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Austin, We Have a Problem!

Patti Smith: The free concert turns ugly when the crowd of angry Texans realizes it's not the chick from Scandal.
John Anderson

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.

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.  

Q: Who was the oldest act to play SXSW 2000?

A: Ray Price. That's right. Ray "lay your head upon my pillow" Price, born in 1926 -- you do the math, lazy bones! He was old when Junior Samples was on his first double chin. Old when Willie Nelson was barely in pigtails. Old when String Bean was but a baby sprout. But since you've got about as much of a shot hearing Ray Price on country radio these days as hearing a new fireside chat from FDR, that must make him alternative enough for SXSW. We've always loved "For the Good Times" and were determined to see his free concert at Waterloo Park but figured it was canceled, on account of the tornado whipping through town. We were wrong. Price didn't pull a George Jones. No sir; Mr. "Make the World Go Away" serenaded all his drenched devotees admirably, though most of the frail ones are probably dying of pneumonia as we speak. Later in the evening, we overheard a middle-age cowboy and his powder-blue leisure-suited wife bickering between the raindrops until wifey indignantly chimed "if it weren't for all your moanin' I could've been on Ray Price's tour bus now whoopin' it up!" Guess we'll have to wait for Nashville Babylon 2000 to hear how Ray's backstage rendezvous turned out. Shark meat, anyone?

Speaking of shark meat . . .

Q: What dinosaur act brought out the sleeping fan in everybody?

A: John Paul Jones. A splendid role model for all up-and-coming rock stars who want to believe the myth that Jones was the only guy in Led Zeppelin not in on that pact with the devil. He's always made the coolest moves, whether it was producing the Butthole Surfers and REM or playing with Diamanda Galas. This year he released his first solo record, and while it's doubtful anyone in the fist-pumping crowd had heard a note of it, being in the presence of one-fourth of Zeppelin was enough to pack the La Zona Rosa like it was Madison Square Garden. With the fire marshals on the warpath that night, the club was only letting badge-wearers enter in groups of 10. Once inside, the sardine-can packed house was not only shocked to hear Jones' three-piece band pull off faultless instrumental renditions of "Nobody's Fault But Mine," "Black Dog" and "When the Levee Breaks," but also witnessed Jones doing all of Page's guitar parts perfectly on pedal steel!

Even after the set was through, there were still long lines of fans outside just hoping to get autographs. Ironically enough, not 15 minutes later did we barrel down Sixth Street's cover-band row and hear some guys making a hash out of "Black Dog." It was one of those rare moments where you could actually say, "I just heard a living, breathing member of Led Zeppelin kick the shit out of that song, and you, my friends, are no Led Zeppelin."

Q: Who was the real star of this conference?

A: The cell phone. And if it wasn't the actual flip-top apparatus, it was the mysterious recluse on the other end whom one out of every three people at SXSW apparently kept calling to describe the band they were "watching" with backs to the stage and a finger in one ear. One can only hope it's a wealthy patron of the arts named Charlie (who sounds suspiciously like John Forsyth) on a yacht with two gorgeous babes drinking a Mai Tai and saying, "You're at the Hole in the Wall enjoying The Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash? And next you're going to Emo's Jr. to see Men of Porn? Why, that's wonderful. Sign them both up if they're as good as The Psychedelic Kinky Fellows you told me about half an hour ago!"

The most distressing part of having one out of every three SXSW people manning a portable buddy is you always think someone behind you is trying to get your attention by screaming, "Hello? Hello?" into a $20 phone. Mark my words, you'll be flattened by a falling safe the one time you don't turn around.  

Most-uttered catch phrase of SXSW 2000: "I've got my phone if you need me."

Q: What was the longest stretch of unattended feedback?

A: The Lucky Bishops' entire set. It was this fine band's holy misfortune to come all the way from Dorset, England, and not only draw the dreaded "nine o'clock set" straw but also be felled by the most unbearable feedback heard all week. The top searing screech was coming off the ride cymbals and through the monitors, undoing a whole week's worth of sound fasting by taking the top end off our hearing in just two short numbers. Even Sonic Youth would've bolted out of the Atomic Cafe under such duress. Even The Lucky Bishops' lead singer wondered aloud at one point, "Is someone actually doing sound out there?" Not surprisingly, no one was. Some kindhearted audience members decided to tender the Bishops some divine intervention, pulling faders up and down on the vacated mixing board until qualified sound paramedics could arrive. But it wouldn't be long before the pounding rain outside seemed a more soothing option. Here was a great band, from what we could gather, and if they indeed are "the future face of rock and roll" as their publicists claim, then they'd be better off bringing their own makeup man henceforth.

