Dazed and Confused at South by Southwest

Why didn't anyone warn me that the lobsters in Austin have boobs?

After arriving in beautiful, sunny Austin, registering for the conference, and getting our photos snapped for ID badges, we schlep our SXSW tote bags back to the Capitol Marriott. The heavy bags contain promotional material like flyers and sampler CDs, Austin's alt-weekly the Chronicle (or should I call this party edition "The Chronic"?), music magazines, a detailed band schedule, earplugs, a book of matches, and what at first appears to be another book of matches but is in fact a condom. I'm starting to get an idea of what this whole thing will be like.

Later, there's a sushi buffet laid out on an almost naked woman at the foot of the stage at a club called Pyramids. But the audience has to wait for the Yuppie Pricks to partake before they can get their share of the free dinner at this nine o'clock show. For a moment I worry about the safety of temporary serving tray Susan Wayward, who's an Austin burlesque dancer, but I needn't. The mob is tame. After the power-suit-wearing Austin punks launch into a number celebrating the joys of consumerism, people approach the table politely and walk away eating. Remarkably, the sushi rolls covering the woman's nipples remain undisturbed.

I usually split my working hours between copyediting and finding other people to write about bands. Which makes it a little intimidating to be surrounded by so many folks whose brains are storing more musical minutiae than are contained in all the Cheapos in all the world. I'm not so sure I'll be able to withstand the sheer volume of shows--and the sheer length of lines. I fear there's a reasonable chance I'll end up spending the last day watching TV from a fetal position on my hotel bed.

"Ya'll better act like this is a rap show!": Jean Grae
Tony Nelson
"Ya'll better act like this is a rap show!": Jean Grae

One of my first orders of business for preventing rock-overload is to check out some hip hop. At Thursday's Beans show at Emo's, the guy next to me says that his two friends in front of us just got engaged. Aw, how romantic. Then, the old-school New York rapper ends a freestyle-sounding flow with "I have just one regret, that my daughter's raised without me/I wasn't in love, just out of condoms." Now, I'm really feeling the love.

Following Beans, Jean Grae takes the stage and excoriates the crowd: "Ya'll better act like this is a fucking rap show!" And the mostly white crowd at this mostly indie-rock festival does. Fists are raised, heads are bobbed, and calls are responded to. "So, you drinkin'?" Grae inquires playfully. The audience replies in the affirmative.

In her sneakers and shiny black Puma jacket, Grae paces the stage, rapping intensely. "Hater's Anthem" has everyone chanting along to the "Fuck you" chorus. "What Type of Life Is This?" is a catchy admonishment to listeners who "drink the pain away" that they should start living better. It gets a good reaction even if the message is being flagrantly ignored. As for the rapper, apparently some vices are worth keeping: "I quit the trees at least (yeah right)," she slurs. Grae begins wrapping up with a shout-out to independent music, "especially hip hop," and then, as so many acts have before, she raises the roof. She closes with a (facetious?) nod to crunk, performing a brief snippet of J-Kwon's "Tipsy."

At some point in a long night's bacchanal, I run into two members of Minneapolis's Sweet JAP outside a roaming taco truck. Why don't we have these at home?

Several rock bands later (including a Franz Ferdinand show with a line from an amusement park in hell), a few comrades and I head to an afterparty where Joan Jett is playing in a huge warehouse. My friends' names are on the guest list as expected. Mine is not. I stand awkwardly behind the fence for a few minutes pretending to wait for someone to make a phone call. Then, when no one at the entrance seems to be looking, I walk through. Success!

Or not. The crowd has a strange, corporate-party vibe, even as Jett's band rocks out to songs such as "Bad Reputation," "I Love Rock N' Roll," "Crimson and Clover," and, yes, the theme song from The Mary Tyler Moore Show.

Already in two and half days, I've seen more bands than I usually do in a week, or even a month. And I've slept less than I usually do during a Saturday-afternoon catnap. I need a little vacation from my vacation. So early Friday evening I break from the club scene and catch a reggae show by Toots and the Maytals in a huge park at the edge of the river called Lake Austin. It is part of the official festival, yet it's free and open to everyone and the scene is thoroughly rastafied--racially diverse crowd, little kids in tie-dyes, pot smoke in the air. The band plays an enjoyable cover of John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads" while the sun sets and the skyline glitters from behind the stage.

And then it's back to the hard-charging relaxation. There aren't as many people as I expected at the 9:00 p.m. Hold Steady show at Elysium, but I'm glad there's no line. The band, however, plays as if the room is as crowded as a Japanese subway car, and each person in the audience shouts with the strength of three men. Before breaking into "Hostile, Massachusetts," frontman Craig Finn, in vintage Twins T-shirt, makes it clear he's happy to be in live-music heaven. Never losing his grin, he crows from stage, "I've been here 24 hours, and I haven't seen a DJ yet!"

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