SXSW Report #6: Getting Small With The Dwarves

Psychotic punks are as subtle as an ice pick to the ear.

Editor's Note: Last year's shiny new bauble, electronica, was

represented by the Propellerheads and a few other low-buzz bands, but this

was the year punk broke, if for the hundredth time.

Imagine 800 bands playing to 6,000 attendees over five nights and you'll still

never really understand what this year's South By Southwest was all about. The

annual spring-migration to Austin, Texas, felt devoid of the kind of


showcases of years past -- aside from Thursday night's Sonic Youth show, the

Sean Lennon premiere performance and a stuffed Olivia Tremor Control gig --

and instead offered a cornucopia of rock ideas and influence from the Japanese

techno-rock of Cornelius to the balls-to-the-wall rock of Nashville Pussy and

back again to the somber ballads of Pernice Bros. Through it all, there


seem to be an emerging genre that fought for the attention of the jaded


journalists, managers and record-label people eager to discover this year's


As usual, perceptions of the festival depended on where you hung your hat,

seeing as how you could have left Austin thinking that Tejano rock was the

wave of 1998, if you picked the right showcases. Senior Editor Matt Melucci


Senior Writer Gil Kaufman kept a running diary of their experiences. Here are

the final excerpts:

Saturday, March 21

9:30 p.m. -- This is what I needed to start off the final night of


soothing tunes to ease the comedown from the previous day/night/morning,

which seemed to last for a week. Los Angeles' 8 Frozen Modules, part of the

Trance Syndicate showcase at the goth club Atomic Cafe, are caressing my

aching head with four turntables' worth of abstract beat transmissions and

subtle waves of shifting noise and silence. I can't help but notice the

10-foot tall

wooden cross with the initials "NIN" cut out of the cross bar. It didn't

dawn on me

that the place was a goth bar until I saw the tell-tale floppy goth dancers

spinning and flapping their arms spastically later in the night. Sufficiently

soothed, I make the first of nearly a dozen trips down the block to Emo's

for the

Man's Ruin showcase. (Man's Ruin is the brainchild of Addicted To Noise

illustrator Frank Kozik). Altamont, a sludgy Southern boogie trio fronted by

Melvins drummer Dale Crover, are playing a curious brand of Evil Skynyrd

speedway boogie. I pass a guy holding a boom box while spinning in circles on

a lazy-Susan platform on the sidewalk. His glassy eyes seem oblivious to the

music oozing from the punk bar behind him. If you want to drop change into his

cup you have to catch him on his way around. -- Kaufman

9:50 p.m. -- Back to 8 Frozen Modules. King Coffey, Butthole Surfers

drummer and Trance Syndicate honcho, is bobbing his head to the metallic, icy

drones of sound coming from the speakers. His beer is resting just inside a

metal bondage cage in the middle of the club's dance floor. The music sounds

like the hum a wine glass makes when you wet your finger and run it around the

rim. I sit down on what looks like a comfortable chair but turns out to be


sort of bondage bench. I hate to think who occupied the space before me. --


10 p.m. -- I have to face facts. There's no way into the

Fastball/A3/Bardo Pond showcase tonight. The line is stretched around the

block and I am at the tail end, my feet already aching from too much standing.

