South by Southwest Was Embarrassing for Arizona -- But Who Cares?

It's a sunny Saturday afternoon, and a quintessentially South by Southwest scene is unfolding at a concert outside Austin's Waterloo Records. Eager day drinkers clamor to get into a fenced-off parking lot in this recently re-developed section of the city's main drag, where the old "Keep Austin Weird" mantra has been compromised a bit to allow for the presence of Whole Foods and Anthropologie.

This crowd isn't music industry types looking to see Odd Future, the Los Angeles rap collective that made the biggest splash at the festival, or any of the other 2,000-something up-and-coming bands invited to showcase. Instead, this is a crowd of mostly credential-less local yokels seeing veteran alt-rock outfit Meat Puppets. It's exactly what you'd expect to see at so-called "day parties" like this — a bunch of random people out to score some free beer and see a show, enjoying the scraps of the Southby bounty.

The band opens with a song called "Up on the Sun," a bizarre mixture of psychedelic, country, and punk. Not coincidentally, New Times took the name of our music blog from this song and the group's album of the same name. It's a record that's obscure but influential — critically beloved neo-psychedelicists Animal Collective actually asked the Puppets to perform the album in its entirety at a festival in May.

Chances are that few people here would understand why this song or band would be important to anyone in Phoenix. As the emcee makes clear after the set, this band is part of "the Waterloo Records family," fully integrated into and adopted by the Austin music scene. Never mind that this band was spawned in Phoenix and did their most important work there before singer/guitarist Curt Kirkwood split town in 1995 — the Puppets are an Austin band now, so labeled by the fest's official materials.

As Arizona's SxSW snubs go, this one is slight and totally unintentional. There was much worse during the weeklong festival. For starters, the entire state of Arizona had only four bands playing official showcases. For perspective, consider that my colleagues at our company's papers in Dallas and Minneapolis told me 20 or so acts came from each of their respective cities. Sure, SxSW is just a big industry circle-jerk that no one should care about and just because a band plays the festival doesn't mean they're important and blah, blah, blah. Imperfect though it may be, however, our state's Southby roster is probably the best available barometer of how our music scene is doing in any particular year.

Sadly, the most attention anything Arizona-related received during this year's festival came from a contentious panel hosted by The Sound Strike, a group that's urging musicians to boycott our state because of SB 1070, the dumb immigration law blocked by courts before it could take effect. Southby's organizers allowed The Sound Strike to pick all the panelists and fully control the dialogue, so a crowd mostly made up of people from Arizona's music industry had to politely listen to long lectures about the history of racism in America before a very short question-and-answer period. The first speaker to address the panel was an editor at Tucson Weekly who nearly broke down into tears as she begged the group "not to abandon us." Other Arizonans who stood up to speak followed the same line — pleading for help instead of a boycott. The group's response? This tweet: "haters got schooled @Sxsw."

There was even a sad but revealing moment at the Saturday showcase by standout local band Kinch. After singer Andrew Junker introduced his band as hailing from Phoenix, Arizona, someone in the crowd hooted out joyfully.

"Wow. Arizona pride — you don't get much of that!" he said.

"Arizona sucks!" yelled out a heckling bearded hipster with thick glasses. The guy then explained that he was a Phoenix native who'd moved to Austin. Double ouch.

Our state took enough lumps that I was feeling pretty shitty about everything related to Arizona music when I caught up with Puppets singer Curt Kirkwood on Sunday afternoon.

My point to him: Phoenix and Austin aren't really so different.

Don't laugh: They're both large capital cities of conservative Western states. The Phoenix metro area has more than twice the population of Austin, and they're home to two of the three largest universities in the nation. Yet Austin is the "live-music capital of the world," while the few Phoenix bands deemed worthy of this event are getting heckled by people originally from Phoenix.

Why doesn't Tempe have even a tenth as much live music as you'll find in Austin, where the tract of legitimate venues stretches for miles and miles before petering out into an area where bands play in the parking lots of auto body shops in broad daylight? How can Austin be so damned fun and funky all the time? Is there any way Phoenix could glom on to some of that mojo?

Turns out Kirkwood was the perfect man to talk me off the ledge. His band has knocked around both "scenes" and has managed to make ends meet while maintaining credibility and an impressive level of "indie" fame for nearly 30 years. That background gives him an interesting perspective. And from his perspective, Arizona is awesome. Or at least as awesome as anywhere else.

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