Man...or Astroman?, the last attraction I saw at the 1999 edition of Austin's South by Southwest, the country's largest music conference, seemed to epitomize its current state. The band, which appeared early March 21 at a venue called La Zona Rosa, cheekily pretends to be futuristic, but almost everything about it is a reference to the past: The musicians wear Flash Gordon-style duds and play a souped-up variation on Sixties surf instrumentals against a backdrop of faux mainframes from a computer era that ended a long, long time ago. Even the film projected while they were setting up looked backward, albeit amusingly: The fifteen-minute opus told the story of Star Wars using toys and action figures. I laughed at the flick and enjoyed much of Astroman's energetic shtick, but when I walked away, I felt hungry for something new, something fresh, something surprising. And I'm still hungry.
SXSW got its start in the mid-Eighties, and its early mission was to provide an opportunity for underground rock and punk performers, as well as practitioners of the roots music that flourishes in Texas, to be heard by imprint titans. Soon thereafter, the event mushroomed to mammoth proportions, in part because Austin is ideally designed for such a confab: Oodles of performance spaces are on or near the main drag, Sixth Street, making it possible for listeners to check out group after group without having to trade in their sneakers for a cab. But in many ways, the booking policies have not kept up with the times. Today, hip-hop, Nineties soul and electronic music are booming elsewhere on the planet, but SXSW '99 all but shrugged off these forms. Instead, participants were innundated with alterna-sounds, indie-rock and roots efforts, just like always. At one point I asked my beloved, who accompanied me on my brief journey into the heart of darkness, if she wouldn't mind popping into a certain club, and she responded by asking why we should bother, since odds were strong that the combo on stage would be no different from the one we'd just seen or the one we'd see next.
This comment is a bit hyperbolic, but it cuts to the crux of the matter quite nicely. I was unable to see every act on the SXSW bill, or to even come close: With more than 800 scheduled, I would have needed a Star Trek-style transporter and a barrelful of amphetamines to keep up, and I was clean out of both. But I did sample 85 selectees over the course of three jam-packed days and nights, and I can count the groups that caught me completely off-guard on one hand--and without using all of my digits, either.
The same can be said of SXSW's daytime panel discussions, which mainly confirmed that the music business can be mighty scary. Not surprisingly, sessions that dealt with modern sounds, such as March 18's "Is Rock Music Becoming Dance Music? (Is Dance Music Becoming Rock Music?)," attracted crowds that could have fit comfortably inside a Volkswagen Beetle, while seminars concerning the quickest way to get as rich as a Saudi Arabian sultan were packed with folks eager to fatten their wallets. Typical of the latter was "Downloading on the Upswing: Trouble for the Music Industry?" during which a batch of prosperous-looking Web-heads described ways in which the Internet can be transformed into an automatic teller machine. For instance, one suit took great pleasure in explaining how a free download of an unreleased Alanis Morissette tune wasn't exactly free after all. The song was available for just 24 hours, he said, and because it was programmed to deteriorate unless fans bought a copy of Morissette's latest disc within that span, its presence gave a significant boost to CD sales and caused the lagging demand for her concert tickets to improve. As a bonus, record-company executives wound up with around 200,000 e-mail addresses that they can now use to specifically target Alanis aficionados--meaning that people who thought they were getting something for nothing will be receiving Morissette press releases and other assorted cyber-hustles until they're in the grave. What a bargain.
March 22 yak-a-thons such as "The Politics of Soundtracks" also espoused a greed-is-good mentality, but other offerings provided a few modest consolations. "Artists: How We Make Records" became a charming platform for, of all people, Richard Fairbrass of Right Said Fred, whose sole claim to fame is "I'm Too Sexy," a silly but infectious salvo that made him piles of loot as a hit single and a television commercial. He argued that musicians shouldn't play without being compensated for the same reasons that plasterers don't pass up paychecks for the chance to work in a really nice house. A later debate, "Bored of the Chairman? Rethinking Frank Sinatra," failed to live up to its controversial concept: Instead of arguing over whether Sinatra was overrated, the participants all agreed that--hold the presses--he was a rare talent. But Village Voice scribe Robert Christgau got the chance to underline a seldom-made point: that great artists are frequently reprehensible on a personal level. And you thought they gave all that dough to good causes out of the goodness of their hearts?
On the streets of Austin, charity was in short supply, and so were the big breaks that have become a SXSW legend (or fantasy, as the case may be). With a great many music-biz heavyweights either hanging with clients or nursing expense-account drinks at hotel bars, lots of performers hoping to be discovered wound up playing for a couple dozen homegrown drunks incapable of signing their own names, let alone seven-figure contracts--and that was pretty much how things went for this year's Colorado contingent. But at least they received mostly enthusiastic reactions for their trouble. A sizable throng was on hand at Emo's Jr. to hear the Nobodys, from Colorado Springs, rip through a predictably deafening slab of porno punk. (Lead shouter J.J. Nobody's idea of gallantry: He dedicated the romantic classic "Best Tits in the World" to a young woman standing in front of him.) The LaDonnas, who bowed at the Red Eyed Fly, proved to be an equally strong draw despite a crummy sound mix, with frontman Ross LaDonna making like AC/DC at the end of one notably aggressive punk raveup: "All fuckin' night long, bay-bay!" he bellowed. The Czars, sponsored by Westword and their new label boss, Simon Raymonde, also battled lousy acoustics (the Ritz Lounge frequently reduced the band's intricate soundscapes to sludge), but vocalist John Grant's stunning crooning consistently rose above the din to the excitement of a small but attentive audience. And Magpie, starring John Magnie and Steve Amedee, two former Subdudes, used precise but emotive harmonies, skittering percussion and a wholesome helping of accordion to get patrons of the Pecan St. Ale House swaying.
