AUSTIN MUSIC AWARDS
Palmer Auditorium, Wednesday, March 13
Conflict of interest, blah, blah, blah... Every year, it's the same thing. People rag on the Austin Music Awards; too insider, too long, too boring -- too Austin Chronicle. This year, the Austin American-Statesman, which has reversed the role of dailies and weeklies by aping and attacking the Chronicle rather than having any game plan of its own, cut the show to ribbons -- before and after -- having locals believe instead that Lou Reed was the musical apex of the evening. What a bunch of crap. Still, I was fool enough to run out on Ian Moore's awards set to catch the last 20 minutes of Reed's show at the Austin Music Hall. Mistake. Reed's new album, Set the Twilight Reeling, is clumsy and misguided, so why should the live show be different? The bigger mistake though, was running out on a show that I've watched from the front row for the past four years. A show that has left the indelible images of the True Believers, Lucinda Williams, Roky Erickson, and Kathy McCarty etched in my memory. A show captured by the Austin Music Network (doing an Austin City Limits-sized job) featuring Moore at his very best, and a finale by Miss Lavelle White, backed by Moore, George Raines, Tommy Shannon, and Derek O'Brien, that was true Texas blues right down to Clifford Antone's Broken Spoke baseball cap. I regret leaving, especially since the rest of the show was so good. Despite being poorly miked, the Asylum Street Spankers proved they can pull off their old-timey schtick anywhere they care to. Another genre king was Don Walser, sitting like an emperor on his stool and breaking my heart only slightly less than Wayne Hancock, whose guest shot with Walser's band made me want to crumble and weep. Sixteen Deluxe were powerfully psychedelic and smoke-machine, though slightly uneven, and will be until they write more songs like "Captain Kirk's Z-Man's House of Fun," which is a fucking anthem. But it was Kris McKay's Too Many Girls segment that not even AM15 can do justice. After McKay, Kelly Willis, Abra Moore, Sara Hickman (with Kristin de Witt) and Barbara K took turns with their own songs, this chorus of Austin's leading women set their collective harmony to work on Aretha Franklin's "(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman," delivering a rendition of the song that made the term "oldie" a meaningless joke. It was incredible, and more than one visiting journalist wondered whether these ladies would be taking this show on the road. They should, because that song, that moment was everything that's right about Austin music -- and the Music Awards taken as a whole (god bless Paul Ray) -- and if you can't appreciate that, get the fuck outta Dodge. -- Raoul Hernandez
KRIST NOVASELIC'S KEYNOTE SPEECH
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 14
The former bassist for Nirvana made some salient points here about the need to battle censorship and the desperate need to get more of the younger people of this country, mainly ages 18-24, active in the political process at all levels -- even if it just means pushing them out the door to go and vote. But even more intriguing than his rather hopeful words on politics and battling the dominant hegemony were his few touches upon the psychological causes of censorship which tend to get mixed up and lost in the power structure despite being, quite arguably, its framework: good old-fashioned fear and repression. His allusion to Anthony Burgess' metaphor in A Clockwork Orange, an image which sees us humans not as mere machines with soft skin (Burrough's title image of The Soft Machine is in the same league), but rather as something grand and poetical beyond understanding was, to put it mildly, spot on. But Novaselic didn't take his anecdotes and explorations of the relationship between politics and the soul far enough. The whole speech was rather spotty and piecemeal, lacking any truly coherent planning. Still, despite no solid sum, the parts did warrant serious consideration.
-- Joe Mitchell
FOUR SEASONS BAR
Four Seasons Hotel, March 14-17
In the early days of SXSW, A&R guys handed out business cards after a showcase they liked. Later, the Four Seasons' bar became the legendary home of stupid weasel tricks. SXSW '96 was the year of the Four Seasons lobby. Apparently now so confident in the ability to screw starving musicians that they're able to bypass overpriced drinks and lunches and go straight to the full-press stand-up lobby schmooze, the major-label A&R contingency made the lobby itself the conference's best venue. Is it too much to hope that this year's 30-foot move could be five miles next year, making the Robert Mueller terminal their new one-stop shopping center? They'll fly in, shake hands, fly out. Easy for them, good for Austin. As if the music mattered anyway....
