Maybe there should have been a moment when we realized we might be partying a little too hard. Say, Friday morning at 2:00 a.m., when we were ready to convince the dude at the tattoo parlor that he should ink SXSW onto our arms even though we couldn't remember how to spell it. Or Saturday morning at 3:00 a.m., when we left the Slayer dance party where a discoing man in fishnets climbed up on a table and flashed his goods to the rest of the room. But really, it was probably Sunday morning at 4:00 a.m. a few hours after a chance meeting with Johnny Knoxville, when I found myself speeding down the street in a grease-smeared shopping cart. At that point, we should have just packed up the kiddie pool full of fireworks and gone home.
And yet, during the five days that City Pages copy editor Bridgette Reinsmoen and I spent in Austin, Texas at the 18th annual SXSW music festival, we never once considered bailing on the thousands of bands, publicists, record-label impresarios, writers, and fans who gather each year to see live music and cut their lives short by a few years in the process. Why? Because, as you'll learn in the following SXSW recap, we're devoted to our jobs. Because we love music. And because we hear Johnny Knoxville is an easy lay.
Wednesday, March 17
Yuppie Pricks at Pyramids, 9:00 p.m. They look like meek prep school boys who lip sync to MC5 songs in front of the mirror. But crank those amps up to 11, throw them a stack of industrial-strength guitar picks, saddle up the drummer with a few dynamite sticks, and you can bet they'll rock as ferociously as...well, as meek prep school boys who lip sync to MC5 songs in front of the mirror. The Pricks' Bret Easton Ellis conservative punk shtick may be intended as parody, but at a time when even the Misfits' Michale Graves is running a right-wing website, their reactionary punk ethos tends to excite crowds for the wrong reasons. While the Austin band rips through three-chord band practice songs like "Hummer in my Hummer," "Poverty Sucks" (subtitled "I'm glad I'm not poor like you") and "Boo Fucking Hoo" (the theme for bleeding-heart liberals), I notice some dude with a "Vote Bush" pin cheering along. Still, these suit-and-tie Yuppies are careful not to align themselves with such accessories. "A lot of people think that we're lifelong Republicans," says one blazered band member. "But we don't belong to the Republican party. The only party we like is the coke party."
Pelican at Emo's Jr., 11:20 p.m. I hear my mouth saying, "One day, this band will rule the world." And for once, my brain agrees wholeheartedly with what my mouth says about instrumental stoner-metal--even though my mouth refuses to bribe it with psychotropic mushrooms. With time-signature changes that my friend Andrew Bonazelli says cause the kind of whiplash your insurance company won't cover, the proggy Chicagoans grind their way from expertly noodled guitar wankery to epic waves of doom-fueled power-chords. And I become increasingly convinced that Pelican could get all of Earth to pledge their souls to lifelong fandom, even if organ-farming aliens came down to vacuum up the drummer's eyes, the bassist's hands, and a guitarist's ears. Because then there would still be one guitarist left. And that would be enough.
Thursday, March 18
Grandmaster Flash at the Microsoft Party, early evening at a warehouse space My sister, who is here as the music editor of Seattle's the Stranger, notices that the chorus from "Good Times" is playing when the grandfather of rap lets the bad times roll. "When I do this," shouts Flash, playing the sample, "everyone yell 'MSN'!"
People yell all right. But the call and response only yields two colorful words from the crowd, and I don't think either one is "MSN."
Franz Ferdinand at Buffalo Billiards, 12:00 a.m. "I'm just a crosshair/I'm just a shot away from you," croons Franz Ferdinand's Alexander Kapranos to a room so packed with people that the walls should be stretching like sausage casing. A crosshair away? More like a nose hair: The crowd is pushing up so close to Kapranos that we can all see his nostril fringe shiver when he sings. And as his velvet baritone slides through a slighty funky bassline down into a full-fledged, post-punk, burn-down-the-disco breakdown, you can clearly see how this much-hyped Scottish band finagled their way into Next Big Thing status. They're edgier than the Strokes, flirtier than Gang of Four, and catchier than a Yankees glove smeared with pine tar. Though as I stand here surrounded by human sponges who seem to have soaked up all the sweat and pomade in Austin, the band's hooks aren't the only thing I'm stuck on.
Friday, March 19
The Killers at the Spin party at Stubb's, 2:00 p.m. Best lyric sung by these macho Las Vegas synth-rockers: "I hear you have a boyfriend who looks like a girlfriend." The gay man next to me wryly counters, "Yeah, and it's his girlfriend that my boyfriend looks like."
The Hives at the Spin party at Stubb's, 4:00 p.m. "The Hives have been playing the same songs for about two and a half centuries!" jokes Swedish rocker Howlin' Pelle Almqvist before launching into a set of brand new garage yawners. Maybe they should have played the old tracks for another hundred years. "I don't think you were supposed to stop clapping that quickly," Almqvist laments.
David Cross at Emo's Mainroom, 10:15 p.m. Best line of the night, overheard: The snarky comedian takes on the pedophiliac-infested Catholic Church for opposing gay weddings. "It's like they're saying, 'I have a little boy to rape, and he's got the sweetest, tightest ass, but I'm not going to marry him because that would be wrong.'"
Saturday, March 20
Viva L'American Death Ray Music at Emo's Mainroom, 8:00 p.m.This Memphis group just might become the best uninfluential rock band at SXSW to ever sound like Velvet Underground. Unlike the lore attached to Viva's heroes, no one who sees them here tonight will go out and start a band. Of course, that's just because the handful of people assembled here tonight are already in their own bands. Tight-pants singer/guitarist Nicholas Ray delivers shout-outs to any and all musicians he spots in the audience while bassist Harlon T. Bobo (try to say his last name without giggling) and drummer Shane Callaway stand at the eye of Ray's feedback hurricane, holding on to their sunglasses so that they don't blow off their faces. The crowd sways along to the tour-de-force fuzz-rock, and by the end of the set, even the SXSW headliners in the crowd look like they want to join the band. Viva l'American rock music.
The Fever, late night/early morning at the Vice party in an unfurnished house off the main drag I enter this party to find an attractive couple sipping their way through a bathtub of beer in the backyard, Johnny Knoxville chatting with Earlimart's Aaron Espinoza on the front steps, my favorite new band (the Fever) covering my old favorite Sheila E. song ("Glamorous Life") on stage, and every rock writer I've ever read getting down to Daft Punk on the dance floor inside. This feels like heaven: I'd be happy to die here and now. Trouble is, my laminated entry badge is too dull to slit my wrists.
So instead, I watch the Fever fill the Voidoids void with growling guitars, quirky new-wave keyboards, and bratty vocals that hiccup their way past the pogoing throngs of admirers. I dance for hours as the DJ spins the Cure, Cyndi Lauper, Kylie Minogue, and the Pet Shop Boys to a room full of flailing limbs. I'm having such a good time that when the cops show up, I'm not even very offended that they claim they didn't come here just to join me in a sing-along to "West End Girls." Because even when they shut off the music and I head out to the next party, I know I'm having the best night of all time. After this, I will do everything in my power to replicate the SXSW experience back in Minneapolis. And if I have to install a beer bathtub in my office to do that, then by God, I'm willing to pay that price.