Q: Who staged the most efficient, effective presentation?

A: Sony Music Japan Presents: Japan Not For Sale All Stars, natch! Most bills juxtaposed Swedish pop groups and mid-Atlantic thrashers, roots rockers and rootless shitkickers, but at the Park Avenue club you got all Japanese music, all night long. By 10 p.m., the club was as packed as a Tokyo subway for Tomovsky, a nappy-haired, one-named front man who could join the ranks of Cher and Madonna if he didn't constantly bow and mix his "thank yous" with his "fuck yous" at the end of every song. Sure, he knew what he was doing, charming the Yanks with his mock-broken English and self-deprecating confessions like, "The reason I don't sing very well is that I'm not sleepy?"

During a lengthy technical snafu, which a less secure Japanese man would've lost face over, Tomovsky had the melting-pot crowd chuckling with an impromptu rendition of "We Are the World." What diplomacy! Among his originals was a song about heaven ("Heaven is all filled up with dead people and animals.") and a prepositionally confused song about phone sex that made it sound like he needed to do it with the nearest available phone. It was during this number that we finally got to see aging hipster and St. Louis legend Beatle Bob (consider him the Midwest version of Elvis Del Monte) go into his infamous choreography. Up until then, we'd had the misfortune of catching his Bobness at staid folkie shows where he didn't so much as jig. Watching Tomovsky brought the terpsichorean out of him, and we're happy to report that Beatle Bob's bop is a cross between the frug and gesticulations of a shy traffic cop.

Q: Did anyone else dance besides Beatle Bob?

A: No. This event comprised mostly sheepish industry people, journalists and what Steve Earle lovingly referred to as "co-dependent A&R men." All you saw was a lot of that head-nodding-up-and-down action. What, no pencil tapping?

Q: Which band was the most courteous?

A: American Steel. The only fellas to actually acknowledge the existence of another band in their showcase, even thanking them for loaning out a guitar cable. Then with shredded voices in unison, the Berkeley quartet with the Motor City sound lurched into a drunkard's delight of a set that offered sincere punk prayers like "I wish I was back in the drunk tank again." If you don't think there can be enough songs about "whiskey, women and Bacardi," these buds are for you.

Q: Who was the most surprised surprise guest?

A: Roger McGuinn. The lonesome Byrd was corralled to do an impromptu appearance during a party at Stubbs BBQ late Friday afternoon where he ended up playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" to about 20 people, most of them part of a cable-TV camera crew. Too bad the earlier crowd attending the Delta 72/Modest Mouse bill ran out shortly after the spinach quesadillas did. You could almost trace the exodus to the whispered "Hey, free barbecue grub at Emo's, pass it on."

Q: Who was the most well-received surprise guest?

A: Ryan Adams. One letter shy of being a million-selling rockin' Canuck, the lead singer of Whiskeytown was billed as "surprise guest" before Steve Earle's outdoor gig on a freezing, rainy Thursday night. Accompanied by Nashville songstress Kim Richey, Adams delivered a dozen riveting songs that kept people's minds off frostbite and on heartache -- his heartache. "I've got all new songs about hate and shit," he laughed. "Just give me a day." Despite apologizing throughout the set for a very bad joke about BMI and ASCAP not worth repeating, Adams had the crowd in his cold, aching fingers, which he kept having to blow on between songs. Best moment of all was a song about betrayal that ended abruptly with the line "here comes the pizza guy."  

Q: If you had to name a foreseeable indie trend, what would it be?

A: The move toward "heavy music." Where once indie rock's most influential '60s band was the Velvets, it's now either the Stooges, MC5 or Humble Pie. The most exciting, energetic sets were by bands like The Go, The Delta 72 and especially the Gaza Strippers, who best embody the idea of "if we're going to be stuck being a club band playing for peanuts instead of elephant dollars, we're going to do it as big and arrogant as arena bands like KISS -- without the hydraulic lifts." If only those fire-breathing moneygrubbers had come up with songs as hooky as The Gaza Strippers' "Catfight" and "Wet Hotel," KISS' records would still be looking at double platinum. But hooky songs will do the Strippers no good. These guttersnipes know they'll only see gold on a Molson label and that bitterness drove them to new heights of unwarranted importance like overturning beers on audience members at the end of their set and screaming "good night, you motherfuckers." Informed by the sound man that they had one song left, they managed to stretch it to two through sheer snottiness and intimidation, leaving their instruments feeding back for a whole minute more before anyone dared to shut them off.

