AUSTIN, Texas -- First-time visitors in town for South by Southwest might have been surprised to see the International Sign of Rock (pinkie and index finger straightened into devil horns) on billboards. But in Austin, the same sign connotes the local college football team, the University of Texas Longhorns.
It may be disconcerting to see cheerleaders nonchalantly curling their fingers into the Sign of Satan at the home games, but it's fitting, because SXSW is ultimately about rock. No matter how much lip service is paid to dance music and hip-hop, no matter how many turntables are set up, no matter what's happening in the rest of the music world, Austin is still where heads arrive to be banged.
Emo's, Austin's legendary cowboy-hats-and-tattoos rock club, may be the best place for them to do it. Thick limestone walls, dirt-floor courtyards, cheap beer and a wall-length painting of Texas killers provide an atmosphere where molar-rattling rock can go down hard. Saturday night it did, with a Man's Ruin showcase that brought a fierce indie label with Texas roots back home: Poster artist Frank Kozik, an ex-Austin resident, founded the Man's Ruin label.
The club's main room was so packed, if you left to get to the bathrooms you couldn't get back in. Around the time Gluecifer (Norway's answer to the New Bomb Turks, in matching red velour) finished and Queens of the Stone Age (featuring three ex-members of Kyuss) went on, things had gotten hostile. Fans were screaming at bouncers and each other.
Catherine Enny, manager for both the Queens and the stars of the night, Fu Manchu, shoved her way past a none-too-pleased bouncer. "He was following the rules, but these are my bands, and I'm bringing in all of these people," she said. "I just forced my way in."
The crowd was at wit's end when Fu Manchu stepped onstage to deliver a driving assault of '70s Cali skate metal. When the PA was turned off after an abbreviated set (to keep to the schedule), there was a near-riot. After cries of "bulls---!" from the audience, which was on the verge of becoming a mob, 10 more minutes were granted, and the band plowed on.
But it takes more than that to quell rock fever. Word about one particular showcase from the previous night -- Neurosis at Stubb's -- remained a burning topic of conversation.
While "rock" is the best general word for describing Neurosis, it doesn't do justice to the Northern California band's exceptionally intense nature. Not content to be the loudest (using low-frequency sounds that seem to reverberate through listeners' bones), heaviest and slowest band at SXSW, Neurosis were accompanied by spooky and hypnotic films that made them the most frightening one, too.
The tattooed, bespectacled projectionist, who calls himself Pete Inc., and was huddled in a sticker-covered film booth, was as integral to the band as the musicians, whose role sometimes seemed merely to provide a soundtrack for the films. The outdoor show's apocalyptic mood was enhanced by high, late-night clouds, a massive white backdrop that looked like a pope's hat and the raggedy fans hanging out on an overpass outside the club, staring down into a muddy, trash-filled downtown river.
The transfixed crowd was a mix of hard-core Neurosis followers and freaked-out first timers, such as Glen Crumbell, a Canadian. "That was the most super intense thing I've ever seen," Crumbell said.
"That was insane," agreed his friend, Chris Frayer.
Stumbling out into the street after the Neurosis show, audience members were greeted with flyers that urged them to "Boycott SXSW ... create to/ resist." The flyers were adorned with a woodblock print of a marching band in bloody combat with a gas-masked army, the latter representing the record industry.
But rather than machine-gunning a hapless trumpeter (as shown on the flyer), record execs and SXSW higher-ups instead spent the night gauging the response to a hip-hop showcase a few blocks away. The location, the unfortunately named Bob Popular, seemed like a dis on the music. The club was an Escher-like nightmare of dark stairs, swinging glass doors and dripping water.
Twenty-three artists, three stages, break dancers, graffiti artists, three fire inspectors and a line wrapping around the block added to the hectic vibe. In the middle of it all was 3-2-1 Records founder Fiona Bloom, grinning and shouting in a hoarse English accent to anyone who listened that "there has never been a hip hop presence at SXSW. ... If they get the response that this was a success, they'll do it in a big way next year."
The highlight of the night, turntablist Rob Swift of the X-Ecutioners, created a clean little oasis of scientific beats within the disorder. While driving the crowd wild, Swift spent much of his time gazing down, his fingers flying in relaxed concentration. His habit of taking quick, tentative peeks up when completing a particularly awesome beat juggle (creating a new beat by scratching the record) added to his charm.
Brandon Tinsley of Austin, who watched Oakland, Calif.'s Mystik Journeymen perform on a smaller stage upstairs, didn't wear a SXSW badge and didn't need one: This was the only hip-hop show of the festival, and therefore the only show he was interested in seeing. By getting there early and shelling out $20, hip-hop fans could avoid the rest of the fest.
"South by Southwest needs more hip-hop ... Austin needs a hip-hop spot," Tinsley said, pointing at the packed-in crowd bouncing along to the beat with its collective hands in the air. "Live-music capital of the world, and there's no hip-hop clubs!" He shook his head, making one last comment, almost to himself: "It's the music of the future. It's not a fad."