On Saturday, the Paste army’s last full day in Austin, I spent most of the afternoon in our suite at the Hampton, writing and preparing for my interview later that night with Dexter Romweber, formerly of the little-known but highly influential Flat Duo Jets.
In the evening, I ordered some Chinese food from room service, ate and then took a cab to the drugstore to buy some blank cassettes for the interview, came back to the hotel and did some more research—ah, the glamorous life of the rock journalist, holed up like a cop on stakeout.
Around 8:00 p.m., I headed down to The Jackalope, a punkish rockabilly joint on the strip, to meet Dex for my interview. The singer/guitarist parted ways with long-time musical partner Crow about five years ago and has since been touring with new drummer Sam Sandler as the Dexter Romweber Duo (pictured right). When I arrive, Dex and Sam aren’t there yet, so I grab a plastic cup of beer at the bar and wait patiently. I haven’t seen many recent pictures of Romweber, as I was most familiar with him from old Flat Duo Jets recordings and the 1987 documentary Athens, Ga. Inside Out, which in addition to Flat Duo Jets features R.E.M., The B-52’s and Pylon.
After about 15 minutes, I spot a fairly clean-cut, middle-aged guy with short, dark hair who quite closely resembles the idiosyncratic yet passionate young Romweber I saw in the film. He looks over at me from across the bar. “Are you the guy?” he asks.
“I don’t know,” I reply. “Are you the guy?” The bartender, who used to live in Chapel Hill, N.C., (where Dex has lived for most of his life) also recognizes him. They talk about how they both have much shorter hair these days. A band has just started playing in the main room, so we find a slightly quieter room toward the back and do the interview (look for the story in the scrapbook section of Paste’s June/July issue).
Afterwards, Dex and Sam hit the stage, blasting the small but enthusiastic crowd with their punked-out blend of rockabilly, blues, country and ’50s-style rock’n’roll. Both are dynamos on stage, their bodies jerking about in ecstasy and agony as the music pours out. They’re both excellent players and Sam does the whole set standing up at his kit. He’s got the biggest bass drum I’ve ever seen (30” in diameter) and the shells are plastered with pictures of Tina Louise (Ginger from Gilligan’s Island).
Unbelievably, Dex has the exact same guitar he was using 18 years ago in the Athens, Ga. documentary, only slightly more beat-up. It’s unlike any I’ve ever seen and has this great dirty sound to it. I say goodbye after the show and head to Stubb’s on Red River St. to meet the Paste crew for Patty Griffin.
For some reason, I hadn’t put two and two together when it came to “Stubb’s the concert venue/BBQ joint” and “Stubb’s the BBQ sauce I always use to cook out.” They are, in fact, one and the same, I realized when I saw the Stubb’s logo on the stage. As could be expected this place had some monster BBQ beef sandwiches.
Under a semi-cloudy Texas night sky, Patty Griffin (pictured right, photos by José Reyes) began her set as her hometown crowd welcomed her warmly. The mix of breezy weather, music and lyrics was magical and she reminded all of us at Paste exactly why we put her on the cover of our upcoming April/May issue—as a singer and songwriter, Griffin has a beautiful voice and unique vision that will make her an enduring artist.
Just before the end of the show, most of us (except for art director José Reyes who stayed after to give Griffin a copy of the new magazine with her on the cover) caught a cab to Tambaleo for Rosie Thomas. If only we’d known what we were getting into, we might’ve stayed behind to meet Griffin, too.
The music of Rosie Thomas is beautiful, delicate, quirky and full of life. As an artist and performer she is shy, sincere and unbearably cute, her quiet songs deserving your full attention and appreciation. So, given all of this, here’s the scenario when we arrive at the club: Thomas gently tickles her piano keys, playing one of her most soul-bearing, sensitive tunes, behind the chicken-wire that encloses the stage. The crowd chatters violently, spilling beer, pushing and shoving. Finally, a drunk redneck with a “Don’t Mess With Texas” shirt hurls a Miller High Life toward the stage, yelling, “Play ‘Free Bird’ bitch!” The last word echoes as the bottle smashes against the chicken wire, showering Rosie with glass. Ok, this is a pretty big exaggeration (straight from the imagination of Paste reviews editor Jason Killingsworth). But still—aside from the 50 or so Rosie fans who were sitting in front of the stage, listening intently—the whole rest of the bar was as chatty, loud and disrespectful as any crowd I’ve ever seen. If you’re at a rock show, fine, no one can tell anyway. But when a quieter, acoustic-type artist puts it on the line, nothing makes me more angry than a crowd that totally disregards the music and the artist’s feelings. So if it was you being rude at Tambalaeo (of course, I assume these people weren’t Paste readers, but in case one of these people who doesn’t care about music happens upon this website), thanks for ruining the show for everyone.
Things continued at Tambaleo with Sub Pop’s Iron & Wine, another quiet, acoustic group that plays sublime, breathtaking music with well-written lyrics. And the people at the bar kept on talkin’. To make matters even worse, the sound was horrible. Frontman Sam Beam, poor guy, sounded like he was singing through 3 feet of cheesecloth. Which brings me to the “SXSW sound-guy theory,” a model I formulated after seeing 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.
So we left Iron & Wine, vowing to catch them the next time they came near our hometown of Atlanta. (It turns out later in the evening, a brawl almost erupted between the people actually listening to Iron & Wine and the people partying at the bar. Some things were thrown and choice words exchanged, but nothing, thankfully, beyond that).
Jesse Malin (pictured top right) was playing at the Cedar Street Courtyard, so we dropped by and caught the end of his chilled-out acoustic set. It was exactly what I was in the mood for, nearing the end of four mostly sleepless days of constant motion and blaring rock ‘n’ roll. The outdoor venue was the best of the entire conference, located down a wide alleyway with candle-lit tables, brick walls nearly eclipsed by ivy and a crystal-clear sound system. And I never expected Malin would be so hilarious. His showmanship matched his excellent songwriting and he took several vicious-but-hysterical shots at the some of the non-artist record industry people at the conference—“I didn’t come down here for the music,” he says in his thick New York accent. “I came down here to schmooze and booze and cheat on my wife and eat Mexican food. That’s if I were married and in the music business.”
On our collective last leg, editor Josh Jackson, Paste Records president Joe Kirk and I caught a few of Michelle Shocked’s fun and witty acoustic numbers—which displayed her well-honed storytelling skills—and headed back to the hotel to catch three hours of sleep before beginning our trek back to Atlanta, the Paste office and the civilization we briefly left behind. SXSW 2004 was more fun, intense and rewarding than I could’ve imagined. Some people call it the music industry’s spring break, which is pretty close in a lot of ways, but more importantly it was a chance to discover great new artists, to see bands we’d covered but missed live, to revisit old favorites (letting them remind us why we love their music), and to see just how much Paste has grown in the past year and how many positive things it can achieve for music and culture in the years to come.