Texas State of Mind

The South by Southwest music conference might've been a disappointment this year, but there are still plenty of questions left to be answered

Alas, we must begin this year's South by Southwest music festival recap on a down note. For, you see, SXSW 2001 was something of a disappointment -- or least as much of a "disappointment" as you care to call a week's worth of company-sponsored boozing.

It's hard to find a specific reason for the subpar session, but the sheer number of shows worth seeing seemed paltry in comparison to previous years, the private parties weaker (thanks no doubt to the crash and burn of dot-coms, which were responsible for hosting the bulk of 2000's topnotch soirees). Sadly, even the Shiner Boch tasted a little watered down.

Still, five full days' worth of rock 'n' roll are bound to yield something worthwhile. Invariably, upon returning to town we're besieged by the curious among you who want to know the highlights, lowlights, juicy details and unsubstantiated gossip we overheard. So, as is our custom each year, we're going to wrap up our annual Texas sojourn with a little Q&A session.

Fine China's Rob Withem performs during the Tooth & Nail showcase.
photos by John Anderson
Fine China's Rob Withem performs during the Tooth & Nail showcase.
The Supersuckers rock Stubb's on St. Patty's Day.
The Supersuckers rock Stubb's on St. Patty's Day.
I just Watt to be your dog: Mike Watt and Ron Asheton act like the Stooges during a Tower Records in-store.
I just Watt to be your dog: Mike Watt and Ron Asheton act like the Stooges during a Tower Records in-store.
Give it to the Soft Boys: Robyn Hitchcock leads a reunion of his old group.
Give it to the Soft Boys: Robyn Hitchcock leads a reunion of his old group.

Q: How did Valley/Arizona acts fair?

A: It seems the SXSW selection committee is intent on giving Arizona bands the shaft year after year. Of the 100-plus acts that entered from the state in 2001, only seven made it. And of those seven, the majority were there as part of a showcase, sponsorship or some other exemption. Meaning that the powers that be actually chose a total of only 1 or 2 bands from the state's talent pool -- Christ, even Arkansas was better represented.

Among the familiar local names who did make it was DJ Z-Trip, who's quickly become a fixture at the event. This year, the DJ was granted an especially high-profile slot as part of a showcase presented by GetMusic and the new documentary film Scratch. Z-Trip found himself sandwiched between Jurassic 5 DJ NuMark and sometime Beastie Boy collaborator Mix Master Mike on a Wednesday La Zona Rosa bill. Meanwhile, fellow SXSW perennials the Phunk Junkeez made their annual pilgrimage to the Atomic Café, having recently released Sex, Drugs & Rap 'n' Roll.

Representing the Valley's new rock blood was North Phoenix Christian combo Fine China, performing as part of the Tooth & Nail Records showcase at the Scholz Beer Garden. Though the crowd for the group's early Friday night set was a bit thin, the band was in righteous form, ripping though a tight set of synth-'n'-Smiths-style numbers and closing with a rousing rendition of their tongue-in-cheek anthem "We Rock Harder Than You Ever Knew."

As for the old school, Tempe's Pistoleros returned to the festival for the first time since 1993 (then playing as the Chimeras) and fared well, turning what could've been a difficult early Wednesday slot into a success as a crowd of longtime fans, industry types and wives/girlfriends danced in the pleasant outdoor confines of Opal Divine's Free House.

Also appearing were the Gas Giants, whose Friday night performance as part of the ASCAP showcase was plagued by sound problems throughout, something that did not seem to diminish the enjoyment of the crowd at the appropriately named club The Drink; the audience for the show might've been the most soused of any we saw all week.

Former Arizona natives the Supersuckers were their usual cartoon-size rock selves during a Stubb's set on St. Patty's day, a performance that saw the band pay tribute to another Irish saint, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, with a version of "Jailbreak."

In general, Old Pueblo dwellers were scarce as Tucson's Giant Sand/Calexico contingent took the year off, although buddies Amor Belholm Duo did make the trip, as did postmodern bluesman/performance artist Bob Log III.

Q: What city/metropolis fared the best at this year's SXSW?

A: Big D, baby. Bands from the Dallas/Denton/Fort Worth triangle were the real winners during the event, especially during the first night of the festival where it seemed wherever you went there was nothing but bands from the area. Aside from stellar performances by Vibrolux, Pleasant Grove and Baboon (all performing as part of a Last Beat records bill), the real highlight of Wednesday's conference opener was a showcase from Dallas' Idol Records imprint featuring Chomsky, Deathray Davies and Clumsy.

Somewhat improbably, Chomsky's early set drew the longest lines we encountered the whole week (we were forced to peer in through the windows) as the group previewed songs from its forthcoming release, Onward Quirky Soldiers. Next up were the Deathray Davies, who combined a retro organ-fueled noise with a bit of indie-rock goodness (and a full-time maraca player, always a plus) for the evening's most energetic turn.

