The Driskill hotel in downtown Austin, Texas, was built in 1884, and, according to the American Registry of Haunted Places, it's infested with ghosts. I stayed at the Driskill for five nights last week during the 11th Annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, and while I didn't see any specters, I think poltergeists were toying with the elevators.
Check it out: Often enough to get spooky, whenever either of the Driskill's two elevators would pass the fourth floor, going up or down, it would suddenly shudder to a stop. The number four button would light up (though no one had pushed it), the bell would go "ding," the doors would slide open and, of course, there was no one standing there.
I didn't get really sketched until some British rock guy with pale skin and hair as dark as his shades, carrying a black, battered guitar case, told me about this infamous love-triangle suicide in room 406 or 408. He wasn't sure. "I always stay here when I'm in Austin," he said. "Fourth floor. Totally haunted. Really cool."
After a couple days of this, though, I got accustomed to the phenomenon--sometimes you ride the elevator and nothing unusual happens, sometimes you ride the elevator and it makes an unscheduled stop at the fourth floor, where 70 years ago some woman supposedly slashed her own throat and ran screaming (well, make that gurgling) down the hall after she caught her lover in bed with another. No problem.
Then, my second-to-last night in Austin, it happened. Two members of the Beat Angels were with me and can confirm this story. Going down, the elevator suddenly stopped at four, the light went on, the bell went off, the doors slid open and standing there . . . standing there . . . standing there were several record-label publicists and a tittering coven of coked-up groupies. The horror! Instinctually, I backed into a corner.
One of the publicists started chattering at me as we walked through the lobby, working his jaw like he was chewing cud. "Hey, are you guys in a band?"
One of the Beat Angles pointed at me. "We are. He's a critic."
"Oh, cool. Where are you going tonight? Who are you going to check out? Listen, you should come to High Times party tonight. The Omni. Three-thirty. Meet me there. I've got a pass. I'll get you in. No problem. Anything you want there, man. Anything. They're going to have a live sex show tonight." He said all this without pause. "Man, last night, listen, last night, they had this stripper, right? And I paid her to go to my friend's room, totally naked and knock on the door? When he answered, she was supposed to say, 'Your friend bought me for you. Fuck me.' And he was so drunk he didn't even answer the door! So I had her just go up and down the hall, knocking on doors, and no one answered.
"Can you believe it!? I still had to pay her!"
He glanced at the plastic SXSW badge hanging around my neck. Then he stopped and flicked his eyes to my face. Clenched his jaw, unclenched it. Looked back at the badge. Looked back at me. Clenched, unclenched.
"David Holthouse!?" He said. "Why don't you ever return my calls!" He grabbed his own badge, held it aloft and gave it a good rattle. "I'm Kip Winger's publicist!"
Kip Winger's publicist. Yeah, today, maybe, but five years from now that guy will probably be regional head of A&R for a major. Sorry for the cynicism--after all, SXSW is a yin-yang proposition. Five minutes after Mr. Kip and I parted ways--I got him to go away with a promise to immediately run a review of Winger's new album (see "The Trashman" on page 102)--I was up front at the Steamboat as the Dragons breathed punk fire through the Marshall stacks. Huge, scorching gusts of rock 'n' roll that made me howl with sick pleasure. The Dragons. From San Diego. They kicked ass. So did Servotron, a sci-fi/surf crew from Athens, Georgia, with two members of Man . . . or Astroman? and a blond-bobbed, Kirk-seducer, Star Trek tart on keyboards. Servotron's debut album No Room for Humans came out on Amphetamine Reptile last fall, but you gotta see the band live to really grok the aesthetic. Silver body paint and suits with lots of glowing wires and silicon-chip boards. Lightly distorted, heavy-reverb guitar licks with snappy drumming and B-movie robot "Take me to your leader" vocal effects. Allow me to coin a genre--cyborg surf.
Very cool. Beam me up, baby.
Better yet, beam me back to SXSW's swing night at the Continental Club. I could have used a transporter, 'cause even though I floored it there from Servotron, I missed the first half of the Naughty Ones, a nuevo-swing band from Austin that regularly plays the Continental. The Naughty Ones had the icy-cool, hepcat sound, but they also had a woman doing a sultry shadow dance behind a thin, silkscreen. Nice. Next up, though, were the Mighty Blue Kings, a seven-piece jump blues/swing band from Chicago that blew my mind as hard as its two tenor players blew their horns. We're talking more chops than a butcher on crystal. True to name, the Kings sported the requisite vintage suits and two-tone leather shoes, but it's not about the look. For pure musicianship, the MBKs smoke the two front-runners in its revivalist genre, Royal Crown Revue and Big Bad Voodoo Daddy. The latter headlined the Continental Club later that night, but I split for the Club DeVille to see Jerry Joseph, front man for the Salt Lake City group the Jackmormons, pull off a solo acoustic set forced by a death in his band's family. Normally, I can't stand singer/songwriters, but this cat writes and sings songs like he's been to hell and back and still has the taste of sulfur in his mouth. His songs are dark and deceptively beautiful.
