Austin Stories

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

Kate Hyman of V2 Records thankfully burst this panel's bubble of industry-speak when a questioner asked what record labels need now. Her response: "More people who love music."

Most of the other nuts-and-bolts panels failed to generate anything but drowsiness. One exception was the songwriters panel, which turned into a peek inside the often-complicated creative process. Seated on the left were highly successful Nashville pros Tia Sillers and Willie Nelson look-alike Aaron Barker, while on the right sat underappreciated mavericks Peter Holsapple and Alejandro Escovedo. Sillers talked about big hits she's written for people like Kenny Wayne Shepherd and somewhat abashedly confessed that she works to meet a quota of 12 songs a year. Escovedo, looking like someone's grizzled uncle in an ill-fitting hat, introduced himself by saying, "I've written a bunch of songs. I've never had a cover or anything and I guess this song will show you why." Before the laughs had subsided, he proved his point by singing a mournful verse that began: "I was drunk, I was down." Not exactly LeAnn Rimes fare.

By far the most interesting panel I attended, however, was a discussion on Paul McCartney called "So Is Paul Dead?". At first glance, it looked like one of those esoteric wank fests that serves no purpose but to let critics hear the sound of their own voices. But this surprisingly heated debate actually touched on a variety of themes that bubble under the surface at SXSW: What does rock 'n' roll mean in this day and age? Is music the province of youth? What should you do when your creativity starts slipping? Do you need to suffer for your art?

Predictably, the critics on the panel--Jim DeRogatis and Nirvana biographer Michael Azerrad--bashed Paulie for "phoning it in" and living off his Beatles reputation for the bulk of his solo career. The artists and record-label people on the panel rushed to McCartney's defense. Singer-songwriter Vic Chesnutt introduced himself by saying, "Yoko is my favorite Beatle, but I also love Paul." Both Chesnutt and power-pop hero Tommy Keene said that they were moved by several songs on McCartney's recent Flaming Pie album, and refuted Azerrad's contention that McCartney's work is "emotionally barren" craftsmanship. When Azerrad suggested that McCartney was too rich to have "grist for his mill," and needed to give up his money and go live among starving artists in New York, Chesnutt ridiculed him by saying, "Michelangelo was living in total opulence when he made the Sistine Chapel."

The most apt question came from an attendee who wondered if Azerrad would know when to hang it up if he felt his own work was starting to slip. The 37-year-old Azerrad said burnout is an issue that he grapples with every day, but clearly he didn't relish having the tables turned on him.

A burly radio program director from Columbus, Ohio, brought the proceedings to a close by saying, "Paul can do whatever he wants, 'cause he made my life better. If he wants to do a spoken-word album, woo-hoo, have at it." Even the critics laughed.

Showcases: The big moments at SXSW come when you take a chance on someone you've never heard before and experience something memorable. For me, that came with a Thursday-night showcase by Eszter Balint, best known for playing John Lurie's Hungarian cousin in Stranger Than Paradise. Thirteen years after that film, Balint is not only sleek and gorgeous, but she fronts a talented, quirky band that incorporates accordion, banjo and her own violin breaks. Balint's smoky vocals perfectly suited the moody ambiance of this postmodern lounge music.

On Friday, the Matador showcase at an overcrowded Electric Lounge qualified as must-see rock. Sean Lennon jostled among the throng, while Janeane Garofalo was seemingly spotted by everyone but me. Arab Strap delivered some fine, grindingly slow rock, while Japan's Cornelius offered a wild, campy synth-ride, heavy on strobe lighting and non sequitur video footage of boxing. By midnight, the club was so packed that it looked like Come would have to be airlifted to the stage. The Boston quartet proceeded to lift the hinges off the doors with a slamming set of mighty guitar madness. Thalia Zedek's howl-at-the-moon vocals again proved that she's one of those rare singers for whom words are unnecessary. The mere sound of her voice conveys everything.

After that, the languid Bardot Pond could not hope to compete although its lead singer was a beautiful wreck, in a leopard-skin outfit and positively oozing heroin-chic poutiness. Outside, under the pavilion tent, The Promise Ring was a much more life-affirming alternative experience, poppy and punky, without demeaning either concept.

On Saturday, The High Llamas kept a packed crowd waiting for almost half an hour while they prepared their intricate stage setup, but their sonorous set--heavy on vibes and tape loops--made up for any tardiness. At Copper Tank, The Waco Brothers brought down the roof on Bloodshot Records' showcase with a typically drunken set of country rowdiness. Jon Langford and his mates proved that three hoarse shouters singing in unison can actually be more effective than one honey-voiced country crooner. They were so loose that Langford actually stopped the band in midsong to ask if anyone could provide him with the lyrics to Neil Young's "Revolution Blues."

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