South by Southwest '96--with bullets.
*At a crowded seminar entitled "Why All the Clamor for Entertainment News?", Village Voice senior editor Ann Powers claimed that Hootie & the Blowfish are "fascinating." Because she's a respected professional, no one laughed at her. Perhaps one-tenth as many conventioneers checked out primers on Tejano and hip-hop--unsurprising, given the overwhelmingly Caucasian complexion of the event as a whole. The panels addressing these last two subjects were configured identically: People of color were present as commentators, but the moderators were white. Organizers must have decided that we palefaces needed translators, à la Barbara Billingsley in Airplane. Thanks, but I already speak jive.
*In town to hype an enhanced-CD version of Faust, Randy Newman sat for an interview with a windy sycophant whose numbing questions largely prevented Newman from doing what he's best at: playing and singing. After an hour, scores of fans found themselves doing the unthinkable--walking out on one of the planet's greatest living songwriters.
*Newman wasn't the only famous person at the confab. There were scores of them--and as a result, most attendees chose to let little-known acts twist in the wind. Among the groups at the end of their rope on Thursday was Denver's Jux County, who put on a bracing display for around thirty people, half of them from Colorado. The next night, Jux's Andy Monley was still depressed: "I'm going to have to rethink my life," he muttered. The members of Boulder's Acoustic Junction, a late add to the lineup, had better luck; they offered up their rambling, loping musical marathons (note that I avoided using the "neo-H" word) before a sympathetic throng at White Rabbit, a joint whose decor is dominated by tie-dye and paisley. Go ask Alice--when she's ten feet tall.
(Denver's 16 Horsepower, once part of the SXSW roster, didn't play at all. Fest spokesperson Leah Wilkes says representatives from A&M, the trio's label, told her that a 16 Horsepower appearance was a top priority at the company. However, a week after the act made the cut, A&M big wigs changed their minds. Horsepower bassist Keven Soll didn't know anything about this bizarre turn of events until he was informed of it by Westword.)
*Bands plowing the post-Nirvana field were everywhere at SXSW. Of the 96 groups I sampled over the course of the fest, 31 fell into this category. A handful of these were pretty good, but far too many made the Stone Temple Pilots seem like striking originals by comparison. The next most overstuffed bracket was roots rock. And the roomiest? Performers who couldn't be pigeonholed at all.
*The blur that was Thursday night, condensed:
Older faces. Geraldine Fibbers was a lot better live than on LP. Iggy Pop, his long hair bleached blond, looked like a flat-chested version of Baywatch's Pamela Lee. Wayne Hancock's throwback country was absolutely gorgeous. The Nields and Skiploader bit the big colostomy bag. And Fred Schneider, looking disturbingly like Ray Walston circa My Favorite Martian, presented an intentional/unintentional satire of the genre we call modern rock. It sounded ultra-lousy, which may have been just what Schneider wanted.
Newer faces. Birdy, from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, specialized in sweet pop played loud. Dallas's Caulk sucked same. The New Orleans Klezmer All Stars gave Eastern European folk a delicious Cajun tang. Austin's dreamy Billy White, a star in the making, did such a convincing Hendrix shtick that it left witnesses gasping. Fierro, led by two Emilio lookalikes schooled in Garth Brooks moves, made some of the most theatrical Tejano you'll ever hear. And Ambrosia Parsley, a fine, bluesy singer-songwriter, emoted like crazy for ten people at the State Theatre. Hope it was worth the trip from L.A., Ambrosia.
*Panelist Mark Shumate, owner of Denver-based Bohemia Beat Records, provided an answer to the question posed by the Friday symposium "How Can You Get Retail's Attention?": Spread some money around. Shumate revealed how he's paid stores for putting his discs in listening centers and touted a contest in which he gave $50 to any clerk who was playing a certain Bohemia Beat CD when he called. That's indie promotion, Nineties style.
*Later, at "Is AAA Still Relevant?" Boulder-based radio consultant Dennis Constantine revealed how Adult Album Alternative stations see their audience. He said that those over thirty are generally "passive" listeners who like "background" music; hence, programmers must "spoon-feed" them new artists who sound enough like past favorites to make them "comfortable." I'll bet those of you into the Peak, the Mix, Alice, KBCO and other AAA derivatives feel right on the cutting edge now.
*The most entertaining seminar of the weekend was "Were the Grateful Dead Really Any Good?" For more than an hour, people with diametrically opposed opinions talked past each other in an acid-tinged variation on the Jerry Springer show. Attempts to contact Jerry Garcia via Ouija board were unsuccessful.
