A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
March 21, 2008
The theme of many thumb-sucker articles about this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival was the general malaise in the music industry (which puts the general malaise of the newspaper industry to shame). When I realized that Beatle Bob — the dancin’ fool/ fabulous mop top/rock ’n’ roll koshare from St. Louis — was not in Austin for the festivities, I took it as a dreadful omen for the music biz, an industry lousy with dreadful omens in recent years.
Yet in Austin last week there seemed to be more bands, more fans, and more music — both official SXSW showcases and unofficial parties — than ever before. Even so, registration for SXSW is stagnating, Michael Corcoran of the Austin American-Statesman reported.
There are three levels of SXSW goers. There are the official registrants like me. Popularly known as “badge-wearing scum,” these are the music-industry types who pay up to $650 for a badge to gain entry to all SXSW events and cut in line in front of the lesser mortals. (Bona fide reporter types like me, some musicians, and others get badges for free.)
Then there are the wristband people, who buy a pass that allows them into sanctioned SXSW events (if there’s room). And a growing number of folks forgo both the badge and wristband. Theoretically they can pay cover charges at the individual venues, though the places with well-known bands fill up quickly with badges and wristbands.
Most of my SXSW entourage used to buy wristbands but decided this year to go without. For one thing, the bands are more expensive than ever; one friend paid $165 for hers, but in some places they were going for as much as $180. And even worse, they’re a much bigger hassle to get.
In the old days, you’d find someone who lived in Austin willing to stand in line to pick up a whole batch of wristbands for you. These days, I suppose in an effort to stop scalpers, it’s only one per customer, and the wristband wearer has to be present at the time of purchase to have it attached to his or her wrist. I suppose next year they’ll just tattoo a bar code on your wrist.
And worse yet, a wristband doesn’t guarantee you entrance in the shows you want to see. Some of the most popular showcases had signs that read, “Badges Only.”
There are a zillion or so “day parties” from which to choose during SXSW that don’t require wristbands or badges; in most cases, these are free. Corcoran reported Sunday that SXSW organizers, who call these events “parasite parties,” actually provide the Austin fire marshal a list of day parties.
Their concern for our safety is touching.
Here’s a look at some of the shows and events I attended last week, official and otherwise:
* Roky Erickson: The godfather of psychedelic horror rock headlined a fine afternoon of rock ’n’ roll at Threadgill’s. His Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social has become an annual event, but this was the first time I’d been able to go.
Erickson, whose struggle with mental problems has been well documented, seems to have recovered quite nicely. He ripped through his songs — leaning heavily on tunes from his greatest album, The Evil One.
His band, The Explosives, is a tight little trio featuring guitarist Cam King. In Austin, he was joined onstage for his last few songs by his old friend, ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons (who reportedly is planning a new album with Erickson).
One of the most amazing aspects of Erickson’s performance is that after each song — most of which are filled with images of paranoia, demons, vampires, and bloody hammers — Erickson flashed the most angelic smile, waved to the crowd, and thanked everyone. “Bless the sunshine,” he said at the end of the set.
Indeed. Bless the sunshine.
* Carbon/Silicon: Pretty inspiring for a bunch of old guys. This band — led by ex-Clash member Mick Jones and Tony James of Generation X and Sigue Sigue Sputnik — played at the Austin Convention Center’s TV studios for a live concert on DirecTV.
The quartet, a classic two guitars/bass/drums lineup, plays basic Clash-type tunes with its feet in and its head in leftist politics. Some of the songs had titles like “War on Culture” and “Soylent Green.” Check out some of the band’s free MP3s at their Web site.
* X: This classic Los Angeles punk group has broken up and reformed a few times but still sounds fresh and vibrant. Original guitarist Billy Zoom is back in the fold. With his blond pompadour and Chuck Berry licks, Zoom still looks as if he wandered into the wrong group, thinking he was joining a rockabilly band. But he also looks like he’s having the time of his life.
The weird harmonies of Exene and John Doe are still the highlights of the band. They sing together as if they’ve uncovered some secret Appalachian code to summon the spirits of the ancestors. The group played its old, better-known songs — “Los Angeles,” “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” “White Girl,” “The New World,” “We’re Desperate,” and “The Hungry Wolf.” Some of these are 30 years old, and they don’t sound dated. But I’m wondering whether John Doe and Exene have a few more new songs suitable for X left in them.
* Joe Ely with Joel Guzman.: They recorded a live set at ME TV studios. ME TV is a cool Austin station, headquartered in a former porn theater, which, in the words of its Web site, “is a 24-hour regional network dedicated to showcasing and providing television exposure for regional artists as well as the hundreds of touring groups that make up the vibrant Texas live music scene.”
Ely sang two originals, “Letter to Laredo” and “All You Need,” plus Billy Joe Shaver’s “Live Forever” and Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner,” on which he was joined by young singer Ryan Bingham.
Beside Ely’s tunes, the best part of this event, which was sponsored by the Americana Music Association, was the homemade posole, cooked and served by Joe’s wife, Sharon. She told me the recipe comes from New Mexico. I suspect Terry or Jo Harvey Allen might have something to do with that.
Blog Bonus: Some other music I didn't get around to posting about last week.
* Ed Pettersen: Ed's a fine songwriter and performer. His New Punk Blues released last year, is just full of good songs. He's also a good producer -- a recent project being Song of America, a 3-disc variosu artist collection of songs that made this country great.
We caught Ed at an early morning gig on Saturday, right before he had to catch a plane. Enjoyable as always, though not quite as fun as two years before when he was joined on stage by his old pal Scott Kempner of The Dictators and Del-Lords. The highlight of Ed's set this year had to be "June 1945," a very personal tale of some family history he uncovered fairly recently.
* Chuck Prophet: It was worth the rude service at Jovita's to get to hear Chuck's short but potent set.
Prophet, a former member of Green on Red plays a strange brand of noirish roots rock, with lots of sinister twang. He did many songs from his recent album Soap and Water.
The only disappointment was that he didn't do anything from his Waylon Jennings album -- he recorded all the songs from Dreaming My Dreams. I could have listen to Prophet for another hour at least.
When I mentioned them last week, I said they were a cross between The Jesus & Mary Chain and My Morning Jacket. But you can hear echoes of Bo Diddley and The Electric Prunes as well.
And being on the Roky bill, it's tempting to call them grandchildren of The 13th Floor Elevators.
Continued next week .
UPDATE: Apparently I was WRONG in saying Beatle Bob wasn't at SXSW. My friend Cathy said she saw him walking down the street early in the week. I did some mad Googling and learned that he apparently introduced Roky Erikson at his showcase at Stubb's last Saturday.
It's odd though -- I normally run into him at least 3 or 4 times at SXSW. And I don't think he's ever missed a Waco Brothers appearance at the Bloodshot party. Oh well ... Here's a link to a recent Associated Press story about him.
Another Update: I performed a slight edit on the X section taking out an unintentional inaccuracy.