Someone from the club stands on a chair and screams into the chilly air that

anyone waiting to get in to see Fastball had better think again. I know how to

take a hint. So it's off to see Sean Lennon and Buffalo Daughter at Liberty

Lunch for me. -- Melucci

10:10 p.m. -- The Man's Ruin showcase continues with a set by the

impossibly heavy Acid King, led by Crover's wife, Lori S., on guitar and

featuring the same rhythm section as Altamont. Stoner drone, heavy stoner

rock, driving bong rock, call it what you will, but it was definitely


and unrelentingly thick and powerful. Next door, at Emo's Jr., demented

Tuscaloosa, Ala., combo Trailer Hitch are filling the air with smoke from

fireworks and totally desperate, Stooges-style psycho punk-rock. The lead

singer, a sweaty mix of Jim Morrison sexuality and Iggy Pop abandon, holds his

sinewy arm above a firework spewing multicolored balls of fire and then drops

trou and attempts to hide the still smoldering evidence, if you get my

drift. --


10:38 p.m. -- I make a momentary mistake and check out the dancehall

reggae show at the Flamingo Cantina around the block. White boy San

Francisco rap/reggae outfit The Stand Out Selector & DJ Barry ramble in their

best Rude Boy patois over anonymous, live-instrument island funk. Back to

Emo's for a few bars of the Queens of the Stone Age, a thunder-punk trio

led by

ex-Kyuss mastermind Josh Homme. Pass through Emo's Jr. and catch

Norway's Turbonegro, another costume band playing trashy glam-punk. Rouge,

glitter, lipstick and sailor suits, all of which are decidedly unsexy and a

bit off-

putting. -- Kaufman

11:15 p.m. -- There's the omnipresent Robyn Hitchcock again, fighting

his way through the packed crowd. He's come to Liberty Lunch to see Sean

Lennon no doubt. So have about 400 other people crammed into the garage-

like club. And when the youngest son of Beatle legend John Lennon takes the

stage for his first major performance with his band, there is an

anticipation in the

house that is difficult to describe. Everyone is waiting to see what the

son of one

of rock's greatest minds has to offer the world musically. He certainly

looks like

his father more and more these days, especially in his mannerisms, the way he

smiles slyly after finishing a song or pushes his glasses up onto his nose


few minutes. Yet his voice comes from another place entirely, with its less

guttural, almost screeching quality that while not as grating as his mother


Ono's tends to move in that direction. But, it's clear that Sean is not

trying to

sound like his father. His songs flirt with techno and trip into a more

ambient pop

than his dad's. At times, it's almost closer to a futuristic Beach Boys

sound. He

even covers "God Only Knows," and the crowd seems confused. Some just

stare at the young Lennon, perhaps looking for hints of his father through

all of

the electronic distortion, and there are awkward silences between songs. His

touring partners Buffalo Daughter, on the other hand, have the crowd fully

entranced and singing along. Their lack of lyrics, due most likely to the

language barrier, is fully compensated by their powerful electronic pop sound,

simple drum-beats mixed with repetitive guitar-rhythms and synthesized

melodies. Lennon stands at the back of the stage bopping to their music. "I


know what they were expecting from me," he later tells me. -- Melucci

11:30 p.m. -- Nothing like icy German ambient dub to bring down the

Emo's experience. The turtleneck-wearing duo called To Rococo Rot are

creating a deep-space mix of aquatic, underwater electro-dub and shifting

sonar-beep sounds on a turntable and mixing board, interrupting the

headphone-friendly mix at will with some spastic jungle beats. Just after

midnight, Chicago's Frontier take the stage amid their usual array of upside-

down, mind-altering movies, smoke machines and blinding lights. Unseen, the

trio mysteriously emit their signature live drum & bass experience. Rolling


shot drum lines, dubby bass and psychedelic trance tunes melt in and out as

laser-effect guitars squeal and divebomb through the smoky air. --


1:25 a.m. -- And now for something completely bizarre ... San

Francisco psychotic punks The Dwarves are as subtle as an ice pick to the ear.

Bassist He Who Can Not Be Named hits the stage naked except for a Mexican

wrestling mask and singer Blag Dahlia berates the crowd from the get-go,

getting his shirt ripped in half before the first song is over. By the

third song,

about 10 minutes into their set, Dahlia hits his standard end point: After the

crotch is ripped out of his jeans, he smashes a glass bottle on a brick

wall --

sending glass raining all over the audience -- jumps into the drum kit and

effectively ends the set. Next door, even the sloppy new-wave punk splatter of

the Fuckemos and their topless woman stage-friend with spider webs tattooed

on her breasts couldn't top The Dwarves display of unabashed evil and

aggression. -- Kaufman

2 a.m. -- Folkie-pop rocker Vic Chesnutt has just pulled off

something I

never thought an artist could get away with onstage. He has performed his

entire new album in karaoke at Electric Lounge, singing along to an altered CD

recording of each track in the order they appear on the record. In his

wheelchair, he moves from near tears to mocking his own music, waving his

arms back and forth in the air to highly orchestrated openings and breaks.

During one solo, he pretends to masturbate, using his mic in place of his


The crowd laughs, but the laughter turns to chills as Chesnutt tears at their

hearts with songs about alcohol and suicide and powerful love. Then something

unexpected happens. His CD starts skipping, during a song he describes as his

favorite ever. For a moment, the normally smooth Chesnutt turns to his wife


friends offstage, looking for help. Then, realizing he is on his own, he


from his wheelchair to a guitar in its stand, struggles to fit it over his

head and

says, "I guess I am going to have to play the rest of the goddamn album


He does just that and it sounds more beautiful than ever, as he simplifies


tune with basic chords and simple picking. It is one of the most genuine

moments of the five days and, unquestionably, the most courageous. The crowd

screams wildly as he finishes. Through the applause, he tells them the show is

over and waves them off. But only a few catch the hint. -- Melucci