Two Diaries from South by Southwest #19, Part One
WEDNESDAY, MARCH 16
City Pages writer/clubs editor Lindsey Thomas and I arrive in Austin, Texas, for the 19th annual South by Southwest music festival along with a gazillion other journalists, musicians, industry people, and music fans. After waiting two hours to register, I feel--for the first but not last time during the next four days--like Eric Cartman at the amusement park: The attractions are awesome, but the lines, the lines! It gets crowded here, and it's sometimes hard to predict the biggest-drawing shows (or know to avoid them). That becomes easier as the fest's theme emerges: It's the seventh or eighth British reinvasion.
The first show I see is by the festival's best-named act: Whitey Houston. The rhythm-section-only duo--plus the maracas player (read: eye candy in pigtails and a baby-doll dress) they've brought along for this show--has a little trouble. Bassist-singer Lyle "Whitey" Bell, looking trés Canadian in a giant fur hat, says that in their journey across the border, "to rock slash shock you," the band members were relieved of their instruments and had to buy new ones here. Bell hasn't acclimated to his new bass guitar--it won't stay in tune, and he has to ask the audience if anyone has a strap. But the sound is declared "good enough for rock 'n' roll" and he and drummer Rob "Gravy" Hoffart stumble on admirably, pausing between songs to explain Canadian politics to the crowd. "Gay marriage: A-okay. Beer: strong. That's about it."
Later, after an unremarkable set by the A-Frames, Sleater-Kinney take the Emo's stage and deliver a great set. They sound heavier than ever but have preserved the eclecticism of their recent albums. One song even sounds oddly country-ish. The other surprise of their show is a SXSW rarity, an encore.
The "keynote speech" by Robert Plant (of Honeydrippers fame) turns out to be not so much a speech but a Q&A. He's also presented with a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Yes, there's some promo for his new album, but the conversation also roams to more interesting topics. Plant talks about meeting Elvis Presley in a tacky hotel. He talks about his parents not letting him listen to the few blues records he could get his hands on, by cutting the plug off his record player. He says he donated money to an NPR station in Portland, Oregon, after hearing an on-air pledge to never play "Stairway to Heaven." "It's not that I don't like the song," Plant says, "It's just that I've heard it before."
Thursday night, after encountering the horrifying queue for British buzz-band the Kaiser Chiefs, I give up and wander aimlessly, catching a small part of a New Orleans showcase at the Fox and Hound that looked intriguing in the shows list. But electric bluesman Jon Cleary and his band give off a corporate-party cover-band vibe, so I leave to check out Dallas band and SXSW mainstay the Deathray Davies, enjoyable '60s-revivalists in the vein of the Brian Jonestown Massacre, but more coherent and less chaotic (and not as creative).
Later, I'm at the Back Room on Austin's outskirts to see Viking Skull (more Brits), part of a Metal Hammer magazine showcase. It doesn't feel like a real SXSW show--there's so much room to breathe, and the audience looks entirely made up of Slayer fans circa 1988. Old-fashioned head-banging ensues. The vocalist makes fun of the crowd's gender imbalance. "This song goes out to the one chick here," he says before launching into another eardrum-crushing tune called "Red-Eyed Woman." Actually, my eyes are blue, but thanks.
An early show at Flamingo Cantina by L.A. indie rapper Busdriver (see recent review at citypages.com) is one of the best I'll see all four days, though I can't tell you what he rapped about owing to his often Twista-paced lyrical delivery.
Later at the Stubb's outdoor stage, Kasabian singer Tom Meighan is sporting a very Jagger-esque horizontally striped tank top. Many of his stage moves are equally familiar, but it's harder to pin down a forebear to the band's electronica-influenced Brit-rock. These guys seem refreshingly grateful to be onstage, even though they're already huge back home. Meighan ends every song with a sincere-sounding, "Thank you very much, God bless you, Austin!" These repeated apparent valedictions lead audience members to shoot each other confused looks that say, "They can't be done yet...they haven't played the single." The band does of course play the infectious single, "L.S.F.," after which the crowd dutifully files out (guess they weren't here to see the "special DJ set by Fischerspooner").
Erykah Badu is rocking the most spectacular afro I've ever seen, Randy Moss included. Inexplicably, no hair-care questions come up at the Q&A at the Convention Center. Instead, Badu talks about her arts-outreach community work in her hometown of Dallas, and audience questions center on same, when they're not straight-up Badu worship. She also discusses her first SXSW appearance a decade ago--she'd somehow lost her shoes, but everyone thought her barefoot state was intentional so she got away with it. There is talk of the pressure that fame brings ("I feel it when I'm getting dressed, brushing my teeth"), the baneful press ("One paragraph that takes two minutes to read can unravel everything"), and of course her new music label, Control Freaq Records, with which she intends to "free the slaves and the slave masters" and give artists control over their creations. Still, though, she claims to be a mom first and an artist second--perhaps hinting at a future recording contract for son Seven.
On the final night, I make it to exactly zero festival-sponsored shows. I do catch a charmingly named punk-oriented anti-SXSW showcase, Fuck by Fuck You, held outside of an art gallery next to some train tracks. Appropriately, I can't bring myself to give a fuck about any of the bands, but the visual art is compelling. A giant unframed canvas of demonic children shares space with a sculpture of found objects covered with a sticky-looking whitish substance. I'm sure it's some sort of glue.
At the Vice Records party I unintentionally catch energetic Brits Bloc Party (see CD review, p. 51) for the third time in four days, which I fear makes me a Blochead. Sorry about that. I must need to go home.
Read Lindsey Thomas's SXSW diary here.
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