-- Andy Langer
THE GERALDINE FIBBERS/IGGY POP
Outdoor Stage, Thursday, March 14
Too bad this was the final show of the Geraldine Fibbers' current tour, because Carla Bozulich is just getting started. Standing at the front of the stage in her tacky, silver-sequined dress, her two-tone hair-chop a mess, her face red and neck veins bulging, Bozulich declared her bitter love through clenched teeth on "The French Song," and struck a presence as commanding as that of Iggy Pop 45 minutes later. And it wasn't just her, the whole band loomed large on the outdoor stage on this perfect spring evening: William Tutton, eyes closed, rocking his stand-up bass back and forth, oozing out low notes to balance the sorrowful moan of sad-eyed Jessy Greene's violin; blonde Danny Keenan looking back at pick-up guitarist Nell Klein, who supported the tendonitis-stricken Fibber guitarist by pushing his guitar against the amp in a continual river of feedback. Under this heavy, dense drone waltzed the country funeral sound of Bozulich's previous band, Ethyl Meatplow, with each song taking its time sucking you in, filling you with dread tension, and releasing you at the end with a sly smile. The same smile that passed between band members, who know they've found a unique, scary sound that haunts dreams. Oh, and Iggy? "Search and Destroy," "Funhouse," "Raw Power" "Lust for Life," "Home," "I Wanna be Your Dog," Iggy Pop? He rocked. -- Raoul Hernandez
LIL' BRIAN AND THE ZYDECO TRAVELERS
Antone's, Thursday, March 14
After the news came during Smokey Wilson's blistering set that New Orleans piano wunderkind Davell Crawford's showcase was off because his grandmother had died, it looked like the first chill of disappointment was ready to creep into an otherwise exuberant SXSW evening. Not to worry, though: Houston's Lil' Brian and his Zydeco Travelers stepped up with the best pinch-hitting performance since Kirk Gibson's game-winning, 9th-inning home run in the 1988 World Series. Zydeco is the Creole (French African-American) music of rural East Texas and South Louisiana; not nearly as country as its close Cajun cousin and, now, harder-edged and more bottom-heavy than mainstream African-American pop. Brian, who eschewed the traditional pump accordion in favor of an electronic version connected to a complex-looking sequencer, showed he had enough sense of history to cover Clifton Chenier's "Eh `Tit Fille," and that he was forward-thinking enough to douse it (and the rest of his set) with more funk and hip-hop allusions than an entire afternoon of urban radio. Because it's so intensely regional, zydeco is frequently listed on the endangered genres list, but as long as Brian -- who, like Davell, is of drinking age only in the state that spawned his music -- and his equally fresh-faced crew keep pumpin' it out like they did Thursday, zydeco has a very bright future indeed. -- Christopher Gray
La Zona Rosa, Thursday, March 14
The frustration with traditional roots music like zydeco is coming up with original ways to describe it. But then, why try? I didn't go to his showcase for a new experience, but rather, one of the oldest ones. I wanted to dance! So perhaps Geno Delafose of Eunice, Louisiana, is best described in the most basic terms: Right off the bat, there was that beat. It was funky. It was heavy. It was jumping. Then the washboard player started up, and this little jump started in everyone's hips, like a dog's leg does when that flea bite begins to itch. No one could resist it. No one wanted to. And then Geno cranked up that slammin' accordion, and the building actually began to shake. Standing still was now physically impossible, so everyone took that last swig of beer and grabbed their significant others (or met one, if necessary). They jumped, they juked, they stomped, they shook their butts. They collided with and sweated all over each other (the house was packed), gladly succumbing to a mindless, hedonistic frenzy. And then the next song started, and they quickly realized that their chairs and tables weren't going to be used for much more than holding their beers.
-- Lee Nichols
Liberty Lunch, Thursday, March 14
Upon discovering B-52s frontman Fred Schneider on the SXSW roster promoting a new album produced by Steve Albini, my reaction was one of nervous hope. Would Schneider be launching toward an interesting new phase in his career, or was this a calculated attempt by a new wave refugee to cash in on the now sound? My heart sank when Schnieder's backing band hit the stage wearing suits and started cranking out the most generic brand of pop-punk this side of Hagfish. When Schneider tried to sing along in his inimitable B-52s drawl, the result was actually more confused than calculated. The two distinct styles simply would not mesh, and Schneider appeared a bit uncomfortable in this strange environment. Occasionally, he would break into one of his familiar silly dance routines, but this came off more as an attempt at relieving onstage tension than a natural response to the music. The crowd's initial elation at seeing one of new wave's heroes seemed to be sapped after two or three songs. As a longtime fan, I felt sorry for the man. Hopefully it was just a case of being overcome by the snafus endemic in a band's first few shows. After all, Schneider's upcoming album features members of such stalwart outfits as Six Finger Satellite and Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. However, the mediocre uncertainty of Thursday night's show should be taken as a warning to listen before you buy. -- Greg Beets
JAD FAIR AND PHONO-COMB
Electric Lounge, Thursday, March 14
