The SXSW Report: Riding The Coat-Tails Of Rock

Eitzel in Austin: intense as always. Photo by Jay Blakesberg.

The good

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.

The

first night:

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

tears...



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

higher.

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

blues.

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.

We

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

attitude--priceless.

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.

We

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

sounds.

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.