When it comes to the South by Southwest Music Conference, bigger isn't necessarily better.
This year's model, which ran from Wed-nesday, March 18, to Saturday, March 22, in Austin, was the William Conrad of confabs. Thanks to an expanded lineup on the event's first day, over 1,000 acts shopped their wares to music-biz executives, promoters, bookers, radio pros, journalists and just plain folks who descended upon the Texas capital like killer bees with American Express cards. This quantity topped the highest previous total of showcasers by 200 or so. But rather than taking advantage of this bounty, a lot of decision-makers focused on established stars, buzz bands and industry-sponsored soirees with open bars. As a result, the unknown and the unsigned, for whose sake SXSW was originally formed, were left to fight for the attention of a relative handful of scouts legitimately looking for new talent--and the daunting number of outfits that fell into this category made the chances of discovery slim indeed. I saw all or part of 83 performances in three days, running myself ragged in the process, but this sum constituted only about 8 percent of the musicians on the SXSW bill. And given the frequency with which my colleagues in the entertainment universe informed me that I was working much too hard, I'm guessing that my approach was the exception, not the rule.
The losers in this equation were bands such as Adrian Romero and Love Supreme, a Denver-based Westword profile subject ("Supreme Beings," January 22) that managed to land a SXSW slot without the assistance of either a kidnapping plot or Sean "Puffy" Combs. When Romero and compadres took the stage on Saturday night at Steamboat, a venue on Sixth Street, Austin's main drag, approximately fifteen people were watching them. More filed in during the course of the set, and Romero worked hard to overcome a lousy sound mix and the inappropriateness of the club, whose party-hearty atmosphere wasn't all that conducive to the band's fairly intricate sonic blend. But I still found myself feeling sorry for him, and for everyone else who traveled so far for so little.
But at least Romero got there, unlike two other Colorado products. Five Iron Frenzy was slated to play on Thursday at the Back Room, the most far-flung club at SXSW; it was about as close to Sixth Street as Littleton is to Coors Field. Nevertheless, I dutifully shlepped to my rental car and made the drive, only to discover that another band, Inspector 7, was skanking in the scheduled combo's place. The reason, according to Five Iron Frenzy bassist Keith Hoerig, reached back in Denver a few days later, was the weather. "We had just finished a tour," he said. "We were in Columbus, Ohio, and we were supposed to fly into Chicago and then catch a flight to Austin. But there was a storm, and all the flights were canceled. So we had to spend the weekend in Columbus." What did the lads do in this hotspot? "We went bowling," Hoerig revealed.
A similar situation prevented Boulder's Sherri Jackson from crooning at the West Side Alley on Friday. As Jackson told it after the festival was over, she and the members of her band were planning to drive to Austin on Wednesday, but heavy snowfall in Denver and Boulder closed I-25, postponing their departure. The blizzard got out of Denver the next morning, but its remnants headed along the same southerly route that Jackson was planning to take. To make matters worse, a production assistant who was supposed to handle much of the driving suddenly backed out of the trip--meaning that the musicians would have to play in front of the rich and the powerful after motoring for twenty-plus hours along treacherous roads. "So we decided that we just couldn't do it," Jackson noted. "Which was a drag, because I was really looking forward to going there and hearing all that music." There were compensations, however. "I had a really great day of snowboarding," she said.
'Boarding was out of the question for a couple of other Colorado bands, the Minders and the Apples. Both groups bowed at SXSW on Wednesday, prior to my arrival in Austin, but the reports I received about their turns were uniformly good. The Minders (whose gig was sponsored by Westword) didn't exactly pack them in at another Sixth Street room, the Iron Cactus, but the 75 or so listeners who stopped by had positive things to say, and so did lead singer Martyn Leaper, who checked in from the road: "The show was fun, and the town of Austin was a nuthouse," he said. As for the Apples, they delivered what observers described as a wonderful batch of songs at Liberty Lunch, one of SXSW's largest spaces. The throng on hand (including Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records, which is distributing the Apples' latest disc) witnessed mild-mannered lead singer/mastermind Robert Schneider conclude the evening by smashing his guitar to bits. But this was an example of irony, not angst. His bandmates burst into laughter at the gesture, and Schneider's cheerful comments to the audience--"Thanks, everybody. Good night!"--implied that he thought it was pretty funny, too.
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.
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Bands signed to majors supplied some enjoyable moments at the conference: I liked the Old 97's, Mojave 3 and some others. But once again, the fringes were the best places to visit. Olivia Tremor Control, part of the Elephant 6 collective that includes the Apples (who guested on one ditty), wowed fans on Thursday at the Electric Lounge with updated psychedelia infused with melody and sprinkled with brass; even without nearly enough microphones to do them justice, the musicians made an indelible impression. The following night, the High Llamas, who travel to the Bluebird Theater on Tuesday, March 31, took an unconscionably long time getting their sound right at the same venue, but the delay was entirely justified: Their beautiful chill-out tones, made up of one part Martin Denny and two parts Brian Wilson, came through with a crystalline clarity unmatched by anyone else in Austin last weekend. And on Saturday, the Waco Brothers, fronted by irrepressible Englishman Jon Langford, practically tore the Copper Tank apart. After thrilling to the band's toxic brew of country, punk and wild abandon, I walked out beaming.
If there were other shows at SXSW '98 as good as these, I couldn't find them; the event has become so sprawling that getting a handle on it is impossible. Size matters, but music matters more.