Looking back on my dispatches from SXSW last year, the 2005 conference began much less romantically. I’d been up all hours in Athens the night before, dropping off passes for our Paste showcase with some industry folks, but more importantly catching Yep Roc band, The Moaners, who I’d recently interviewed in Ashville, N.C., for an upcoming scrapbook piece in the magazine. The drums ’n’ guitar duo is comprised of two kind-hearted ladies who lay down their Southern blues-punk with a grungy forcefulness that makes for a powerhouse live performance. Former Trailer Bride frontwoman Melissa Swingle’s songwriting is creepy yet catchy, her drawl draped beautifully over Laura King’s mind-blowing drumming.
After the show, I burned it back down highway 316 to Atlanta, caught three hours of mostly restless sleep, then rolled over to Hartsfield International for my flight to Austin. I dragged my bags across the seemingly endless airport parking lot, accompanied by reviews editor Jason Killingsworth and new associate editor Reid Davis, on his first assignment since joining our illustrious staff. (The rest of the crew flew in the previous day.) It was cold, gray and drizzling—more typical of Georgia’s short-lived winter than its typical mid-march weather. Eyelids heavy, we boarded the plane. After liftoff, I thumbed through Mark Kemp’s insightful new book Dixie Lullaby, the former Rolling Stone editor (and now Paste contributor)’s personalized foray into Southern rock, race and politics.
Flying really rattles my nerves. I always have dreams of falling from high places. And the flight’s excessive turbulence doesn’t help. There’s something so unnatural about being 30,000 feet in the air in a giant, winged, metal tube. Yes, bad nerves. Which leads me to an 8:00 a.m., empty-stomach bloody mary. Not the best choice. But, c'est la vie.
Landing in Austin, the weather’s the same as Atlanta—chilly, damp and windy. So with all that tomato juice and vodka sloshing around my gut, I grab my bags and we hop a cab to the Radisson in downtown Austin. There were no suites available this year; all booked solid. But who am I to complain? The circumstances leading up to this moment might not be ideal, but while most of my friends, and perhaps many of the Paste faithful, are grinding away in their cubicles, making the world go ’round, I’m in Austin, Texas, have full press credentials and, in the next four days, hundreds of the world’s best up-and-comers and established artists will be here, ready to rock.
After a Mexican brunch of chilaquiles verdes and chorizo and eggs at diner Las Manitas, there was no mistaking it—here I was again in some bizarre alternate reality: the land of tacos and beer. The music industry Spring Break. Label execs, journalists, artists and publicists all descending on Austin. Were they angels or vultures? Maybe both. After a while in this business, it’s hard to shake the cynicism. It creeps in like termites through balsa wood. And the inherent problem seems to be that everyone wants something from somebody else: coverage, access, money, accolades. Things can get dicey. Who do you trust? Are these people really your friends? All you can do is hope the ones you encounter have good intentions. But, like I said last year, this is about the music, which—with the perfect measure of luck—just might eclipse the concept of art being business.
On the way to rock club Emo’s, we run into Cracker/Camper van Bethoven frontman David Lowery and his cohort Johnny Hickman. After pleasantries it’s on to the first show of the day. Editor Josh Jackson and I walk into a roomful of folks swaying to the fuzzy, droning slo-rock of Warm Records band Phosphorescent. But the music is far from one dimensional. There are ten people on stage, and plenty of horns and percussion. Just when folks start nodding off in a trance, the Athens, Ga., outfit erupts into something approximating a marching band—steady, festive and triumphant. Wait, did I just fly across the country to see an indie folk-rock band that hails from a town only an hour from my home? Well, why the hell not?
After a few tracks, Phosphorescent adds quietly groaning accordion, a canvas for singer Matthew Houck’s forlorn, creaking vocals. There are moments he sounds like Conor Oberst’s not-so-distant cousin. The set is perfect for a lazy afternoon. This year it seemed more appropriate to ease into things, rather than leap straight into the fiery rock ’n’ roll abyss. As the music slithers along, I glance up and gaze stage-right. A twisted painting adorns the brick wall; a fanged clown, mouth agape, eyes rolled back in its head, pistol in hand. Vibrant swells of low-pitch feedback unravel under persistent horns, while toy xylophone, tambourine and handclaps punctuate the sound.
