There are something like two bazillion bats in Austin, Texas. On the underside of a bridge that divides north from south, the night-flying creatures shriek, defecate and hang upside down all day long in one of the largest bat colonies in North America. Once a day, around sundown, they make a frantic flight en masse -- a fuzzy black aggregate of tiny, flapping wings that moves blindly across the Austin sky.
Once a year, Austin's bat population is nearly usurped by the startling influx of music-industry types, a species that, like bats, is often loathed -- or at least misunderstood -- by the general public. Every March for the past fifteen years, the South by Southwest music festival has invaded the town and seized control of its bars, clubs, hotels and late-night coffee shops. It's a five-day marathon that's sure to tire even the most regular ingestor of shmooze and live music.
But unlike New York City, which hosts the College Music Journal festival every fall, or Portland, where the North by Northwest festival has gained steam over the past five years (although its sponsorship deal reportedly derailed this year), Austin seems uniquely equipped to deal with such an invasion. Even on a normal day, the town is known as the live-music capital of the world; in spite of being situated in the center of the Lone Star state (which even natives will agree is the geographic antithesis of hip), Austin has long been a creative oasis for songwriters, players and fans. Music is simply part of the culture, the way professional and recreational sports are in Denver. Every self-respecting cab driver knows the way to Willie Nelson's house (the braided one is more revered in town than W), everyone's in a band, and every restaurant has a stage tucked somewhere in a corner of the room.
Even before the SXSW circus comes to town, Austin could be the place Jefferson Starship had in mind when it envisioned that city built on rock and roll. (Remember?) So when 50,000 additional musicians, record-label owners, groupies, producers and press types are added to the mix, Austin provides a fleeting glimpse of what might happen should the slacker set ever decide to colonize its own planet. (Nothing really starts happening until the late afternoon; smoking is encouraged, if not mandatory; all restroom floors are covered with water and wadded-up paper towels; and the entire town smells a little like cheap draught beer.) Toward the end of the conference, it is only mildly startling to see David Byrne in person (Backwash spotted him at the airport, hauling his own luggage), to encounter the Cult's Ian Astbury eating barbecue at Stubb's, to be asked to hand toilet paper to Bellrays frontwoman Lisa Kekaula or to crash into Ryan Adams in line at the bar. SXSW is a bit of a racket -- as fine an example of the concept of a clusterfuck as you're likely to find -- but it's also a hell of a lot of fun, a kind of Universal Studios for music fans where you're actually allowed to get off the moving tram and touch the exhibits.
The festival also draws a fair amount of criticism from longtime observers, who argue that it has strayed from its original purpose as a showcase for unknown talent and instead morphed into a hype mechanism for artists already well on their way. Others lament the fact that it's a meat market -- really no different from the National Western Stock Show, except that the product being displayed generally doesn't have udders or poop on the floor. Both charges are valid, of course: You have to wonder if the expense of getting down to Texas is really worth it for an unknown or smaller band. With so many acts participating, it's easy to get lost in the mix; the chance of being missed altogether is very good indeed. Who knows if The LaDonnas -- who played a fine, furious set at a wonderfully divey dump called the Hole in the Wall -- will get some mythic break after playing SXSW. Or if nGoMa, the only non-affiliated group in the Loud Records showcase, managed to perk up the ears of whatever label people were in the house. (The show, which featured sets from the X-ecutioners and the Beatnuts, was one of the hip-hop highlights of the rock-centric SXSW, as well as a critic's pick in the Austin Chronicle; unfortunately, nGoMa was allowed to bring only its DJ, Dijon, to the festival, and not its live band, which undercut some of the fine work the MC duo has been producing over the past six months with live instrumentation.) Sadly, Backwash was not able to attend shows by Yo, Flaco!, Dressy Bessy or the showcase of Tanger, Someday I and Wretch Like Me, artists on the Owned & Operated label out of Fort Collins; strong winds grounded our plane in Dallas and had us descending into Austin at about the same time these bands were taking their respective stages.
