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A few days before the beginning of this year's South by Southwest Music Festival, I told vocalist Myshel Prasad, who was set to showcase with her band, Space Team Electra, that she would likely hear some truly inspirational music during her time at the annual Austin, Texas, blowout. But as the event neared its conclusion, I found myself wondering if I would soon be eating my words...

Thursday, March 13:
Upon my arrival at the Austin Convention Center, I found Tony Bennett chatting amiably with a ballroom full of fans, journalists and insiders who seemed to have come straight to the chat session from a Primus concert. Bennett's neo-hipster credentials emerged unblemished even though he referred to Michael Jackson's trademark stepping technique as a "moondance." (I thought that was Van Morrison.) He followed up this charming gaffe by telling the gathering that you can't make yourself trendy simply by "going out and getting a nose ring." Body-piercers take note. Later, at a discussion titled "Hip Hop: What's Next?," a sparse collection of out-of-touch journalists asked cliched questions about Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G. and other cadavers; as he listened to this middlebrow nonsense, panelist/production genius Prince Paul looked ready to pass out from sheer boredom. Down the hall, a slew of editorial types tried to explain "How to Attract Local Coverage"--a deadly topic if there ever was one. Various scribes on the dais insisted that they did not give extra attention to bands that came up with unique or innovative publicity gambits, but this message was undercut when Willamette Week's Audrey VanBuskirk lauded one Oregon act for sending her staff some delicious homemade chocolate-chip cookies. (Do not send me any, or I will throw them and your recording into the nearest dumpster.) For my money, fellow New Times, Inc., journalist Bill Wyman of San Francisco gave performers the single best piece of advice: "Don't suck."

Most of the 25 bands I saw Thursday evening took Wyman's advice; with the exception of BeeSwamp, a terrifying combo out of the Netherlands that can be best described as country-ABBA, everyone was at least competent. But that's not to say that they blazed any trails. On the contrary, most of them recycled long-established formulas to unsurprising effect. There was predictable roots rock (Grand Street Cryers). There was the latest version of punk nostalgia (the New Grand). There was generic power pop (Lusk). And while Sto Zvirat, a ska conglomerate from Czechoslovakia, and Glyn Styler, a former member of Green on Red who's now doing a perverse lounge shtick, were entertaining, you couldn't call what they were doing fresh. Their routines left me wondering if postmodernism hasn't become the latest excuse for having no new ideas.

I can't tell you how new the sound is of buzz band Atari Teenage Riot, a German act the Beastie Boys' Mike D. has been touting relentlessly; I would have needed a flamethrower and a deep well of resentment to get into the Electric Lounge, the overstuffed venue where the band played, and although I possessed one of these two requirements (guess which one), it wasn't enough. Digital Hardcore, which took the stage next, provided an indication of the Riot style--jungle beats interspersed with punk nods, chainsaw screams and other synthesized/sampled racket. How outre. More fully developed were sets provided courtesy of the Frogs, Portastatic (a side project of Superchunk's Mac McCaughan), Sissy Bar and bluegrass legend Del McCoury. But while these artists demonstrated how well they could work within familiar contexts, they didn't offer any stunning revelations. Even revisiting past glories was no guarantee of 1997 success. Onetime J. Geils Band leader Peter Wolf worked himself into a sweat-soaked frenzy, but only a bare handful of people bothered to watch him do it. By contrast, Jimmy Webb, who was an entertainment-industry joke until the recent release of his unexpectedly effective Ten Easy Pieces disc, played before a rapturous crowd that included a worshipful Jules Shear. Take a ride on the pop zeitgeist and you never know where you'll end up.

Friday, March 14:
Wolf and Webb popped up again at a panel cumbersomely titled "Well, How Did I Get Here? Artists Discuss Their Creative Development," but neither they nor fellow stage-sitters Robin Holcomb, Jerry Harrison and Everclear's Art Alexakis did anything other than deliver stultifying anecdotes in a stultifying manner. "No Direction Home: Rock Music in Its Fifth Decade," which gave a series of famous rock crits (Ira Robbins, Jim DeRogatis, Holly George-Warren) the opportunity to argue for their continued relevance, was marginally more distracting, especially compared with "Can (Or Should) the Music Industry Do Anything About Drug Abuse?," a grotesquely flaccid conversation that probably would have convinced Nancy Reagan to give crack a chance. The chief annoyance was ethically challenged journalist Dave Marsh, who pontificated endlessly about the political roots of the drug problem in spite of the fact that he was the only one present who had the slightest interest in anything he had to say. Marsh, who resembles a gargoyle from Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame, ultimately stormed out of the room after being criticized by fellow "experts" for blabbing too much, but I wasn't there to witness his departure. I'd already beaten him to the punch.

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