Bare-shouldered girls with asymmetrical haircuts and slouchy boots roam in pairs, while shaggy rocker boys in tee shirts and tight jeans wander the sidewalks in packs. Waiting in line outside of clubs among the messenger-bag-and-cell-phone-toting industry types, there's a higher than normal presence of Japanese girls and lanky, bearded dudes in flamboyant neck scarves. Giant '70s sunglasses are in, and so are exotic foreign accents. The air smells like spilled beer, cologne, cigarettes, a little pot, and smoked brisket.
Welcome to hipster spring break.
Or, if you want to get technical, welcome to South By Southwest 2005.
Every year, for four nights in mid-March, the college students clear out and downtown Austin, Texas, turns into a live music orgy. The festival is the latter part of a bigger conference that also includes panel discussions, a trade show, and film and interactive components.
This year, Phoenix bands had a meager but respectable presence. Three were included in the official lineup of over 1,300 acts from around the world: Asleep in the Sea (unsigned), Scary Kids Scaring Kids (recently signed with Immortal Records), and The Minibosses (unsigned but with a national cult following). Representing Tucson: Calexico, The Mean Reds, The Hacienda Brothers, and Black Sun Ensemble. Two other Valley acts got in on the unofficial action, with the metal ladies of Storm Within playing two songs at a GoGirlsMusic.com showcase at Trophy's Bar, and country bard Dave Insley rocking three different Austin gigs, including a festive midafternoon show on the outdoor patio at Opal Divine's, where the sun warmed up margarita drinkers.
Even more than the CMJ Music Marathon held in New York City every fall, South By Southwest is the insider event that sets the coming year's trends in music -- from hip-hop to Americana, and especially rock, whether it's psychedelic, indie, noise or punk. To make it on the bill at all is an elusive privilege.
There's not much glory in playing on Wednesday, the opening night, when festivalgoers are still checking into their hotels and waiting in a two-hour line to register at the convention center. After all, the beer has barely started flowing by then. But the three guys from Asleep in the Sea embrace their slot with enthusiasm, passing out flyers in the middle of the afternoon. By 10 o'clock that night, it's cold and blustery outside, but inside the Hideout, just off the main 6th Street drag, the air is warm with steam from busy espresso machines. Cheerful artwork adorns the red walls, and artsy couples sip coffee drinks at clusters of tables. A door at the back of the room leads to a small black-box theater, where about 50 people are watching Asleep in the Sea from old-fashioned tiered seats. A dozen fans crowd the front of the stage, including Ben Baraldi and Aaron Burke from The Minibosses, and Stefan Pruett and John O'Keefe, Tempe's electronic duo, Peachcake. Looks like the flyers worked.
Owen Evans and Tom Filardo's voices sound clear, strong, and smart-assed as ever, and they're up to their usual irreverent antics between -- and, of course, during -- songs. Evans has a melodramatic way of playing his fuzzed-out Moog and making faces at Filardo, who croons while playing a guitar with bunches of fake flowers on the strap.
After one song, Eli Kuner pipes up from behind his drum kit and says, "I'm sick and I can't sing and I'm sad."
"Somebody go give him a hug!" yells Filardo. So Baraldi, who's over six feet tall, walks onstage and gives the skinny drummer a bear hug.
The rest of the set continues like a party, with Kuner stomping around backstage with a tambourine, Evans changing the lyrics to "Punch in the Face" when Filardo's guitar goes out of tune ("I think I'm gonna find a better guitar player"), and the audience cracking up and snapping photos. A Modified Arts contingent is clearly here -- because plenty of people know the right times to clap along -- but the new fans catch on quickly.
The same night, Scary Kids Scaring Kids have the 1 a.m. gig at Bigsby's, a dark, bare-bones bar that's five times the size of the venue where Asleep in the Sea played. There's about the same number of people here, too, but the size makes it feel less full. Fans mill around the bar as the band soundchecks until almost quarter after. When the show finally starts, the crowd moves closer to the stage at the back of the space. Singer Tyson Stevens announces that the band just got back from recording a new album in Washington, D.C., and that tonight they're playing a bunch of new songs. Without skipping a beat, the guys start tearing at their instruments.
On this relatively tiny platform, the Scary Kids look larger than life. They open with a three-guitar, keyboard-heavy rock number that wakes the crowd out of its drunken stupor, and Stevens' voice bursts from emo melody into an ear-scorching scream. All six of them start banging their heads in unison -- long hair flying, guitars jutting outward -- and the sight is mesmerizing. The music is loud enough to entice more people in off the streets.
Short of mentioning their new CD, the Scary Kids don't waste time with talk. Their set is all motion, sweat, and electric intensity. It's a satisfying if exhausting end to the first night of South By Southwest.
The Minibosses take that energy a step further late Thursday night, when they play at the Velvet Spade. A couple hundred fans -- mostly guys -- pile into every inch of the place, and some who couldn't get in watch through the window of the emergency exit door.
The club oozes personality, with high tin ceilings, candles along the walls, and a dark wood bar. Looming above the four Minibosses' heads (which are barely visible thorough the thick crowd) are three huge black-and-white photos of burlesque girls in provocative poses. Red lights surrounding the images cast a crimson glow on all the faces in the room.
Of the three local acts that've participated in South By Southwest, The Minibosses have definitely generated the most buzz. This is a place where many bands come expecting to get signed, but far more show up with label representation and all of the publicity that comes with it. Meanwhile, these Shizz stalwarts continue to put out their own CDs and have managed to elbow their way into the national spotlight anyway.
Even for those who've never seen the band perform its blissful prog-rock take on classic Nintendo-game theme songs, the music is obviously familiar. Most people don't dance, but instead nod their heads and raise devil horns during the high-pitched guitar parts. Friends give each other amused, knowing glances when a new medley starts. And between songs, people scream like this is the coolest music they've ever heard. Gotta love those gamers.
For Friday and Saturday, Phoenix rockers who came here for business are left to pursue pleasure of all kinds -- day parties, beer and barbecue, and more than anything, hip bands like Aqueduct and An Albatross.
Let's hope they were taking notes.
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