(photo: Elvis Costello)
Outside, the streets are starting to bustle, especially over on East Sixth, the town’s main drag. In the midst of the slowly building madness, on the corner in front of club Aaron’s, Chris Hutchins (of the band Natfield Littlecourt) braves the icy wind, furiously strumming his nylon-string acoustic. I take a few minutes to wander, stopping at one of the myriad pizza joints that dot Sixth Street for a few slices of jalapeno and pepperoni, then pop by The Jackalope for a PBR. Lucinda Williams blasts on the stereo. It’s the kind of seedy bar I generally enjoy patronizing. Seems like I was just here, sitting in a dark corner interviewing former Flat Duo Jet Dexter Romweber. But it’s been a long year since then. Time flies, but never comes in for a landing.
As night falls on a close-to-freezing Austin, I take shelter back inside Emo’s, partly to bring up my body temp, and partly to catch Italian psychedelic band Jennifer Gentle. I never caught Syd Barrett with Pink Floyd; he left the band long before I was born. But seeing Jennifer Gentle on stage, I imagine, is as close as I’ll get. Spacey, free-form jams, colorful notes floating through the air, sinking slowly to the floor and forming silver metallic pools. There is no dark side of Austin. Matter of fact, it’s all dark.
The music ventures into Umma Gumma Floyd territory—crystalline keyboards, clashing cymbals, sonic mountains furiously expanding inside synaptic gaps. There is no light show at the club tonight, it exists only in the careful folds of the brain. Bassist Nicola Crivellari plays hypnotic patterns on his McCartney-style Höffner, while the band’s organist chops at his keys, a man possessed. This is heady stuff. A long jam is followed by the maddening psychedelic-baroque-pop-on-helium of “I Do Dream You.” Here, the song is more static and dissonant than its blissed-out recorded version. Frontman Marco Fasolo's melodies are at-times sweet, then suddenly its as if his vocal chords are being dragged across a cheese grater. Jennifer Gentle is beautifully eccentric, living in a world of lysergic marches full of “yee-hahs!” and “woo-hoos!”—a day-glo dreamland with a Wonka-esque charm. Weird. Good weird.
After the shuttle lands, I shed my spacesuit and hop a cab to Fox & Hound’s, a restaurant bar with a cavernous-tent-covered, outdoor, parking-lot stage. I feel for the poor girls selling drinks, who have to fish through the metal tub filled with icewater ’til they find the particular beer you ordered. One of them, shivering, hands me a Lone Star. I drop a bill in the bucket.
The crowd huddles together over the pavement, clamoring for warmth as Austin veterans The Damnations bust a set of sweet, countrified harmonies, rocked-up Americana, bluegrass barnstormers and Texas boogie. Fronted by talented sisters Amy Boone and Deborah Kelly—and armed with a healthy catalog of well-written songs—it’s high time this band received some long overdue national recognition. Even in the cold, feet are stompin’ as the band tears through the Carter Family classic “Ain’t Gonna Work Tomorrow.” After a few songs, guitarist Rob Bernard switches to banjo. Unfortunately, he has some problems with the instrument. But the band members turn a would-be equipment dilemma into a fun little barrelhouse-piano interlude, keeping the crowd hooked while things get fixed up.
Before I forget I’d like to especially thank the cursing immigrant cab driver with the “Keep Austin Weird” T-shirt (and the accent I couldn’t quite place—European, South American, Pakistani, I’ll never know), who gave me a bumper sticker emblazoned with the following:
IF MUSICIANS WERE ROCKET SCIENTISTS WE’D BE ON PLUTO
Keep Austin weird, indeed.
For me, the most anticipated show of the conference is Midlake. The band’s triumphant debut made Paste’s Top 20 Signs of Life list in 2004, and was aptly described by Jason Killingsworth as souding like “Jason Lytle and Wayne Coyne collaborating with famous 8-bit Nintendo music composer Koji Kondo and the San Fransisco Philharmonic, using Willy Wonka’s bubble room as their rehearsal space.”