*Among the bands on the bill for an outside-the-festival barbecue at the Electric Lounge was Wesley Willis' Fiasco. Upon my arrival that afternoon, Willis, a self-described schizophrenic, came at me with hand out, babbling energetically. "You like my music?" he barked. "You like my music? You going to buy my CDs? I have CDs over there. I just signed with American Recordings fourteen months ago. Ha, ha, I'm only joking. I signed with them fourteen minutes ago. I'm going to be a big rock star. Big rock star." Then: "Say raar. No, say raaaar. Raaaaaar. RAAAAAAAAAAR!" Tabitha Soren, MTV "journalist," arrived to cover Willis soon thereafter. Diggie Diamond of Denver's Foreskin 500 (which put on a swell spectacle at Emo's that night) tried to express his affection for her between cups of baked beans and had to be forcibly restrained. Afterward, a still-miffed Soren stomped on my wife Deb's foot. Deb tried to get an apology out of her, but she was too busy yelling at her cameraman to bother. Is that any way for someone named after a Bewitched character to act?
*The blur that was Friday night, condensed:
Older faces. Kelly Willis established that mainstream country can actually sound good. Guided by Voices was the bar band of your dreams. The members of Son Volt couldn't have looked more bored if they had tried. By contrast, Robyn Hitchcock, the only bloke whose show I watched in its entirety, was brilliant. I already knew that, of course, but after seeing dozens of bands distinguished only by the fact that they were indistinguishable from one another, I needed a reminder.
Newer faces. New York's Dragmules weren't a drag. Minneapolis-based Acetylene lit it up. The Adults shouldn't have been released from their Austin garage. Joe Popp, from Tampa, imitated Cheap Trick. And Kevin Burke's Open House presented the best C&W ditty of the weekend, "Oedipus Rex" ("He killed his pa and married his ma/That's a thirty-dollar fine in Arkansas"). That Open House was a Celtic band from Portland made this find all the more pleasant.
*Instead of attending seminars on Saturday, I took a tour of the ranch that was once the home of dead president Lyndon Baines Johnson. Johnson's initials have been borrowed by KLBJ-FM, Austin's modern-rock station, even though his favorite song, a guide informed us, was "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head," by B.J. Thomas. Talk about alternative.
*That afternoon, the Electric Lounge hosted another barbecue, this time featuring Denver's Apples, who'd been booted out of their showcase slot for a technical violation of SXSW policy. Their sin was to agree to appear at a non-sanctioned event that SXSW types deemed "too heavily advertised" to ignore. Fortunately, some music-biz insiders stopped schmoozing long enough to hear some of their first-rate set. Others waited outside in the hopes that Tabitha Soren would come by again.
*Along with everyone else in Austin, I wanted to see the Fugees (see page 73), scheduled to gig at 7 p.m. on an outdoor stage. But a brief patch of rain an hour earlier threw the production crew into a panic. After nearly two hours of dicking around by techies, the threesome turned up. But midway through their first song, it started raining again and the music was stopped. Still, the two minutes they played sounded great.
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*The blur that was Saturday night, condensed:
Older faces. Don Walser, an old-timey country yodeler, lived up to his Austin legend. Tish Hinojosa blended south-of-the-border influences and Western pop with smooth flair.
Newer faces. Nashville's BR5-49 imparted novelty country. Super Deluxe, out of Portland, spewed smashing pop-punk that didn't owe a thing to Green Day. Chapel Hill's Tweaker was noisy, exciting, fun and scary, all at the same time. No One Is Innocent, from Paris, was like Falco, only worse. New York's Goatboy deserved the horns. And Milwaukee's Mrs. Fun, a two-piece that suggested the Spinanes gone jazzy, was one of SXSW's best sleepers.
*Early Sunday morning, as SXSW ground down, I began to sense my good time being tempered by a certain disenchantment. To me, the conference should be about discovering fresh talent, not marketing commodities already available in your neighborhood disc store. But as SXSW grows, the little guy is being overlooked. A case in point was Ovis, a Los Angeles singer-songwriter who was the last performer I saw before losing consciousness. His act was exceedingly simple: He sat on a stool with his guitar and played songs about romance gone right and gone wrong. And he was good; I especially liked a romantic pop tune in which he declared, "I love you like Morrissey loves Morrissey." But even though he went over big with a decent-sized assemblage, few of those present wore SXSW badges around their necks.
Did anyone from a record company see him? Probably not. And more's the pity.--Michael Roberts