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Backwash

Fear of a hip planet? Austin swarms with the übercool during SXSW.

The crisp young couple sitting next to me on the plane from Austin to Dallas couldn't stop snickering. Native Austinites on their way to a business convention, the two had recognized a common denominator among the passenger load.

"Everyone on this plane is, like, so coooool...," said the male, who was wearing Gap khakis and reading Carl Hiaasen.

"Yeah," noted his companion (Marie Claire, Old Navy fleece). "I'm surprised they let us on. My hair color is natural, and you're not dirtyenough."

True, many of the passengers looked a little worse for wear after attending South by Southwest, a four-day live-music marathon that many Austin residents regard with an equal mix of fear, love and loathing. After all, every March, thousands of music fans descend on their town, party down and then leave a big, stinking mess behind -- and act awfully smug about it. Waiting for a bus near the Texas capital, one native summed up the situation nicely: "If I see one more emo-boy talking on his cell phone, walking in traffic and thinking he's cool because he found a John Deere shirt at a vintage store, I'm going to have to kick him."

During South by Southwest, Austin's hipster quotient -- already notoriously high -- rises to dangerous levels. Step into any cafe, gallery, gift shop, post office or bus terminal, and you're going to run into skinny young guys with perfectly mussed spaceship hair and ironic clothing and girls with Manic Panic dye jobs and Touch & Go Records totes.

It's a fashion scene -- Cannes for the indie-rock set. That's why you're just as likely to find clothing buyers, advertising VPs and marketing executives as you are label owners, A&R men, record retailers, radio programmers and music writers when you flip through the SXSW registrants' directory. This year, Levi Strauss sent twenty of its people deep into the heart of Texas; Backwash is willing to bet they weren't there to catch the Sub Pop showcase at Red Eye Fly (headlined by the excellent Thermals, from Portland), but because such direct access to music's movers and shakers means more ideas for jeans commercials and next year's model. Maybe that's why attendees often can't be bothered to listen to the performers they've shown up to witness: Chan Marshall of Cat Power practically disintegrated beneath the din during a showcase at Stubb's; Calexico's quiet muse was suffocated during one of its many festival appearances.

Really, it was blah, blah, blah everywhere; you could almost grow cynical enough to think that SXSW was just one big party, with the musicians simply serving as hired entertainment.

Naaaaaah.

But as much as SXSW has grown away from its original incarnation as a grassroots platform for unknown, but not unworthy, talent, it's still essentially a music-driven affair. The "live-music capital of the world," Austin has an astonishing number of great venues (although you have to wonder how they sustain themselves during the 51 non-SXSW weeks of the year; according to numerous cab drivers, the turnaround in venue ownership rivals that of area McDonald's). And the town itself seems obsessed with music, especially homegrown products: Even in the airport terminal, you're going to hear Alejandro Escovedo, Willie Nelson and the Dixie Chicks piped in from somewhere. (Think how much more entertaining DIA would be if, on the train, weary travelers were treated to, say, the opening bars of the Apples in Stereo's "Oasis in the Sky" rather than the orders of former Channel 4 anchor Reynelda Muse or the scolding of the late Pete Smythe.)

Colorado did have a few homegrown products on display in the Lone Star State. Dressy Bessy, which just issued Little Music: Singles 1997-2002 -- a collection of previously unreleased singles -- performed three times between the start of SXSW on Wednesday, March 12, and its conclusion on Sunday, March 16. A constantly touring, indie-pop It band, Dressy Bessy is the kind of act that SXSW was designed for: signed to an independent label (Kindercore), poised for greater things, with a couple of small records under its collective buckle. Tammy Ealom and her bandmates hoped to get their music in front of radio folks, agents, venue owners and journalists who could help them crank up their careers a notch.

The intense, bombastic art-rock outfit Voices Underwater (aka VU) braved a long drive from Denver to Texas and a long fight with the soundboard and other technical elements to pull out an astounding performance at an odd little coffeeshop/bar/performance theater on Friday, March 14. Struggling with a bad connection between his keyboards and the P.A., bassist/keyboardist Chris White didn't give in to a couple of hecklers who advised him to "just play the bass" and get on with it; instead, he insisted that the sound guy turn it up, up, up, finally rendering his key tinkling perceptible to the capacity crowd. Tight as a drum, VU didn't even miss a beat when the lights went out during its set. Because the moment synched up nicely with vocalist Ben DeVoss's lyrics -- something about darkness in the night? -- most people in the audience assumed it was planned.

Listeners were thrown for a loop with separate Friday showcases from Vaux and Cephalic Carnage, two decidedly ear-splitting hardcore and noise outfits that have never had anything at all to do with Elephant 6 or any other pet sounds, thank you. With a full-length album, There Must Be Some Way to Stop Them, coming out on the Volcom label in April, Vaux abused a willing crowd that seemed relieved to encounter something so thrillingly different from the garage rock and faux-Brit whining going on in other venues. Later the same evening, at the beer-and-urine-smelling Emo's Annex, Cephalic Carnage got in touch with its potentially chemical-addled audience: "This song is for all the tweakers," said vocalist Lenzig, before tearing into a death-metal ode to amphetamines.

Early the following night, things were calm along 6th Street, Austin's main music drag, a combination of Beale and Bourbon streets. Kicking off the evening at BD Ryder's, Otis Taylor performed for nearly an hour, moving soulfully through material from his albums Respect the Dead and White African. Taylor's set demonstrated why he's such a compelling blues performer, a player with a rasp of a voice and a pair of eyes that match the intensity of his lyrics. Whether the smallish crowd noticed this -- or knew that Taylor had snagged the prestigious W.C. Handy Award last year -- is hard to guess. The evening was still young, and after three days of music, most SXSW-ers were still awaiting that all-important second wind.

For some, it never came. Which may explain why, about thirty minutes after takeoff, all of the hipsters on my plane had gone to sleep.

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