Wildlife biologists call it "fish fever"--a temporary madness that afflicts freshly weaned brown bears in the first summer they must fend for themselves. Summers in brown-bear country are as short as the winters are long, and eating before the snow falls is doubly a matter of life or death. Bears not only have to kill or scavenge enough food to live day to day, they have to lay on heavy fat for hibernation as well, lest they die in their dens as the icy knife of winter slowly slices away at their insulation.
Salmon are the key to survival. The massive salmon runs of the far north provide a cornucopia for the four-legged furries. There's just one catch--you have to get the fish out of the water before you can eat them. It's simple--brown bears that can't fish die. Fortunately for brown bears, when a stream is choked with thousands of salmon, dinner is easily self-served.
Unless you get the fever.
Some young bears, panicked by the instinctual need to feast, freak out at the sight of so much food, so easily accessible. Salmon flash past them by the hundreds, and the bears can only stand still and whip their heads back and forth in amazed confusion, or charge blindly up and down the river, pouncing at random, so manic they can't zero in on a specific target. Fish, fish, everywhere, and not a one to eat.
My first night at the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference, I felt a lot like one of those bears as I stood at the intersection of Sixth and Congress in downtown Austin, Texas, and whipped my head around, amazed and confused at all the music and madness around me. This was my first SXSW, you see, and the reigning king of rock cons wasn't gentle with me.
Maybe it was all the Shiner Bock. Cheap, good and locally produced, the dark, sweet brew flowed through SXSW in chocolate-colored rivers. By the fourth night of the conference, you could smell it in people's sweat.
Or maybe it was the city of Austin's evident willingness--in the form of barricades and good-vibe law enforcement--to turn over its downtown streets to besotted hordes of rock musicians, journalists, label lizards, promoters and fans (not exactly a Christian Coalition kind of crowd).
Hell, it was probably both. That and the live, loud rock coming from dozens of clubs up and down Sixth Street and a few dozen more scattered across the downtown and nearby university districts. But for whatever reason, the streets were a lunatic's alloy of Mardi Gras, Disney World, Lollapalooza and a monster truck rally.
You want catfights and drunk jarheads shoving one another into the gutter? You got it! You want BMX bike-trick street performers, face-painted fortunetellers on acid, bat-outta-hell cab drivers, while-you-wait curbside hair dying and a Hells Angel on a unicycle? You got it! And five mouth-watering indie-rock acts all going onstage at the same time at five clubs in the same three-block radius? Hey, man, it's all there.
Rock-critic common wisdom has it that South by Southwest, which celebrated its tenth anniversary this year, has become a commercialized shadow of its former hipster self--more cigar-chomping major-label exec than jeans-and-stubble indie rocker. But who's to say the two can't peacefully, if not amiably, coexist?
In welcoming remarks before introducing conference keynote speaker Kris Novoselic, SXSW senior director Louis Black served up a sound-bite defense of the conference's evolution and goals: "This conference isn't just about making money off music; this conference is about making money off music that matters to the people who play it."
Fair enough--Smashing Pumpkins, good; Hootie, bad. And, in defense of SXSW's showcase-selection integrity, most of the bands I saw in Austin played from the gut, even the few that sucked big nasty things. But maybe I just chose well or got lucky.
The second thing you have to learn to make it through SXSW alive (the first is that just because the booze is free doesn't mean you have to drink all of it) is that you simply can't see everything. Eventually, most of the brown bears realize they can't have all the fish at once and settle for one at a time. And eventually, after a sketchy few hours spent racing up and down Sixth Street in a stupid attempt to catch at least one song by every band playing any given 60-minute time slot (of course it didn't work), I relaxed into a more manageable pace of one band an hour (or five bands a night)--if my first pick didn't grab me in four songs, I moved on.
In rough chronological order, here's my answer to the perennial queries: "Who'd you see?" and "What'd you think?" (highlights only).
