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CONVENTIONEER WAX

Ah, yes, Austin's South by Southwest Music and Media Conference has come and gone once again. Much music was heard, many hands were shaken, backs slapped and beers drunk. Or is that beers drunken? Dranken? Whatever. Yours truly was there, and for the last four days, I did my share of all of the above. Saw some good bands (more than 500 performed) and did the obligatory schmoozing of record-business types, which brings about better working relationships and helps to solidify the overall infrastructure of the industry. What that means is a lot of people with a lot of expense accounts wanted to buy me a lot of lunches and dinners. This is work, believe me.

But most of the thing was just plain fun; now, let's see how much I can remember.

Something about a plane ride . . . oh, yeah--I barely made the morning flight out last Wednesday. Got the last available seat, up against the cockpit, in fact, and rode backward all the way to Austin. That turned out all right, as the person across from me was Zia Records kingpin Brad Singer. I'm not too big on flying, but we yakked most of the way and that helped me keep my mind off the fact that I was hurtling through the sky at hundreds of miles an hour in a multiton tube of metal that God probably didn't want up there to begin with. I can't recall what we talked about, but I do remember assuring him that I wouldn't mention him in this column.

And then I was in Austin, standing in line at the car rental when one of the world's greatest guitarists walked by, ax in hand. Yes, it was Big Al Anderson (looking truly svelte after dropping 130 pounds), who recently quit NRBQ and joined Carlene Carter's band. I heard later that during Al's seminar, he said, "NRBQ is nothing without me. But then they were nothing with me."

I headed down to the Convention Center to register for the conference. This was pretty much the nerve center of the whole event, the site of the many panels, seminars and trade shows that ranged from interesting and helpful to silly. There were swarms of musicians and managers running around handing out cassettes, CDs and business cards, and, as my friend Mike observed, "lots of guys in Helmet and Tool tee shirts hitting on fake cowgirls." Aside from being clever, Mike had me seething with envy as he described his previous night's dinner date with Lee Harvey Oswald's daughter.

Things officially got rolling on Thursday, and that was when the sheer magnitude of the conference made itself known. More than 4,000 people showed up, quite a jump from the 700 that made it to the first SXSW eight years ago. While this made for a lively time, it also made it virtually impossible to get into many of the shows. In the old days, you could skip from club to club fairly easily, but this year, if you wanted to see a band with a buzz (the band, not you), you had to stake out space at the venue hours in advance and stay there.

That afternoon I headed up to Waterloo Records for an in-store performance by a great country-pop band from Seattle called the Picketts. Had some free Rolling Rock. Dug the plaintive, seductive vocals of singer Christy McWilson. Had some more free Rolling Rock. Look for the band's CD Paper Doll; if Patsy Cline replacing Jason in the Scorchers sounds appealing, you won't be disappointed.

And speaking of not being disappointed, that evening I couldn't speak of it at all. Jimmie Dale Gilmore hosted his annual bash, this year at the City Coliseum, a cavernous place with a wooden floor and concrete bleachers. Looked like someplace they built airplanes in during WWII. Jimmie Dale had quite a lineup with him--Rodney Crowell, Bob Mould, Michelle Shocked, Mudhoney, Ben Vaughn, Joe Ely and Dave Alvin were a few--not something you get to see every day. Unfortunately, I had to split before the finale, a mind-boggling set featuring Jimmie Dale sitting in with grunge lords Mudhoney. I got in a cab, and in a few short minutes, found out that my driver was one Woody Price. Who's Woody Price? I just told you he was a cab driver, but he told me he was a "damn fine country-music singer/songwriter/guitar picker." Here's something you find out real fast--players in Austin are like thespians in New York: You're an actor? What restaurant?

I got off on Sixth Street, the main drag for clubs and crowds, and arrived just in time to stand outside the door of a packed joint called Emo's and hear the one and only Johnny Cash sing "Ring of Fire." It may sound hokey, but that was pretty cool.

I walked into a bar down the street and ran into, well, wedged into two Phoenicians named Sherri and Monique. Sherri told me there was a parrot in the lobby of their hotel, and Monique was teaching it to say, "Who farted?" We had a swell time killing beers and listening to a band called Marti Brom, inspired rockabilly starring Ms. Brom, a Rubenesque lady with a big, wailing voice.

I moved back into the night as gracefully as possible, wended through the throngs to the Santa Fe club where Phoenix's own Earl C. Whitehead and the Grievous Angels were about to take the stage. Ran into Gin Blossom Robin Wilson outside eating what I thought was a Pop Tart but turned out to be a folded slice of pizza. We entered the club.

Though the place was about half full (or half empty), the Angels came out of the gate with a vengeance, steaming into the original "Guilty Hand" and winning the crowd over instantly. The relatively short set (at the SXSW showcases, time is at a premium) was tight and memorable, augmented by a guest lap steel/mandolin player. The band came to Austin and did the job right, that's all I have to say. I went back to the hotel and slept.

The next two days were mainly nights of music, but I hit a few panel discussions that were worthwhile. The Demo Listening: Rock was good theatre and seemingly helpful to the musicians who submitted tapes to be critiqued. Despite the plethora of straightahead, sincere rock music, the song that drew the most attention from audience and panelists alike was a parody of "This Old Man" that involved pedophilic lyrics. Go figure.

Some standout shows: Boston's Morphine played to what may have been the biggest showcase crowd--more than 2,000--and filled the sweltering hall with its dark, Tom Waits-like sound. A few blocks away at the Continental Club, I caught a brilliant band that is hard to describe: Evan Johns and the Gay Sportscasters. Two go-go dancers flanked the tiny stage. Stone foxes. There were eight other people playing various instruments, wearing (or not wearing) skirts, platform shoes, ruffle tux shirts, etc. It was utter chaos and mayhem, but out of it emerged some amazingly linear rock n' roll, kind of a white folks' version of Parliament/Funkadelic.

Evan--master guitarist, storyteller, bigger-than-life guy in general--was in rare form; this was his first gig since being released from rehab. "Shit," he said, "when they strapped me down, I was hallucinating I was in Hawaii surfing with Abe Lincoln." Seattle's boy-girl duo the Spinanes was much-talked-about after a stunning Saturday-night set, as was ex-Replacement Slim Dunlap, and more than a couple people turned out for Doo Rag's show; the filthy blues boys came all the way from Tucson and left that night.

By the time Sunday morning was coming down, Sixth Street was empty, every Do Not Disturb sign hanging on every hotel-room doorknob in town. But I had a plane to catch. Packed my stinking black tee shirts in my bag and packed my remaining aspirin in my stomach and bid adios to Austin. Until next year, anyway. I have a tough job.


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