When all the Paste staffers meet up at dim-lit bar Friends, the place is packed to the gills. Since the band can’t manage to get its gear through the crowd and onto the stage, the show is running behind schedule. After a 20-minute delay, Midlake finally takes the stage, kicking things off with jazzy tom-tom flourishes, persistently throbbing bass and bleeping, droning, video-game synthesizers. Snippets of the audience’s mostly inaudible conversations mingle with the music as if part of the same avant-garde composition. But you can tell something’s wrong from the get-go. The vocals are too low in the mix and aren’t properly EQ-ed, the bass is drowning everything out, and it’s difficult to hear the synths that, essentially, anchor the band’s sound. The Midlake show turns out to be a momentous letdown. But it isn't the band’s fault. Not one iota. This brings us to a segment from last year’s post entitled “The SXSW Sound-Guy Theory.” Here’s the hypothesis:
…so many great acts at SXSW have their shows hurt by poor sound. You see, in every town, there are a few men or women who are pros when it comes to running sound. They can always be counted on, no matter where they are, to get things sounding as close to perfect as possible. They often float from club to club, hired out—when a big band comes to town—to work the show. But at SXSW, with so many amazing bands flooding Austin (not all of them with their own live-sound engineer present), there’s just no way to have a someone who knows what they’re doing at the mixing board at every show. So you’re bound to have the overall sound quality drop when you look at the conference as a whole.
Halfway through Midlake’s unsalvageable set, I split and flag down a rickshaw, which promptly scuttles me over to La Zona Rosa for Elvis Costello. The ballooning number of conference attendees this year (11,000 compared with 7,000 last year) combined with the allure of seeing Costello in a relatively small venue, leads to a 35-minute wait at the door. I pass the time conversing with a talent buyer for a club in Hartford, Conn. By now, it’s so cold my teeth are chattering. She just laughs and unbuttons her jacket. “What are you talking about?” she says. “It’s nice out!”
Once inside, I see Costello lit up under the red lights of the stage, donning amber shades and his trademark suit and tie. Always interested in exploring the boundaries of pop, he tries his hand at injecting some jammed-out Latin jazz into his sound. Then, shifting into classic soul mode, he covers Smokey Robinson’s “You Really Got A Hold On Me,” the crowd providing haunting call-and-response backing vocals. Costello’s croon seems stronger than ever. As he’s aged, he’s learned to let it be, and as a result it’s more natural, gritty and down-home. He's a true professional and his tasteful, powerhouse set with The Attractions is suddenly rescuing my otherwise spotty SXSW evening.
After the hints of bossa nova in “When I Was Cruel, No. 2,” I realize how flawlessly Costello assimilates disparate genres—world, pop, jazz, soul, calypso, punk, reggae. It’s all there. Not to mention rock, of which he delivers a heaping helping when he drops into his latest single “Monkey To Man.” With a top-notch melody and a riff for the ages, this new ditty is among Costello’s best. The crowd bops, shimmies and claps along. He follows with ballad “Either Side of the Same Town.” Fittingly, my legs almost give out during “I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down” which morphs into Otis Redding's rave-up “I Can’t Turn You Loose.” When it seems the energy level at the club can’t get any higher, Costello breaks in “(What’s So Funny ’Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding.” Fists are pumping and even gray-haired men are thrashing about, banging their heads and playing air guitar.
As I stumble toward the door after the show, exhausted but satisfied, I’m caught in the vicious tractor beam of a hot-dog vendor. Mmmm… processed meat. It’s a long walk back to the hotel. On the way I run into alt.country band The Derailers outside Fox & Hound’s, as they load out. The band’s steel player, Chris Schlotzhauer, is imparting worldly wisdom to a young film student who’s volunteered for the festival. I listen as he gives her an off-the cuff speech about maintaining a work ethic but still having fun. The Derailers and Schlotzhauer—who's also one of producer Lloyd Maines’ go-to session players—are about to begin work on a new record, he tells me. After a firm handshake and an ‘adios,’ I press on—weary, partly frozen and hotel-bound, wondering what tomorrow might bring.
(tune in tomorrow afternoon for more SXSW hijinks)