Growing Pains

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

The biggest shock of the weekend for me was the Saturday night showcase by SXSW virgin Jesus Chrysler Supercar. Fueled by an amazingly large and energized crowd at Babe's, the band pumped out the most exciting set I've ever seen it play. Stalking the stage in black NASCAR jumpsuits, band members were a berserk celebration/satire of rock's greatest cliches. The alien surroundings only emboldened singer Mitch Steele, who at one point told the audience, "We're gonna play an AC/DC country song for you hillbillies."

The band's secret weapon was its friend and van driver, Dave Jensen, who was an amphetamine-charged dancing machine in his foam-rubber red cowboy hat and yellow jumpsuit. Jensen, who cites Jesus Chrysler and Jimmy Eat World as his two favorite bands, gets my vote for Most Valuable Player of SXSW.

National showcases: Aside from the fact that huge lines shut me out of Mercury Rev and Jets to Brazil, and forced me to wait for 40 minutes to get into Built To Spill, what was not to love? In any case, Built To Spill--which actually played three times at SXSW, making the most of its first Austin visit--was typically wonderful, and actually worth the wait. Artsy New York punks Stratotanker were often annoyingly pretentious, but weird enough to be consistently riveting. Think of David Johansen fronting King Crimson. Actually, better not to think about it at all.

An unqualified highlight was the annual Tejano throwdown in the courtyard of Mexican restaurant Las Manitas. At times, the tiny stage was overrun with as many as 11 musicians, while additional guitarists strummed offstage. In what was a loose approximation of the Los Super Seven collective, such heavyweights as dapper godfather Ruben Ramos, roots-rock war-horse Joe Ely, honky-tonk angel Rosie Flores and accordion virtuoso Joe Guzman shot from the hip, with joyous results. My favorite moment came when Freddy Fender allowed young-gun Rick Trevino to sing Fender's 1975 hit, "Before the Next Teardrop Falls."

Even more than the Tejano jam, however, the show that best captured what SXSW is supposed to be was Saturday's free-to-the-public festival at Waterloo Park, culminating in a rocking set by Guided by Voices. At one point, GBV leader, Bob Pollard, who habitually popped beer cans between songs, gave the crowd a bit of drunken advice. If this confab wasn't such a mad race for dollars, Pollard's manifesto would make a perfect SXSW motto: "Drink a lot of margaritas. See a lot of rock bands."

Local notes: The members of the Phunk Junkeez have formed two side projects on polar ends of the musical spectrum. The Milk Brothers is a poppy, highly-commercial hip-hop venture created by frontman Joe Valiente and his younger brother, Jessie. Their first batch of recordings includes a Hot Chocolate sample on "You Sexy Thang" and a sample of Howard Jones "Things Can Only Get Better" on "2000." At the other extreme, the hard-rocking Chet features bassist Jim Woodling, Jesus Chrysler singer Mitch Steele, Chris Baily and Tom Coffeen (both veterans of Beats the Hell Out of Me) on guitar and Eric Rogan on drums. Chet makes its debut on Friday, March 26 at Boston's. Phunk Junkeez (who plan to collaborate soon on a track with Run-DMC) are scheduled to play on Wednesday, March 31, at Club Rio.

--Gilbert Garcia

Contact Gilbert Garcia at his online address:

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