Next stop, next night, was the bass-heavy ambient of London remix gurus Spring Heel Jack. Unfortunately, Bob's was a bit too Popular. No room on the floor, no room at the bar. No room period. Damn. My second shutout. Two nights before, I was checked at the door of the Steamboat when I arrived to see Tito & the Tarantulas five minutes into their set. I thought about getting pissed until I saw that just ahead of me in the "one in, one out" line was Quentin Tarantino. To his credit, Quentin wasn't being much of an asshole about the situation, considering he more or less broke the Tarantulas by casting them as the vampire bordello house band in From Dusk Till Dawn. Maybe he should have turned mean, 'cause neither of us got in before the band was done. "Aw, fuck," Quentin said. My sentiments precisely.
Anyway, I bailed on Bob Popular's and made for Club Universe, where the San Francisco live techno act NRSHA was scheduled to spark up a PC Music showcase at 1 a.m. I had a good year at SXSW '97. I only saw one bad act, and NRSHA was it. Basically, the show consisted of a woman running in place behind an Ensoniq keyboard, pushing buttons to cue up bland synth loops while a guy to her left played random, rock-boy guitar licks. When he picked up a trumpet and started bleating like a goat, I was out of there. Back to Bob's, where two members of the Reykjavik, Iceland, techno collective Gus Gus were spinning depth-charge jungle and drum 'n' bass through an excellent sound system with bass that made the human body hum like it was getting a constant, low-voltage electrical charge.
The inclusion of electronic music was a significant new facet to SXSW this year. Unfortunately, the conference fucked it all up. Bob Popular's was the official--and, except for the PC Music showcase at Club Universe, only--techno venue every night. It was also one of the smallest clubs on the map. Conference organizers vastly underestimated the draw of electronic acts like Spring Heel Jack, Quango DJ Jason Bentley, the Egg and Philadelphia DJ Josh Wink, whose Thursday-night set was, flat out, one of the most exquisitely structured electronic dance mixes I've ever heard.
Too bad there wasn't enough room for anyone to move.
By contrast, there were several veteran Texas-twang rock bands and, more credibly, unsung indie heroes booked into showcase venues much larger than Bob Pop's, who drew maybe a third the crowd.
Just as telling was the placement of Friday's panel discussion "The New Wave of Electronica: Business From the Underground" (notice how they got the word "business" in there).
In addition to Bentley and Wink, the panel included Moby--who revealed his next project will be producing the new Guns n' Roses album--and URB magazine publisher Raymond Roker. "The New Wave" was scheduled into one of the smallest meeting rooms in the Austin Convention Center, and, predictably, dozens were turned away at the door. Ironically, the cover art for this year's SXSW convention guide and schedule was a Technics 1200 turntable--the weapon of choice for underground DJs.
The vibe in the air re: techno at SXSW was a mix of panic and oblivion. The creative vanguard of pop music is beyond this famous con's boundaries now, but so it goes. Registration for the second annual, electronica-only Winter Music Conference, to be held in Miami, Florida, next week, is up 80 percent this year. Electronica is the new wave, but SXSW and the interests it has come to represent are the equivalent of long-board riders about to get passed up and out maneuvered by the young and quick.
Or the old and crafty.
Final anecdote: I'm chilling in the Driskill bar, about two in the morning on Saturday. Old guy comes up. Cowboy hat, snakeskin boots, turqoise-studded black shirt. I read his name tag. It's Joey Welz, the original pianist for the Comets, as in Bill Haley and the Comets. Helped write "Rock Around the Clock," the whole bit. So I start rapping with him about the old days and he passes me a demo of some material he's working on.
"What's this," I asked, "some new boogie-woogie stuff?"
No--his new techno CD.
David Holthouse is now wired.
The Web site is Mothership. The address is www.phoenixnewtimes.com/extra/holt/index.html.
The options are myriad (multigenre criticism, archives, rave data, freak links).
Get the Music Newsletter
Keep your thumb on the local music scene each week with music news, trends, artist interviews and concert listings. We'll also send you special ticket offers and music deals.