Meanwhile, Clumsy, led by tassel-haired front man Marc Solomon, onetime guitarist for Tommy Stinson's combo Perfect, was the band that really won our hearts. Solomon and company ran through an admittedly ragged but nonetheless enjoyable set of songs off their debut, Center of Attention Deficit Disorder -- with the band's muse drawing equally from obvious influences like the Replacements and its various offshoots to early (stress that, early) Soul Asylum and Afghan Whigs.

Q: Who was the most ubiquitous figure at this year's SXSW?

A: It was going to be a challenge for anyone to try to unseat last year's most ubiquitous figure, Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke. In 2001, the Frickster put up another valiant effort as he again seemed to pop up at every turn (that was not him, however, manning an after-hours hot dog cart at the corner of Sixth and Trinity). But Fricke, still looking very much like the lost Ramone, was no match for genuine rock 'n' roll hero Nikki Sixx -- or as he obviously goes by these days, Fuckin' Nikki Sixx, Man.

Fuckin' Nikki Sixx, Man showed up anywhere and everywhere, and people were still sort of awed by him. Sort of, meaning they maybe kinda wanted to do a shot of Jack Daniels with him (or perhaps shoot up some Jack Daniels with him), rather than find out where or even if he might be playing. He was there scarfing down skewered chicken at a McCluskey Promotions bash, then standing on the outdoor VIP deck during the Cult's performance at Revolver magazine's non-SXSW-sanctioned par-tay at Stubb's. He was sharing a cab with a colleague, then being ushered in the private back entrance to Emo's. FNSM was everywhere, spreading his I-don't-really-shower-because-I-mean-look-at-my-hair-dude scent like pollen. (Hint: It smells like a healthy mix of talcum powder and sweat.)

Fuckin' Nikki Sixx, Man.

Q: Who delivered the festival's biggest music industry "fuck you"?

A: Ryan Adams. The Whiskeytown front man turned solo artist closed his Friday Austin Music Hall set with a song (presumably off his forthcoming solo album) which he introduced as his "love letter to Geffen Records" -- the parent company of his former band's now-defunct label, Outpost Records.

The remainder of Adams' set was equal parts piss 'n' vinegar, Stones swagger and a merger of Replacement-esque rock and redneck twang (a synthesis one wag dubbed "Country and Westerberg").

Adams' appearance came as part of a BMI/Lost Highway records showcase, the latter a new Americana imprint started as a joint venture between Mercury Nashville and Island Records. Ironically, both were swallowed up, along with Geffen, as part of 1998's Seagram's/Polygram merger) which counts Adams, Lucinda Williams and Robert Earl Keen among its roster of talent. Word is that Whiskeytown's much hyped (and much downloaded, via Napster) swan song Pneumonia will see the light of day in late April, followed by Adams' second solo offering, due late this summer.

Q: Who had the best name of the all the acts?

A: Easy. Just as he ruled the moniker kingdom last year, Austin turntablist DJ Muppetfucker (that's Muppetfucker for all you Jim Henson Enterprises attorneys) once again reigned supreme. While DJ Muppetfucker (God, we love seeing that in print) did ultimately triumph, he was given a run for his money by the likes of Mexican punk-funksters Genitallica, bluegrass hard rockers Hayseed Dixie, tribute band the Dung Beatles, the tongue-twisting Shappy Seasholtz and the ever-classy the Urinals.

Q: Who had the worst sound?

A: Proving that bad sound sometimes plagues good bands, we offer up Athens, Georgia's, Drive-By Tuckers as a case in point. The group -- often described as the mutated offspring of the Pogues, Lynyrd Skynyrd and AC/DC -- soldiered on admirably through its 45-minute Metro set despite the fact that most of the audience was visibly writhing in pain at the ridiculously over-the-top levels. A note to soundmen everywhere: A little kick drum in the mix goes a long way.

Q: What was the best cover?

A: Traditionally, SXSW is a forum used to test out new material, but this year, a somewhat loose atmosphere lent itself to a number of bands dipping into the catalogues of other artists for some crowd-pleasing covers. The Supersuckers' night-capping marathon medley of Thin Lizzy and the James Gang was an inspired choice, as were all of the Stooges songs dusted off by J. Mascis and friends. But the most pleasant surprise came courtesy of Capricorn Records combo the Glands, who ended their Club 710 bow with a gorgeously sloppy and laid-back rendition of the Clash's (actually, the Equals') "Police on My Back."

Q: What was the most anticipated non-performing event?

A: The listening party Capitol Records hosted for Radiohead's new album (Amnesiac, due June 5). The shindig took place at Plush, a club which until the last year or so was a punk dive that catered mainly to drag queens. Now, it's one of those brushed-steel joints where you don't necessarily have to sweep teeth and needles and godknowswhatelse off the floor at the end of the night. The kind of place where a roomful of people can stand, not talking to anyone, not really drinking anymore, not even moving much, just listening.

