Austin, We Have a Problem!

What happens when you cram too much music into one city and two pairs of eardrums? Nothing, if you move too fast to hear it all.

One doesn't approach the annual South by Southwest music festival like an average bout of nightclubbing. Music writers train weeks for this cacophonous conference, rigorously avoiding all kinds of music so that their hearing will be in fine fettle for a beat surrender to the senses. Otherwise they could overload and end up like poor Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, only instead of Ludwig von Beethoven inducing nausea it would be bands with names like New Wet Kojak, Phat K.A.T.S. and DJ Muppetfucker.

With minus three weeks to go, they wean themselves off Ween, play nothing but books on tape in the car and review reissues they're already Biblically familiar with. And most sonically sparing of all, they attend shows wearing what look like ordinary muffling earplugs, but are in fact industrial-strength eardrum blockers which no known sound can penetrate. Really. Next time you see your local rock critic at a show putting something with the consistency of a Nerf ball in his ears, just go up to him and say, "face your hearing loss head on, man." Chances are he'll turn, give you a thumbs up and say, "yeah, aren't they great?"

Actually, you see a lot of that at SXSW -- people psyching themselves up to think that every day is a Monterey Pop Festival and every kid up on the stage is the next Jimi Hendrix. Even if they wind up being the next Jimmy Pursey, nothing beats the thrill of discovering future rock nobility. Trouble is, with all the dancing boy brigades, Latino heartthrobs, divas cranking out Diane Warren songs, Country-politan lipstick chicks and Korn wanna-bes crowding the charts at the moment, the promise of another Great Rock Hope seems increasingly dim. Unless you're like the thousands of journalists who crowded into clubs along Congress Avenue and Sixth Street, unless you actually do exhaustive investigative work on MP3 sites and Internet radio, you're not likely to ever hear most of the 1,000-plus alt rock, trad rock, quirk rap or alt-trad-country artists who played in Austin this year. SXSW is about uncovering the new and unheralded, even if it's really just the same old thing played by 22-year-olds. Or 44-year-olds. Or septuagenarians.

Patti Smith: The free concert turns ugly when the crowd of angry Texans realizes it's not the chick from Scandal.
John Anderson
Patti Smith: The free concert turns ugly when the crowd of angry Texans realizes it's not the chick from Scandal.
Thankfully, Steve Earle's Thursday-night performance was much more entertaining than his SXSW keynote filibuster.
John Anderson
Thankfully, Steve Earle's Thursday-night performance was much more entertaining than his SXSW keynote filibuster.

After returning from five days of wall-to-wall music, people ask all sorts of questions like, "who won?" as if SXSW was some Eurovision Song Contest. Or you get other misguided queries like, "what's the Next Big Thing?" as if music worked in the same predictable manner as the fashion design industry does, previewing all the future styles on a Texas runway in March. We suspect you, too, may have some similar questions, so let's turn up the houselights and see what they are:

Q: So what was the biggest logistical problem in Austin?

A: Scheduling. The band you planned on seeing might run late, which can throw off your entire schedule; usually all the good stuff is at 11 p.m. Despite the organizers conveniently listing every act and club and giving brief descriptions in a handy paperback guide, the book's noxious, hot-off-the-presses fumes caused us to hallucinate and want to close the volume as quickly as possible. In such haste, we wound up missing many of the bands that everybody was talking about the next day. Bad weather and sore feet might also convince you to stay put or take a chance on seeing what's nearby. And like this year, if it's too cold, you might not want to tough it out outside. Self-preservation led us to leave perfectly good sets by Steve Earle, Apples in Stereo and the Weaklings in search of shelter, warmth and the company of less-than-stellar Austin acts like Th' Fuckemos and DJ Herb -- whose bitches were complaining to all who cared that Madonna wasn't there to sign them. Also when you see too many bands in a row, they all tend to suffer in comparison, and like puppies at the pound, you take a shine to the quieter ones.

Q: How many times did you hear the term "Y'all" in Austin?

A: Fifteen times. Mostly by waitresses, twice by a flight attendant, once by a TV weatherman, once on modified bathroom graffiti and once by Patti Smith who proceeded to explain the Eastern variation of "you all" to an adoring throng at Waterloo Park. Sadly, this exchange was more lively than most of Patti's St. Patty's Day set. While she came on feisty with a couple of new songs, the balance of them were slow-pacers and by the time she reached what should've been a mid-set high point, "Dancing Barefoot," the first lady of armpit hair was sounding decidedly barefoot, pregnant and in need of some caffeine.

Q: How was Steve Earle's SXSW keynote speech?

A: Sadly, Thursday's conference address from the country maverick was an unmitigated bust. As a lecturer, Earle proved himself to be a great songwriter. Though he earns points for using the term "motherfucker" within the first five minutes of his speech, Earle quickly went Vanessa Redgrave on the crowd and used the rest of his time to harp about the death penalty, land mines and several other cause célèbre. Actually the Redgrave analogy is appropriate as Earle mysteriously went on to read a lengthy laundry list of names and people he wished to "thank." After about five minutes, the bulk of the crowd started to grow weary, though the woman sitting next to me who applauded at every turn seemed to like him -- I mean really like him.

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