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.

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: ggarcia@newtimes.com

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