folks of Austin, Texas must look forward to this week like they do to the
seven-year cicada invasion, except instead of the streets of their town being
littered with the crunchy carcasses of beady-eyed flying insects, they have to
step over a swarm of even less-appetizing pests, the assembled, generally
drunk, horde of music industry swags, myself included...
South By Southwest
is a little piece of unreality in a real place. Austin is beautiful this time
of the year, clean, friendly, green and soon to be crawling with cell phones,
vinyl pants and more tribal tattoos than you can shake a nose ring at.
After a relaxing five minutes of downtime in the hotel room,
the woman I just met on the flight from Tucson, Katherine the Great, and I make
our way to register. En route, we decide that, in some way or other, we
non-performers (there are over 700 bands in town, over 1000 journalists) are
all "riding the coat-tails of rock," and the only real question is: "how far up
the coat are you?" The jury is still out.
The afternoon party at Waterloo
Brewing Co. is like a low-budget Robert Altman movie: Look, there's Mark Eitzel
sulking in the corner with a little red book of poetry and a rumpled brown
Bukowski leather jacket. And that guy looks like the Butthole's King Coffey!
There's Beatle Bob bobbing his head to plucky little Ben Lee from Australia
who's trying to be heard over the sloshing of free beer, and that guy, could it
be? George Lucas? No, but Spoon certainly sound good playing their
Replacements-meets-early-Pink-Floyd acoustic, psychedelic brain-rot rock. Oh,
and there's Mr. Eitzel again, playing a sincere set of songs from his upcoming
album, West, veins popping in his forehead, not quite on the verge of
Cruising Austin: I pass a bank building that has a gold
plaque on it that reads something like: "Firearms not permitted in this
building..." Texas can be a strange place. The Moog Cookbook hit the makeshift
stage at the Iron Cactus in gold space suits and big white helmets holding up a
sign that says "Welcome to CMJ." They play bossa nova Moog versions of "Born To
Be Wild," "Black Hole Sun" and Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night..." It's pretty
funny, for about ten minutes.
A local news crew is setting up a remote shot
from the roof. A James Garner look-alike with silver hair is having lip-liner
applied and his female counterpart teases her already-tortured hair even
Sukia, or what I like to call "the 4-Becks," take the stage next,
one pair in black cowboy hats and shirts with flames on them, the other two in
brown 70's track suits. They play arty electro funk that's heavy on the funk,
light on vocals, hitting some nice greasy grooves, but not nearly greasy enough
to move expense-account asses. Anders Parker and Varnaline play last, squeezing
out some muted sparks as an acoustic trio playing a sort of lo-fi white-boy
I pass the Ivory Cat, where reality rules. Nice to see that some
people are blissfully oblivious to the goings-on here. A guy with a $20 smile
sits at a white grand piano and starts a rousing chorus of "Crocodile Rock,"
the assembled regular guys and gals sing along in $1 Margarita glee.
run into Marci L. on the way across town. She's a voice coach who says she's
from Austin, but is currently lost on her way to the Austin Music Awards with
her companion, Tim Y., who we find out, much to our delight, is Tony Bennett's
sound guy, formerly Sinatra's sound guy and who is currently very pissed and a
little lost. Guys like this: black shirt, no tie, but a jewel-encrusted,
stringless bolo, immaculate leather shoes, rat pack
Finally, a rock band. Los Angeles' Two Hour Parking, a
trio of guys playing straight-up alternative guitar rock with very little
pretense. What makes it alternative? "The lead singer has a brown goatee and
blonde hair," quoth a bystander.
Chicago's Pinetop Seven play at the
Electric Pavilion just outside. An old friend of theirs, formerly mine, takes
offense when I describe them as "acoustic Live with a more earnest delivery."
Well, fuck her, that's what they sound like to me. They redeem themselves a few
songs later with a world music-style, swirling jam that incorporates everything
from swing to Soca. Still a little too goddamn earnest for me...
One of the
best things about this festival is the unexpected pleasures. You go with the
flow and, by the end of the night, you might have seen half a dozen bands you
never intended to, but one or two that you really dug. Have a plan, then do
whatever you feel like...like watching Denver's Slim Cessna's Auto Club. I'd
never heard of them, but I had to stay, if only because they were wearing some
seriously tricked-out cowboy hats: real wide brims, flying nun type of straw
deals and cowboy suits. had no idea what they'd sound like and took bets with
Katherine's pal, whose name I don't remember, but he's from Jersey. "Straight
country," he said.
"Naw, I bet they'll be sort of jokey," I said.
were both wrong. It was hillbilly punk with more Hank Williams than Hank
Rollins, but a creepy Hank Williams, with jail stories, gal stories,
heartbreak, murder, mayhem, the usual suspects. Last up was a band, maybe
Austin's Bo Bud Greene. That's the weird thing about this event, unless it's
Liz Phair or Yo La Tengo, nobody seems to know who's playing, but if they're
any good, a few folks will stick around anyway for some anonymous rock. Greene,
if that's who they are, another trio, play what can only be described as stoner
punk, indie rock with an arena kick and Ween-like vocals. As strange as it
The night winds up with a cab ride featuring some post-Dave Van
Halen tape on the cassette player and I'm convinced the cabby did it on
purpose, just to counter-program all the self-important musicians and
out-of-towners. I think I see him crack a smile when Sammy lets out a
particularly shrill screech. With the window open, music, all different kinds,
floats up from every corner, a country band, a female acoustic duo busking on
the street, Latin jazz, more country and a few blasts of guitar rock from
hidden venues somewhere in the distance. End of day one.