More mysterious was Planes Mistaken for Stars, a band based in Denver that practically no one from Denver knows. As it turns out, the group is originally from Illinois, and its four members (Gared O'Donnell, Matt Bellinger, Jamie Drier and Mike Ricketts) moved to the area so recently that they've hardly performed in the state they now call home. Planes is inked to Deep Elm Records, a New York firm whose acts took over the Electric Lounge on March 21, and even though the congregation it attracted wouldn't have filled many collection plates, the quartet didn't hold back, unleashing an emo-core flood of hyperactive riffing and drum-kit punishment.
The result was fairly impressive in and of itself, but it couldn't help but blur together in my mind with the other dozen or so SXSW bands that did the same kinds of things. The exception to this rule was San Francisco's Jack Saints, but its achievement had less to do with its music than its approach to setting up. The players were nearly fifteen minutes late because of obsessive tuning and sound-checking--so late, in fact, that I stuck around for no other reason than to find out if the complications of their music demanded such unbelievable attention to detail. When the band finally kicked things off with the most cliched power chord in the history of live music, I got my answer.
Most of my colleagues steered away from such relative unknowns, preferring instead to camp out at one or two clubs per night in order to watch groups with which they were already familiar--hence the ludicrous mob scene at La Zona Rosa on March 19, when Mercury Rev, Sparklehorse and the Flaming Lips performed back to back to back, and the March 20 date at Austin's Paramount Theatre with the brilliant Tom Waits (who I was lucky enough to catch live back in 1985). My approach, by contrast, was to skip around in order to get a sense of SXSW's overall flavor--and a lot of it didn't taste good. Bob Popular, a club with several separate music rooms, was the headquarters of genre tokenism: The majority of the festival's DJs were trotted in and out on one night, with about half of the electro acts that broke through SXSW's all-guitars-all-the-time dogma on another. Even worse was the hip-hop showcase, during which a breakdancing crew and a couple of graffiti artists were treated like bizarre novelties. (Note to SXSW: Krush Groove and Beat Street are not new movies.) And then there was the decision to kick off the proceedings with New York's The Sound of URCHIN, a rap parody populated by boorish Caucasians. I doubt that the SXSW schedulers were trying to insult an entire art form--the ones I've met are quite sincere--but that's what wound up happening.
Nevertheless, the Sound of URCHIN made an impression, which is more than I can say about far too many acts. The Causey Way, Motorpsycho, Mover, Chevelle, My Friend Steve, 44 Long, Bluebird, Troy Young Campbell, Grace Braun, Appleseed Cast, Supafuzz, Sons of Hercules, Hai Karate, Cooper, Orbit, Unida, The Wontons, Ryan Shupe and the Rubber Band, Leaderhouse: I could sketch out why none of them rose above mediocrity in my eyes, but it would be a waste of newsprint. Better that I mention the outfits that gave me some pleasure--among them Los Mismos, a swoony Tejano juggernaut from Mexico City; Lafayette, Louisiana's Frigg A-Go-Go, a boisterous garage band; country singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen; Austin's own ...And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead and the highly entertaining Kiss-Offs; Atlanta's catchy Ultrababyfat; the unstoppable Supersuckers; and London's Asian Dub Foundation. When I was watching them, a good time was had by me.
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My list of genuine favorites, however, is just three acts long. Calexico, from Arizona, made the Jazz Bon Temps Room into a place of rare beauty on March 19, combining a windswept, spaghetti-Western vibe with complex arrangements that were intriguing but never fussy. The March 20 gig at La Zona Rosa by Cibo Matto was nearly as fine: The music was more sophisticated than that on 1996's exuberant CD Viva! La Woman, but Yuka Honda and Miho Hatori, supplemented by celebrity boyfriend Sean Lennon on bass, retained their off-kilter sense of fun. Most memorable for me was Johnny Dowd, who I saw play in a tent behind Yard Dog, a pricey art gallery, on the afternoon of the 21st. I had first learned of Dowd in early 1997, when his independently produced disc, Wrong Side of Memphis, somehow found its way to my desk, and I was thrilled by his visceral, consistently homicidal way with rock and roll. I subsequently wrote an extremely positive review of the disc, after which Dowd himself called me up from his Ithaca, New York, home and revealed that he carried the blurb around in his pocket so that he could force it on anyone and everyone he met. In the interim, Dowd hooked up with an indie, the aptly named Checkered Past, and he's now hoping to get Memphis heard by someone other than yours truly.
Those under the Yard Dog tent certainly seemed dumbstruck by Dowd, whose black threads and gray pompadour left him looking like someone who'd just done a twenty-year stretch in the pen for killing a rival with a tomato-soup can. They wore expressions midway between joy and shock as he and his band tore up compositions whose benign surfaces only partially cloaked a nasty underbelly. When Dowd yelped, "You ain't pretty/And the sky isn't blue/But I don't care/I'm still in love with you," it was plain that if the object of his desire didn't reciprocate his feelings, she'd better hit the ground running. The music was disturbing, dangerous and, unlike so much of this year's SXSW fare, undeniably real. Dowd will probably never become a star, but he's a one-of-a-kind character. And at a festival desperately short of commodities, that's saying plenty.
Backbeat's e-mail address is: Michael_Roberts@westword.com. While you're online, visit Michael Roberts's Jukebox at www.westword.com.