By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Schneider wasn't the only performer who was bold enough to experiment with humor. The members of Servotron, from Atlanta, costumed themselves as robots, cyborgs and automatons, and although their Devo-meets-the-B-52's music wasn't exactly startling, their between-song needling of laminate-wearing snobs was consistently hilarious. Houston's Junior Varsity took a lower-tech tack: The players, supplemented by mascot Bippy the Bear, offered up power-punk à la Bis while clad in Fifties-era cheerleader duds.
Sure, it was shtick, but at least it stood out from the pack--and this year, not a lot did. Followers of standard-issue alterna-pop or indie rock made with guitars, a bass and drums were in heaven: Four out of every ten bands I encountered fit this description. But a constant diet of the stuff gave me an appetite for something else. By late Saturday night, my hopes rose every time I saw a relatively unconventional instrument--a banjo, a clarinet, a turntable. Likewise, they tumbled at the sight of yet another Stratocaster. Jack L., from Dublin, Ireland, was arguably the most absurd artist I saw: He specialized in chest-baring melodrama that suggested the spawn of Bono circa 1983 and Bill Murray's lounge-singer character. I split after a song or two because I couldn't stop snickering, but I remember the experience fondly, whereas I don't remember much of anything about, for instance, Austin's Stephen Doster & the Libertines, Ohio's Lilybandits, Canada's Buicks, Dallas's Grand Street Cryers, and so on, and so on, and so on.
Meanwhile, subgenres that veered off the rocky path were ghettoized. A hip-hop summit was held Friday at the State Theatre, which is geographically separated from the main body of clubs; it was no surprise, then, that the rhymes of Philadelphia's Steph Pockets were heard by yours truly, a small cluster of kids from Austin, and nobody else. A "Native American Night" also took place at the State and was met with similar indifference by the Gucci-wearing Caucasian masses. And a dance-music extravaganza on Saturday at the Austin Music Hall didn't pick up until the wee hours, when Josh Wink took the controls. Earlier, Austin spinner Jacqueline Sprecht's showcase drew around twenty people in a venue that holds around 2,000. I felt mighty lonely in there.
Some new trends were floated at the bash, but without the hoopla that was part and parcel of last year's electronica orgy. (A panel discussion on Thursday was titled "What's Next for Electronica?" The poor attendance at it provided the answer: back to the underground whence it sprang.) A case in point were the many strummers who've arisen in the wake of the publicity flood that greeted the Lilith Fair. Clearly, the anti-folk movement is in sad shape; anti-anti-folkies are back with a vengeance, whining about their various heartaches as if it were 1971 again. A few minutes in the company of Dublin's Nick Kelly, an expert at getting multiple cliches into a single verse, and New York's Susie Suh, who couldn't have wailed more loudly if she'd been tortured with thumbscrews, were more than enough for me.
Also present in abundance were import acts; SXSW featured dozens upon dozens of groups from outside the U.S. But Norway's Poor Rich Ones, Amsterdam's Human Alert and Toronto's Bird, among loads of others, were more concerned with aping previously established styles than in creating new ones. (The nadir was Berlin's Bell, Book, and Candle, a dead ringer for Nena in her vaunted "99 Luftballons" period.) The exception were acts from Japan, who were intriguing in large part because they consistently did their own thing. I couldn't get in to see Cornelius, whom wags have tagged "the Japanese Beck"; those who did couldn't stop gushing. However, I did come away impressed by Buffalo Daughter and Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her, a pair of Tokyo projects that put a distinctive jolt into post-punk and noise rock.
Such freshness was lacking from all but a few of SXSW's seminars. With the industry still searching for a way out of its current slump, the usual pundits had little new wisdom to impart, so they fell back on typical platitudes and predictable displays of attitude. At a session dubbed "Advertising as Rebellion??: What's Happened to Rock and Roll?" scribe Dave Marsh appeared to be less interested in talking about the ways commercialism can taint music than in establishing that he's more obnoxious than anyone else on the planet. Unfortunately, his achievement in terms of the latter in no way illuminated the subject. Just as unenlightening--and considerably creepier--was "'But I Said It Off the Record!': The Art of the Interview," overseen by Kip Kirby, a toweringly unctuous media trainer who came across like a female Tony Robbins. She swore that she wasn't teaching musicians how to give reporters canned answers, but the denial itself was more rehearsed than the Broadway production of Cats. Later, "The Next Radio Audience," which included big wheels from influential stations and networks, convinced me that the quality of the medium will be getting even worse in the near future, and "Face to Face With Gary Gersh" chilled me to the marrow. In conversation with Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke, Gersh, who now heads Capitol Records, worked hard to seem like a regular guy, but the more he insisted that he loved music, the less he seemed to give a damn about anything other than ruling the universe. Those of you who think you want a major-label contract should be careful, because Gersh is the kind of person you'll be dealing with if you succeed.