With the music industry in such a sorry state of consolidation and uncertainty, bands really don't "get discovered" anymore; making a living as a musician is more of a science these days. You're talented? Looking for a good record deal? So are Kristin Hersh, Kelly Willis, Matt Johnson and hundreds of other established artists. Events like SXSW are unlikely to do much for your band unless you're already working all angles of your career. SXSW attendees interested in formal instruction on this kind of thing were invited to take part in the daily conferences that gathered experts from within the music industry to address topics of interest to artists and professionals; former Boulder Daily Camera music scribe David Menconi, who recently published Off the Record, a fictional biography of a rock band that's marketed through his Web site, offtherecord.com, was among the panelists. Notes from all discussions can be found through the festival's digital archive, at sxsw.com.
What SXSW does do -- and does so well -- is provide a living, breathing, strumming, drumming reminder that despite what the radio man might be telling you, there's still plenty of great music being made in America. The festival creates the surreal and nearly impossible dilemma of choosing from hundreds of amazing artists playing at any given time; this, for example, is the only time you could have a reasonable excuse to hesitate when asked if you'd like to see all of the best Bloodshot Records artists playing outside on one perfect afternoon. Care to take in the entire Merge Records roster, with free chicken wings? Hmmm. Judgments become almost arbitrary. A five-minute wait in line to see the Ike Turner Review becomes too much when you can pop across the street and catch the tail end of Lucinda Williams or Brassy or Half Japanese -- Jad Fair and Jason Willett at the Alternative Tentacles showcase, which included a fabulous effort from Slim Cessna's Auto Club, complete with MC work by Jello Biafra himself.
Of course, the best moments are often the surprises, which is sort of the point: Stumbling onto great bands you've never heard of but whose music you joyously bounce along to is one of life's true pleasures. And then there are the odd opportunities to see stuff that just doesn't come to places like Denver. In Backwash's case, it was the never-to-be-repeated chance to catch personal cult heroes in the flesh, including Astrology Songs creator Harvey Sid Fisher (please see harveysidfisher.com immediately if you are unfamiliar with this gem, a gift from the gods of Los Angeles cable access) and Daniel Johnston (who performed with a group of extremely stoked high school punk-rockers called the Nightmares).
Of the million ways you can experience SXSW, the marathon approach is favored by those who have an abundance of both stamina and cab fare. No matter what strategy you employ, though, you're almost certain not to be bored or disappointed. And if you are, you can simply try some other stage on for size.
Showcasing bands are encouraged to soak all of this up: For their trouble, they can either accept a fee ranging from $100 to $200 or get free badges and wristbands to all shows -- a no-brainer for those who crave the full SXSW experience. At a time when it's easy to be cynical about the dearth of good stuff being released, admission to this event is priceless for anyone who makes -- or just loves -- music. Can I get a yeee-haw?
Denver still has a long way to go before it has its own SXSW-like event (which some people, such as traffic cops, might view as a blessing). But we do have a couple of minor approximations of it, and both of them are coming up quickly.
This weekend, Capitol Hill United Neighborhoods hosts band auditions for the People's Fair, which celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. Under the surprisingly calm direction of CHUN entertainment committee co-chairs Sharon Rawles and Jackie Annis, the auditions will take place during two days, on two stages, at the Soiled Dove; auditions will run from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sunday. (The musicians with morning slots who lament getting up early should remember that they have the advantage of playing for what will likely be an exhausted/hung-over/bleary-eyed crowd -- an easily pleased group.) If you get a bit skittish after a few hours of loud music, you may want to bring your earplugs: According to Rawles, when one band stops, the next one begins, leaving only enough time for a quick turn of the head to the other side of the room. All told, about sixty local bands will play sets of ten minutes each in a friendly sort of battle of the bands that will determine the majority of the People's Fair talent lineup. It's a marathon, all right, and one that doesn't require non-musical participants to do much more than sit around and enjoy it. It's also the year's most diverse sampler of local music.
Finally, no mention of local music samplers would be complete without a self-promotional nod to Westword's own Music Showcase. The omnipotent forces who run the show from behind the scenes (and whose identities are so closely guarded that Backwash received the following information from a masked carrier pigeon) have made the following announcement: Leftover Salmon will be among the thirty bands that take to various LoDo stages on Sunday, May 20. The rest of the ballot will be announced in a later issue -- but judging from the names leaked so far, it's worth waiting for.
Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get this pigeon out of my office.
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