There was plenty to listen to: Amnesiac, the follow-up to the much reviled/revered Kid A, is the answer to the question, "What happened to ________?" [choose one: a) the guitars; b) their sense of humor; c) Thom Yorke's voice; d) all of the above]. In short, it's what Kid A could/should have been, experimental without being exclusionary, a Rock Band tinkering with that term instead of destroying it completely. The six songs Capitol played -- "Packt Like Sardines in a Can," "Pyramid Song," "You and Whose Army," "I Might Be Wrong," "Dollars and Cents" and "Life in a Glass House" -- came with melodies and guitars and words you could hear without searching through electronic debris. However, if you're still looking for another "Creep" out of Radiohead, why are you even listening to that band anymore? Really. No. Seriously.

Q: How was Ray Davies' keynote speech?

A: Quite good, actually. Unlike last year's rambling pseudopolitical rant delivered by maverick country rocker Steve Earle, Davies stayed on point, managing to entertain and illuminate, while displaying the sort of quiet candor and good humor that marked his best musical work.

Davies opened the conference by suggesting he should have delivered his keynote address at SXSW's end; he said he couldn't wait to hear what new thing lay out there waiting for him, and would deliver on his promise to stick around 'til the bitter end (he departed for London on Sunday morning, after sitting in with at least two bands -- Superdrag and the New Pornographers -- during the week). The Kinks' front man talked about how his first official solo album is still on hold, nothing more than a batch of demos awaiting the outcome of a label takeover. Perhaps to remind people who he was, he even played snatches of his old songs: "Tired of Waiting," Low Budget" and "Nothing in This World Can Stop Me Worryin' Bout That Girl," the latter of which showed up on the Rushmore soundtrack in 1998.

Davies talked about expectations ("nobody seems to know what I should do"), about wanting to be considered a new artist bereft of back catalogue and luggage full of hits and misses ("I'd like to make a record with the Kinks as though 'You Really Got Me' never happened"), and about how "music is under assault from all sides." He joked about reinventing himself as a rapper ("Rappin' MC Ray") or a teeny-pop artist or metal man ("WASP meets Suicidal Tendencies"), suggested he'd love to make an album without lyrics, and offered words of solace ("if we all wise up, we'll win out") and advice ("think of A&R people as meaningful input, just don't let them date your girlfriends"). But more than anything else, he seemed genuinely thrilled to be among so much music -- one aspiring artist walking among hundreds more, waiting to see what exciting new thing lay around the corner.

"I want more people to tap their feet than tap a computer," he said. "But where do I fit in? I never have, I guess, so why start now?"

Q: Who was the best "surprise" guest?

A: While Davies' unannounced bows were interesting, if brief turns, the festival's most pleasant "surprise" was actually a well-publicized appearance by former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton, who climbed onstage during J. Mascis' Thursday night slot at Emo's.

Mascis, who's being joined on his current tour by bassist/Minutemen/Firehose legend Mike Watt, was halfway though a set of songs from his new album More Light when a decidedly paunchy Asheton took the stage. Ignoring the fact that the Mascis/Watt/Asheton axis looked less like a well-oiled rock 'n' roll machine and more like three grizzled dudes waiting in line for a Sizzler buffet, the combo tore through a clutch of Stooges classics ("I Wanna Be Your Dog" "1970" "No Fun") with Watt ably handling vocal chores; the three-headed monster made a second appearance at a Tower Records in-store the following day.

As amazing as it was to see multiple generations of underground rock royalty sharing the same stage, one can only imagine how good it would've been had the festivals "hot" rumor -- that the Igster himself was going to sing -- turned out to be true.

Q: What was this year's "big" show?

A: Like last year, SXSW 2001 was without a true "must-see" event, something the conference has been lacking since Tom Waits' comeback performance at the Paramount Theater in 1999. But if there was one had-to-be-there show, it was Saturday night's Soft Boys reunion. The English psychedelic new wavers' return was ostensibly to promote Matador's expanded rerelease of the group's classic 1980 album Underwater Moonlight; a national tour is set to follow, though it will get no closer to Phoenix than L.A.

As a side note, we enjoyed a face-to-face meeting with Soft Boys leader Robyn Hitchcock in the lobby of Austin's Hyatt. As we passed through the hotel's revolving door, we encountered a chatty Hitchcock -- no doubt going on about the merits of elves, frogs, Chinese water pythons and the like. Locking eyes, he stopped mid-revolution and greeted us with a thumbs up and strange cooing noise, a gesture of friendship which we returned with a hearty "Waaaaaaassssssuuuuuup!!!!

Q: Who had the best line of the week?

A: That distinction belongs to Mario Escovedo, front man for San Diego trash-rockers the Dragons. Capping their all-too-brief set during the Cargo Records party at the Green Mesquite BBQ, the group ran through a song called "Needs" with its infectious "I just wanna, wanna, wanna wanna fuck!" chorus. During the song's breakdown, Escovedo took the microphone for an impassioned and impromptu rap, testifying MC5-style about the merits of sex and pork ribs: "I wanna see a show of hands! Who here likes to fuck and eat bar-b-cue?" "I said, I wanna know who likes to fuck and eat bar-b-cue?"

Additional reporting by Robert Wilonsky and Zac Crain.

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