Super Junky Monkey. Virtuosic hard-core grrrl band from Tokyo. Awesome power, stage presence and musicianship. SJM takes the best aggression and energy of indie punk, cleans up the sloppy playing that typically comes with it and adds a bit of Pizzicato Five-ish pop-savvy quirkiness for a sound that hooked me on its junk in three songs. Postshow-interview attempts were pure comedy without a translator, but I think the band has an import album coming out next month.
The Valley boys in Trunk Federation rose to the occasion in a Thursday-night slot at Electric Lounge, issuing a tight set of intricate mod rock that was rehearsal-buffed to a high sheen. Trunk Fed's SXSW set was the best I've seen these guys play, even if they looked uncharacteristically stiff onstage. Not that the Austin crowd knew the difference--by Trunk's second song, much of the crowd had migrated from the back bar to the stage area, and the after-set conversational buzz was all good. Survey says: might be time for these locals to start thinking about an alias. In other local news--the Phunk Junkeez were in their usual, fine form, canceling their showcase gig at the last minute and costing some other Valley act a spot.
Thursday night at Continental Club, rockabilly living legend Ronnie Dawson demonstrated that whether you can still blow the house down is entirely a state of mind. Holy smokes, did this guy tear shit up. Brutal, beautiful roadhouse rock that kept going well past the legal 2a.m. closing time. Dawson leaped on the monitors at several points and waved his hands in the air like a Baptist minister feeling the spirit. Can I get a witness!?
Not too many went surfing, surfing Austin way Friday at Scholz Garden. SXSW's surf-theme night drew but a moderate crowd for a back-to-back set by the Portland, Oregon, surf combo Satan's Pilgrims (nice devil costumes, generic surf) and San Francisco headliners the Mermen (who were so drunk they wasted a third of their stage time telling bad jokes and backbiting, but dealt a good fix of reverb and twang whenever they got it together enough to play a song).
Somehow, I stumbled my way to Flathead's early (well, 10:30 a.m. seemed pretty damn early at the time) management-company party on Saturday. Ummmmm ... I love the smell of fast-pickin', diesel-fueled-rig rock in the morning. No better way to start the day, especially when you wash it down with (what else?) a frosty glass of Shiner Bock.
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By night four, my brain was fairly pickled. Good thing Mother Nature invented adrenaline, or I might have missed Tenderloin and EdHall. Tenderloin layed some mean, howling rock harp over a wicked groove that sounded like the Stray Cats on crystal meth. Austin psychedelic heroes Ed Hall were looking mighty trippy in all that black-light paint, but the band's generic weirdo-pop song stylings didn't fully live up to the stage show.
Oxford, Mississippi, country-core act Blue Mountain sounded like a Budweiser commercial gone to seed--three tunes and I was gone. Better was Wisdom Tooth, an experimental industrial-funk trio from Brooklyn. Better still was Samba Ngo and the Ngoma Players, a rich, colorful, African-flavored world-beat band from Santa Cruz, California.
Sunday night I played straggler and caught a few of the final showcase acts, including a serviceable set by Austin straightahead rockers Superego and a fiery hour of hard guitar rock by Slackhappy, another Austin band that handled onstage drunkenness much better than the Mermen. Also good was the Violet Burning, a hallucinatory Southern California guitar band whose dense triple-ax guitar sound teetered on the edge of cheese rock but never fell off.
To close out, I'm sorry to report that the band with the best name at SXSW, Tracy and the Hindenburg Ground Crew, was also the worst band I saw. Matter of fact, it may be the worst band I've ever seen. Described in the SXSW guide as "a comic folk/punk act," the Crew consisted of a drummer who couldn't find the beat with a Jack Kerouac reader, a guitarist who sat in a chair and looked embarrassed to be there, and a lead singer/electric-ukulele player who managed a fair imitation of several alley cats being burned at the stake. Oh, the humanity.--David Holthouse