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.
That evening, I walked in and out of a lot of places. I saw portions of thirty performances and again found myself underwhelmed by most of them. I caught two harbingers of the alleged dance onslaught, London's Spring Heel Jack and Chicago's Ashtar Command, but neither of them could find a performance equivalent for their often compelling sounds; the former duo hid behind a wall of disco lights that left the audience blinded, while the solo artist who goes by the latter moniker stood at the base of twin video screens and twiddled dials so slowly that I thought he might be a mannequin. And while I got varying amounts of pleasure from turns by established players (Guy Clark, the Bad Livers, the Cows, Carl Perkins) and a few unknowns (the United States Three, Sidecar), the majority of others--from Bettie Serveert to Disgruntled Seeds, one of the few rap bands to get a SXSW nod--left me looking for the beef. I figured Texas would have plenty of that, but perhaps I was wrong.
Saturday, March 15:
Given the excruciating quality of this year's panels, I could only drag myself to two on Saturday: "Stump the Rock Critic," a sort of poor man's Jeopardy, and "The Producer's Role," in which Glen Ballard, the man responsible for shoving Alanis Morissette down the planet's collective throat, made the incredible claim that all the music-business types he's met have been extremely supportive, loving and positive--which, if true, has more to do with Morissette's sales than it does with the personal characteristics of corporate weasels. I sent Ballard every hatred vibe I could, but unfortunately, he didn't clasp his chest and fall to the floor. So I split--but I returned to the clubs that night in the hope of discovering something/anything that would leave my head buzzing with possibilities. Instead, I caught Phoenix's Zack Phillips Band and Boston's Vertical Horizon, easily the worst groups I'd been subjected to thus far.
This would have been the worst possible moment to run into Space Team's Prasad--which, of course, was precisely what happened. But at least I could report to her that the members of the five Colorado bands on the SXSW roster had acquitted themselves far better than the average showcaser. Slim Cessna's Auto Club performed on Wednesday night, prior to my arrival in Austin, but critic-by-proxy Jeff Stark, a former Westword intern now writing for the San Francisco Weekly, pronounced it the highlight of the night, as did the music bible of the Web, Addicted to Noise. (Says Slim, "It was definitely a positive experience. A couple of record-company people we'd been talking to were there, and they were really excited. It was a fine thing.") Judge Roughneck, which bowed on Friday, kept a large and enthusiastic assembly skanking; the Hate Fuck Trio put on their usual laugh-a-minute onslaught before an overflowing mob heavily populated by label types just after dusk on Saturday. As for Fort Collins's Armchair Martian, the three-piece did not draw well, but they put out scads of energy anyhow. The Martians are skilled and precise, and even if their music is not especially original (the trio suggests a merging of HYsker DY and Social Distortion), it's loud and powerful. Which are two good things.
Space Team Electra was considerably better. The group's Thursday set found guitarist Bill Kunkel, drummer Kit Peltzel and bassist Greg Fowkes offering up shifting slabs of feedback and alterna-sounds that Prasad tied together musically and visually. The combination was well-received by the audience at Austin's Club DeVille, but by Saturday, Prasad didn't seem to remember what had happened; music overload had left her with with an armadillo-on-the-train-tracks glaze. However, she did manage to say that the promised inspiration had hit her only "in spurts"--meaning that she had also been victimized, at least to some degree, by the malaise that seemed to hang over the festival as a whole. With the popularity of rock and alternative on the wane, everyone seemed to be looking for the next big thing, but no one was finding it. The Denver bands had made strong showings, but I had heard them before. I wanted to hear something else--something that would keep me going until SXSW rolled around next year. And I found it in the persons of the four strange young people in Lutefisk, a band from the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles.
The quartet displayed numerous routine influences--psychedelia, punk, art rock--but singer/guitarist Dallas, singer/bassist Natalie Wood, guitarist Frosting and drummer Quazar put it all together in a manner that was completely their own, then added a generous supply of their secret ingredient--a sense of humor. At one point between songs, Quazar (who bore an odd resemblance to Carrot Top) began screaming, "Dance! Dance! All of you couldn't possibly be from record labels--so dance!" After Dallas reminded the drummer that there was no music playing, the outfit remedied the situation by kicking off "Hug Me," an anarchic cataclysm of a song that got so wild it threatened to bring down the tent under which the band was playing. At the tune's conclusion, Dallas delivered a simple, from-the-heart message. "Come on," he said. "Give someone a goddamn, motherfucking hug."
Words to live by.
Monday, March 17:
As I was trying to pull all of my SXSW observations together, I got a call from John Castellano, a fan of the band Rush who's been circulating a petition begging Geddy Lee and buddies to play a show in Denver. "This may be their last tour," Castellano declares. "I flew out to San Jose to see them last November, and they were just phenomenal. So if there's anything I can do to get them to stop here, I'm going to do it." He proceeded to tell me that petitions are available for signing at numerous music stores in the area, including Wax Trax and First Bass; Rush maniacs can also e-mail their support to Castellano at jvccjco@AOL.COM OR SNAIL-MAIL HIM AT 4945 SOUTH PEARL STREET, ENGLEWOOD 80110.
AT FIRST I SAW NO CONNECTION BETWEEN CASTELLANO'S QUEST AND MY REACTIONS TO THE CONFAB; AFTER ALL, I'D RATHER HAVE MY EYEBALLS PLUCKED OUT BY A FALCON THAN SIT THROUGH AN ENTIRE RUSH CONCERT. BUT THEN I REALIZED THAT WHAT CASTELLANO GOT OUT OF RUSH WAS WHAT I WANTED FROM SXSW--TO FEEL EXCITED ABOUT MUSIC AGAIN. EVEN THOUGH IT TOOK ME 71 BANDS TO EXPERIENCE THAT SENSATION, I FINALLY DID. AND IT WAS GREAT.--MICHAEL ROBERTS
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