Greetings from Austin, Texas, Live Music Capitol of the World.
Ever since I started going to the South by Southwest Music Festival nine years ago I've heard people complain about how big the festival has gotten. The general line is that back in the good old days it was a human-scale event in which unsigned, mainly local, bands showed off their stuff to grateful, mainly local, audiences and maybe a few music bizzer types. It was quaint and good and everyone had a great time.
But then it got ruined by people like me -- a decent local festival grew into Spring Break for the Industry with Austin becoming a hill country Fort Lauderdale with hoardes of unworthy outsiders clogging the streets; musicians corrupted by visions of greed kissing up to the music biz creeps with their cell phones and pony tails; long lines and high prices; another good thing done gone.
Normally I ignore such sentimental blather. But after a day of traffic jams all around Austin (much of which, in fairness, can't be pinned on SXSW), an oppressively long line to pick up the official SXSW badge, the huge crowds at most the venues and the throngs of revelers out on the downtown streets, I began to wonder if perhaps this thing hasn't grown out of hand, exploding beyond repair.
Or maybe I've just gotten old and feel like it's my turn to gripe about the passing of the good old days.
But even with the problems that come with what seem to be the bigger crowds, the basic pleasures that draw me back to Austin and SXSW -- the music, the food, and seeing old friends -- are still pleasurable.
My little entourage kicked off the festival with our usual ritual -- Frito Pies at the The Texas Chili Parlor, made famous in Guy Clark's "Dublin Blues." No Mad Dog Margaritas for me this year though. In fact this is my first SXSW since I gave up drinking. (Maybe that's why the long lines and big crowds seem worse to me.)
Wednesday nights are traditionally lighter than subsequent nights on big national talent. This gives festival goers a chance to check out new, unknown bands.
Last time I came here we started out seeing a local group called The Girl Robots, an artsy New Wavey band that was lots of fun. This year we decided to stick with the robot theme and check out The Baby Robots. They sound a lot like Sonic Youth, doing weird things with screeching feedback and odd guitar tunings. But they've also got a good garage sensibility and are well acquainted with the "I'm Not Your Stepping Stone" chord pattern. You can even hear a little Talking Heads in the Baby Robots. And just like people used to say the Talking Heads looked like Young Republicans, the Baby Robots are freshfaced youngsters who look like the kind of kids you'd trust to babysit your children.
We also checked out a few songs by a band from Mexico called Vaquero. These guys epitomize the concept of "crossover dreams." All their new songs seem to be in English. Basically a guitar band, who employ some elements of Flaming Lips syntho psychedelia in some songs, Vaquero creates some extremely beautiful and catchy melodies. One of my favorites was an instrumental in which the singer played a melodica. It sounded like the theme from an imaginary French movie.
I tried to check out Los Lonely Boys at the Austin Music Awards show at the Austin Music Hall. But the staff wouldn't let me in with my camera. I was sincere when I told them I wouldn't take any pictures. But that didn't get very far with these by-the-book volunteers. Can't really blame them for not buying my sincerity. After all, they have to deal with music industry folks all week.
So I headed east towards Stubbs BBQ, where unfortunately I was too late for the Von Bondies. However I was just in time for The International Noise Conspiracy. This is a politically-minded high-energy guitar-based band from Sweeden. They have black leather jackets like The Ramones, but their sound is colored by an electric organ that sounds right out of Steppenwolf.
At one point the singer told the crowd that he knows that Americans don't like Swedes coming over here and preaching to them about politics. "But what you do in America affects the whole world," he said. "So fuck you if you're going to vote for George Bush again!"
The crowd -- who I assume to be mostly American -- applauded wildly. (However, Bush might have the last laugh. If statistics hold up, only a fraction of the young people who were cheering will even bother to vote.)
Capping off the evening was an old favorite rocker, Joan Jett, who concentrated mainly on enthusiastic takes on her hits of yore -- "Bad Reputation," "I Hate Myself For Loving You" and, of course "I Love Rock 'n' Roll."
Queen Joan has a knack for choosing perfect cover songs -- Tommy James' "Crimson and Clover," Sly & The Family Stones' "Everyday People," The Replacements' "Androgenous." Her strangest one last night though was a rousing "Love is All Around" -- the theme from The Mary Tyler Moore Show. There is a Texas rock 'n' roll connection here though. It was written by Sonny Curtis, a Buddy Holly crony and sometimes Cricket. Curtis' other well-known song is "I Fought the Law (and The Law Won)."
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