Q: Which band came closest to being something new under the sun?

A: Beulah. This San Francisco treat delivered on the promise of last year's masterful When Your Heartstrings Break album by playing the required multiple instruments like horns and bongos, nailing down the sunny Beach Boys harmonies outside the confines of a recording studio and being one of the few bands that wasn't afraid to look like it was having fun making music.

Q: What was the worst band you heard at this year's SXSW?

A: Easy: San Diego's Convoy.

Ironically enough, we encountered this group at the same listen.com party that brought us face to face with the best band of the festival, Beulah. Convoy's set was so bad that it would've had C.W. McCall spinning in the cab of his semi. But the band deserves some dubious recognition as it managed to do something no amount of fawning No Depression reviews or lousy Bloodshot Records releases could do -- make us start to hate the whole idea of alt-country.

The five-piece was led by a pair of Jay Farrar wanna-bes and a drummer who bore an eerie resemblance to the Beverly Hillbillies' Jane Hathaway. Their merciless hour-plus set was so bad that it managed to evoke the ire of a couple of hostile music-biz types in the audience, resulting in the most vicious SXSW exchange we overheard:

Jaded Music Type #1: Someone should tell these guys that Son Volt's on the phone and they want their schtick back.

Jaded Music Type #2: Yeah, well, someone should tell them that Mr. Drysdale called and he wants his secretary back.

Ouch, you catty, catty bitches.

The remainder of the songs that weren't merely ersatz Son Volt sounded as if they'd been written with the express intent of being used in a truck commercial. Amazingly enough, this actually left some in the crowd wowing at the band's "Have You Driven a Ford Lately?" sound, offering shit-eatin' grins and uttering things like, "Boy, these guys are great." Proving once again that the concepts of reason, logic and taste go out the window anytime you have a mass concentration of record-company employees in one place.

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

A: Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke.

Here a Fricke, there a Fricke, everywhere a Fricke Fricke. The noted journalist and Ramones look-alike seemed to be shadowing us throughout the festival. Fricke dancing wildly at the Sub Pop showcase. Fricke grooving to the Velvet-like sounds of Knife in the Water. Fricke holding court at Alejandro Escovedo's Taco X-Press set. Fricke busking on the corner of Sixth and Lavaca. Fricke, Fricke and more Fricke. Short of making a surprise appearance in our hotel rooms, it seemed that the Frickester was literally everywhere.

Judging by the type of bands theeditorialhoncho seemed most interested in, one would get the impression that Rolling Stone is still a valid publication covering important music instead of an embarrassing Tiger Beat clone.  

When Fricke sidled up next to us at a table at the Austin Record convention, we couldn't resist asking him what he thought of the previous night's Sub Pop set by Detroit rawk revivalists The Go. "Oh, they were great, I really enjoyed it."

"Well, how about putting them on the cover of Rolling Stone sometime?"

"Uh, um, I'll start working on it as soon as I get back home."

Yeah, right.

We'll all be sure to look for that Frickin' Rolling Stone cover featuring The Go any day now. Hopefully it will be sandwiched right in between the next 'N Sync and Backstreet Boys stories.

Q: What was the most ineffectual promotion item in the convention goodies bag?

A: Those damn www.com condoms. At least three dot-com companies printed their urls on clear packets of rubbers. If you think about how nervous, anxious and generally preoccupied most red-blooded males (and that includes ponytailed power-walking A&R types) are when ripping open those things before sex, you'd realize what a bad marketing strategy this is. How many people do you think do the nasty as quick as possible just so they can log on to www.takeoutmusic.com? On the plus side, the 007-ish Spin magazine cigarette lighter also doubles as a bottle opener and can be converted into a mini water pipe. Who knew Q worked for Bob Guccione Jr.?

Q: Who was the most selfless self-promoter?

A: Some guy busking just south of Lavaca Street. Unlike most of the other street performers strategically located along the club route, this six-string strummer with a purple velvet hat wasn't looking for a record deal, didn't have a CD to sell, didn't even have a handwritten sign so you'd remember his name. All he had was this here song:

Please back your ass right over here
Forty cents and I can buy beer
One more dollar so I buy weed
Money for drugs is all I need.


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