SXSW stepped in and made it a conference-sanctioned event. But in a deeper sense, the Sonic Youth mayhem defined what SXSW is all about.

The ostensible point of this 12-year-old music confab is to showcase promising, obscure bands. When the Austin, Texas, organizers of the convention put this idea together in 1986, they were fueled by a zealous belief in the music of their region and a desire to make the rest of the music industry take notice. How did that beautiful concept devolve into hordes of jaded music bizzers tussling for a chance to see a 17-year-old band that practically everyone had already seen a million times? We could go to Mason Jar for that.

The problem isn't with Sonic Youth, per se. In spite of its eventual major-label capitulation and brief flirtation with rock stardom, the band has generally been an uncompromising model of integrity and fearlessness in a cowardly industry.

At La Zona Rosa, the band's show leaned heavily on noisy guitar interplay and shunned traditional song concepts, to the point where not a vocal was heard until 10 minutes into the set. It was an admirable return to the band's roots, but all the same, anytime you return to your roots, you're treading on soil that's no longer fresh. In a way, seeing Sonic Youth revisit its original direction was about as predictable as watching Duran Duran kick into "The Reflex" for the umpteenth time.

A bigger concern is that SXSW attendees similarly get sidetracked into revisiting past glories. No matter what you think of Soul Asylum, Robyn Hitchcock, Buddy Guy or Nick Lowe, you have to agree that all these artists made their marks long ago. Everyone who's interested in them has had multiple chances to catch them in the act.

These artists don't need SXSW to build their careers, and SXSW attendees don't need these acts getting in the way of undiscovered bands. For some reason, SXSW blithely pretends it's a showcase for new talent, when it's really a chance for music bizzers to cling to what they know. Personally, I knew that the bloom was off the rose when I heard people on my flight to Austin talking excitedly about wanting to catch Tommy Tutone at SXSW.

But in actual fact, there is no single event that we can call SXSW. There are many SXSWs going on at the same time in separate galaxies that share the same zip code and the same cover charge. Even if you race from club to club, you're unlikely to catch more than 5 percent of the 800 bands on display. Inevitably, your SXSW experience will be different from everyone else's. So, once you resign yourself to the fact that it's impossible to have a definitive SXSW experience, you just try to catch as many good bands as you can and limit yourself to 12 Raspberry Ales per night. So what follows is one person's subjective--and somewhat booze-addled--version of the highlights and lowlights from SXSW, Volume 12.

Panels and Workshops: Panel discussions at SXSW tend to be divided into two categories. You have the nuts-and-bolts practical-advice sessions, which pretend to offer pointers for aspiring bands (Pop a tape in someone's hand, are you taking notes?) but tend to be as dry as a Baptist county in June. The other type consists of the sort of wacked-out esoterica that serves no practical function ("Who Killed Bobby Fuller?") but is considerably more fun. At least this year, all the topics were connected to music, as opposed to past conventions when critics actually attempted to analyze what makes Texas barbecue so distinctive.

Keynote speaker Nick Lowe kicked things off with a welcome dose of sanity, saying that he can't be bothered to complain about the music industry. "That's a place I grew out of years ago," Lowe said. "You reach a point where you just don't care." After about 10 minutes, Lowe slipped into SXSW mode by shamelessly promoting his new CD, with a solid acoustic performance of four tunes, capped off by the obligatory "(What's So Funny About) Peace, Love and Understanding."

The A&R panel would have been a useless bore, if not for the friendly jibes from HITS editor Joe Fleischer at Steve Greenberg, Mercury vice president of A&R, who refused to let the audience forget that he was the man who signed Hanson. When someone asked what the Hanson brothers will do when their voices change, Greenberg said their voices have already changed and made the ludicrous claim that the eldest Hanson "sounds like a young Otis Redding." Fleischer immediately chimed in: "Sings like Otis Redding, looks like Cindy Brady."

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