Dazed and Confused at South by Southwest

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

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.

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!"

It dawns on me at this show that everyone is friendlier at SXSW. Musicians deign to speak to publicists, critics and label flacks get along swimmingly, Minneapolis people who don't greet me when I see them out at home give me enthusiastic hellos. Could be the camaraderie, could be the booze, probably both. I do much running around and check out several more bands this night, but the most memorable art I see is an illustration of revelers by Marcos Chin brightening up a bathroom stall. It's personal art for me this evening, as I, myself, am reveling in a bathroom stall.

Saturday brings another assortment of daytime parties. The Yuppie Pricks frontman had handed me a flyer with a picture of a topless woman the night before and said, "Hey, we're having a pool party." Later examination revealed that there was a swimsuit contest planned between bands. The flyer for another party, where TV on the Radio would headline, also featured breasts--I think. These were located on some kind of sombrero-wearing lobster/alien creature that had about 10 pairs of them. I believe we made the right decision on which gig to attend.

The setting, alongside a set of railroad tracks, is perfect: A punk squat that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. It's an outdoor space surrounded by buildings and shacks, one of which contains an actual clean, flushing toilet. Occasional trains speed by sounding horns that are loud enough to drown out the music, causing grins all around under the canopy of trees. After Parts and Labor and Fakers have stepped off the stage, which is decorated with old mirrors and a pink lawn flamingo, a noise begins from behind the audience.

For a moment it had looked like Coachwhips might actually play onstage, but no. Which is just as well, because the ground's loose gravel seems to help frontman John Dwyer with his moonwalk-on-meth dance steps. The raw, fast songs are punctuated with firecrackers thrown by audience members, and Dwyer even evinces concern for the crowd. "You guys okay on beer?" he asks. "I know how to do a few things," he adds. "Beer's one, oral sex is the other."

The group garnering the most media attention of the week, though, does so not through music, but the old-fashioned way: They get themselves arrested. Latin rockers Ozomatli apparently end every show by forming a conga line with the audience and leading it outside. In this case, the plan runs afoul of an Austin noise ordinance. Getting into the communal spirit, the police share some pepper spray, and an officer claims to have been assaulted with a drum. The band's manager is also arrested--she claims for trying to find out where the two detained band members were to end up. The next morning there's already a local newspaper photo of a guy modeling a "Free the Ozo 3" T-shirt and one of the great headlines of recent ages: "SXSW Conga Line Leads to Jail."

And then, after five days and some three dozen bands and perhaps three times that many drinks, the gig was up. On the car ride home, I ran through a mental mix-CD of all that had transpired: the endless lines and guest-list confusion, the wasted musicians and drunken obnoxiousness, the hand-drawn crustacean mammaries and the complimentary sushi of questionable hygiene. Twenty hours and 1,200 miles later, I still had a hangover.

I get to go again next year, right?

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