Growing Pains

After 13 years, SXSW remains Austin's greatest/worst display of self-love

Leave it to Austin. The self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World" finally has a band go platinum after two decades of false alarms, and it's deemed such an epochal moment in music history that South by Southwest devotes an entire panel discussion to the "phenomenon."

That panel, "The Fastball Story," was a predictably drab nuts-and-bolts marketing discussion, but no one could blame Fastball guitarist Miles Zuniga. He was winningly self-deprecating throughout, at one point even donning a wrinkly, old-man mask in response to a question about how tired his band looked at the end of its tour.

It's not Zuniga's fault that Austin is so self-obsessed and self-worshiping. And in all fairness, Austin does have a lot to be self-obsessed about. What other city is so supportive of its music scene that it would create a TV channel (Austin Music Network) just to showcase it?

Of course, South by Southwest is Austin's biggest celebration of itself, but it's not really made for Austinites. The locals inevitably get screwed by plunking down close to $100 for a cockamamie wristband that entitles them to wait in long lines outside crowded clubs. The problem is not a new one, but more than ever before, this year's SXSW offered obscene disparities between high-profile, in-demand shows (Flaming Lips, Tom Waits, Built To Spill) that most people couldn't get into, and shows where unsigned bands played their hearts out for 25 people.

The event directors don't seem to have any qualms about selling an unlimited number of wristbands, and letting the masses jostle for crumbs at the banquet of live music that is SXSW. You can actually feel the hostility growing appreciably each year. As one Waterloo Records employee said to a friend on Friday afternoon, "I was out at 8 last night, and I couldn't get into one show that I wanted to see," sarcastically adding, "I love South by Southwest!"

Our own local heroes, Jimmy Eat World, were not oblivious to this sentiment. At the emo-punk quartet's Saturday night Electric Lounge Pavilion showcase, singer-guitarist Jim Adkins paused between songs and asked for a show of hands from Austinites. "This seems pretty cool to an outsider, but does it just bug the shit out of you?" Adkins asked. The response was an inconclusive murmur, but somehow one could sense that the answer was, "yes." The Austinites were probably just too weary from four nights of standing in line to muster actual words.

Arizona showcases: Fun-loving melodic rockers Haggis were cursed both by high-powered competing shows and the week's lone night of brutally hard rain, but their Thursday gig at Electric Pavilion was a testament to their on-with-the-show mentality.

Opening with a pile-driving whiff of AC/DC's "For Those About To Rock, We Salute You," they swiftly blasted into their own "Hot Rod" (at Saturday afternoon's Tower Records in-store, they exchanged the AC/DC intro for Heart's "Barracuda"). Fittingly, they also delivered a razor-sharp "Surrender" by Cheap Trick, the band that probably best exemplified the lighthearted, high-spirited mix of hard-rock crunch and pop hookiness that Haggis shoots for. Haggis guitarist Tony Burns debuted his new emerald-green Gretsch guitar at SXSW. The downside was that Austin's humidity caused his strings to slip out of tune with alarming frequency, but Burns handled it adroitly.

On Friday night, Seven Storey Mountain played inside at Electric Lounge as part of a frequently stirring showcase for New York-based emo label Deep Elm Records. Unfortunately, the showcase was scandalously underattended, at least partly due to the hordes camped outside of nearby La Zona Rosa for Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and Flaming Lips. The three-piece lineup of the ever-changing Seven Storey Mountain played a tuneful set that reflected the band's increasingly heavy direction.

Saturday afternoon on Guadalupe, across from the University of Texas campus, briefly felt like an Arizona music fest. Tucson's endearing indie-pop quartet Shoebomb bravely rocked for shoppers at Urban Outfitters (closing with the Pixies' "U-Mass"), while Haggis and Jimmy Eat World played Tower Records in-stores shortly afterward.

Jimmy Eat World's in-store was such a resounding success, that at one point Adkins looked out at the huge crowd and gushed, "This is crazy." Those fans, and many more, packed Electric Pavilion that night for the band's impassioned set, heavy on tunes from the surprisingly successful new album Clarity.

Later that night, honky-tonkers Grievous Angels did their annual warmup for the Waco Brothers at the Bloodshot Records showcase, this year at Jazz Bon Temps Room. Lead singer Russell Sepulveda threatened to leave his mike stinky for Waco Brother Jon Langford, between lamentations about the sad state of his hairline and how much cuter he was in the early '80s.

The night ended with Curt Kirkwood's Austin-based, reconstituted incarnation of the Meat Puppets, who played what was probably the last-ever SXSW showcase at the legendary club Liberty Lunch, which is due to shut down soon. The new Puppets are heavier and more bombastic than anything suggested by the band's history. Even during a version of the classic "Lake of Fire," the old desert twang was nowhere to be found. Nonetheless, Kirkwood's wild-ass charisma was undimmed, as his frizzy mop of hair flew over his face every time he launched into a guitar riff. His most eccentric moment came when the band's bass head blew out, and Kirkwood filled time by improvising his way through the traditional "Waltzing Matilda," complete with mock-serious operatic vocal touches.

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