George W. Slept Here

HEY, TWIN CITIES--

Greetings from Austin, Texas, and the 15th annual South by Southwest music festival and conference. Wish you were here.

No, really, I mean it. Where are you? One thousand artists played SXSW this year, and exactly two acts--Atmosphere and Janis Figure--call the Twin Towns home. In fact, current Minnesotans are outnumbered here by deserters such as Micranots, Teddy Morgan, and Mike Nicolai.

No Minnesota singer-songwriters need apply: SXSW reject Mason Jennings
No Minnesota singer-songwriters need apply: SXSW reject Mason Jennings

Is the local talent pool really that shallow? Well, no. Fact is that SXSW doesn't make it easy for the fledgling artists the festival was once intended to boost. Participating bands are paid just $175 to appear--a sum that won't cover gas money from Minnesota to Texas. What's more, the selection process is increasingly becoming an insider's game, and those without connections are about as likely to score a slot as Summit is to replace Shiner as Austin's suds of choice.

Just ask Mason Jennings. Apparently, selling 25,000 records isn't enough to put a guy on the map, because SXSW rejected Jennings's application. I don't know, maybe he used a dull No. 2 pencil when the form clearly specified blue or black ink only.

Jennings made the trip anyway, and his short solo sets at a pair of daytime parties were among the best of the nearly 60 shows I saw in 120 hours between touchdown Wednesday evening and takeoff Monday afternoon. Note to A&R yo-yos: His once-strident antiestablishment rhetoric may be weakening.

Of course, if A&R yo-yos had read this space a year ago, I would have cashed in with a nice finder's fee by now. Perhaps you will remember Tift Merritt, an unsigned and unknown nobody from Raleigh whose golden throat turned my head around last March. Back this year with an improved band, the young country singer gave a charismatic and utterly confident performance in opening for Lucinda Williams at one of the city's largest venues. Now Merritt, Williams, Ryan Adams, and a handful of others constitute the initial stable of Lost Highway Records, a Mercury offshoot aiming to exploit the Americana niche market.

Lucinda herself proved none too shabby in showcasing material from her forthcoming disc, Essence, which was recorded in Minneapolis beginning last fall. Williams was by no means the only veteran making the rounds at SXSW to hype new product. The parade included the Black Crowes, the Cult, the Soft Boys, David Byrne, Alejandro Escovedo, and even lapsed folkie Amy Ray of the Indigo Girls fronting--gasp!--the punked-out Butchies.

Then there was the trio of Alternative Nation icons, each headed in a different direction: Steve Malkmus, wandering aimlessly away from Pavement; Juliana Hatfield, back with the regrouped Blake Babies, and J Mascis, whose pickup band included Minutemen bassist Mike Watt and former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton. The last act was, if nothing else, a rarely matched exercise in nostalgia, with each man rocking as if his own particular decade of fame had never passed.

But the grandest vets of all were older still. In the festival's most anticipated set, Ike Turner and his crack Kings of Rhythm skillfully turned the clock back to a time when rock still rolled. If only Turner's geography were as sharp as the cut of his suit and the brim of his fedora: He greeted the crowd with a hearty shout of "Hello, Houston!"

Significantly more lucid was Ray Davies, who delivered the conference's keynote address. When he wasn't taking the piss out of the industry drones gathered at his feet, Davies sprinkled his speech with acoustic sketches from the Kinks catalog, including "Come Dancing" and "Low Budget." Later, clad in a long dark coat and shades, Davies joined the New Pornographers at the indie-pop quintet's showcase, where he led the grinning group through the Kinks' "Starstruck."

If the Pornographers didn't earn the biggest buzz of any young band, that distinction would go to a pair of acts who harnessed punk aggression to the blues (the White Stripes) and to soul (the BellRays). They played back-to-back sets in a small club crowded with famous faces and older dudes in blazers chatting on cell phones. The blazer guys seemed to prefer the White Stripes, but I'll take the Bellrays, whose hardcore-diva vocalist Lisa Kekaula wears an impeccable Afro and deals out swift kicks in the rear to any skinny white bandmate who might briefly turn his back.

Here comes the part where I should offer a glib summation of the trends to watch for in pop music in the coming year, as identified by the SXSW conferees--as if any such predictions weren't pure bunk of a brand usually associated with Austin's recently departed Dubya. After all, the party line last year said that dot-coms would dominate in 2000, dooming to obsolescence once and for all the music industry as we once knew it.

Instead, SXSW 2001 was held in the shadow of Intel's planned chip factory in downtown Austin, a partially constructed shell that's currently on hold, thanks to the Nasdaq collapse. Looks like next year we'll be rocking in its ruins.

 
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