What seemed like a lack of truth in advertising at first was really just two sets rolled into one. Phono-Comb took the stage first, playing surf-inspired instrumentals around the naked mike stand at which Jad Fair should have been standing. Four songs, five songs, and still no Fair. By the sixth song, however, I saw him over my shoulder, a few rows back, nodding to the beat and digging it. Great, Jad, I'm liking it too, but shouldn't you, uh, be on stage? As it turns out, it was all a tease -- Fair took the stage soon after and refused to let it go until just past 2am. First things first, though: Phono-Comb is the phoenix rising from what was the late, great Shadowy Men on a Shadowy Planet. Drummer Don Powell and bassist/guitarist Reid Diamond, two-thirds of the funniest instrumental band that ever was, still have a lot of their characteristic schtik and reverb down, and guitarist Dallas Good endeared himself to the crowd by gamely telling the tale behind one of the numbers. They set the table for Fair, who bounded on to the stage, grabbed an unplugged guitar, and began to gyrate and strum like some geeky teenager in his bedroom pretending he's a rock star. That, of course, is exactly how Fair started 20-plus years of indie sainthood in seminal geek-rock band Half Japanese. He only plugged the guitar in once, to do a solo version of his classic "Frankenstein Must Die." The rest of their long set revolved around goofy, possibly impromptu lyrics about haunted houses and dreamy eyes, delivered in a joyous, upbeat, nasal voice marking Fair as either the world's most uplifting dork or the idiot savant of punk rock. It's hard not to like someone having that much fun on stage. -- Phil West
Liberty Lunch, Thursday, March 14
The contrast between Kramer's set at Electric Lounge and this one was shocking, and illustrative of the growth he's made as a solo artist. With bassist Randy Bradbury replaced by the excellent (and excellently named) Paul Ill, there was a new fluidity, grace, and degree of tightness present that was only hinted at last year. With a unique stage set-up placing Ill at center rear, Kramer at stage right, and drummer Brock Avery at stage left, facing Kramer, the trio reared back and roared through material mostly drawn from the excellent new Dangerous Madness (because, as Kramer put it, "I believe in new music!"), with only bits and bobs appearing from his The Hard Stuff repertoire, and the only evidence of his MC5 past being "Poison" (which was redone on The Hard Stuff, anyway). Kramer's stage presence had also undergone a transformation, the MC5 flash moves still in evidence last year replaced by a slightly more restrained but no less intense demeanor. Then again, when speaking of the most violently expressive guitarist alive (one voice in the crowd even daring to connect Kramer with Sonny Sharrock), there's no way "intensity" wouldn't appear in the sentence. An impressive, impassioned show from an artist who already embodied those qualities. Now he embodies them in a different manner. -- Tim Stegall
Driskill Bar on 6th, Thursday, March 14
Ever imagined being horny and sweaty at the Driskill? Your fantasy probably involved a room, a view, and a high-priced hooker named Trixy (or Renaldo), and a couple pints of MD 20/20. Mensclub obliged in ways that the above could never muster and didn't even sneak off with anyone's wallet. The redwood room accents and the $3.75 Shiners probably had the boys feeling like smelly, wet puppies at an Avon convention (I know I sure did). This out-of-context experience probably cowed the lads into taming the afros and not wearing the stripey tank tops from which they have garnered so many accolades from the fashion forward. On the bright side, this gave the Men the change to play straight, no camp, no chaser, and prove that they rawk even without all the obvious Seventies triggers. There are men and there are boys; this is the Mensclub, baby. -- Kate X Messer
"AMERICANA" PANEL / GO TO BLAZES
Austin Convention Center, March, Thursday 14
The most startling thing about this panel wasn't that it was packed (the panels were a good bit more interesting than our shit local newspaper would have us believe), but rather that everyone in the room was sure of exactly the same thing: insurgent country will be the genre with a bullet in 1996. "Right now this music is underneath the radar of radio and video airplay," said panelist Jenni Sperandeo, a local PR director for Jacknife Enterprises, "but there's a list of bands as long as my both my arms who're doing it." Playing it, not selling it that is. "Yeah, we're selling records, " said Gavin Reports' Americana associate editor, Rob Bleetstein, "one by one." On indies like Hightone, Watermelon, Sugar Hill, and Bloodshot, he pointed out, and from there the panel turned its attention on how to get this hybrid of rock & roll and twang out into the market. "Everybody pass their card to the person next to them," suggested panel moderator Rob Patterson. Networking. It always comes down to networking. The irony of which was that while the panel was going on upstairs, two new country upstarts, the Blood Oranges' Cheri Knight and Go to Blazes were downstairs on the Celis stage doing their own version of networking. Knight wasn't getting anywhere with her one-dimensional drone, but Philadephia's GTB, led by Bocephus look-alike Ed Warren, hoofed it through a set that included Hank Jr.'s "OD'd in Denver," Gene Clark's "Out on the Side," and Lee Hazelwood's "She Comes Running" for a 25-minute hangover set that bled with the potential of this heartfelt twang called Americana. "Money changes everything," No Depression's Grant Alden had remarked earlier, "if this catches on, we're all gonna hate it." Not with bands like GTB, we're not.
-- Raoul Hernandez
Waterloo Brewing Co., Thursday, March 14
First, the good news: The Blood Oranges haven't really broken up. They've simply had a little trouble getting together, says Cheri Knight, because Oranges' mandolinist/singer/songwriter Jim Ryan has been picking up a lot of decent-paying touring work. More good news: If the Oranges can't stay together, Knight's still one heck of a solo act. I have opined in other reviews that, without wishing do disparage Ryan in the least, Knight's songwriting is actually the more compelling of the two; Thursday night, she bolstered that belief by bringing her lonely moodiness front and center, her bright blond hair contradicting a gray, rain-on-the-window feeling that she occasionally tweaks with a little country stomp or a touch of grunge. And given that the pop market currently seems to appreciate artists who can do all of those things, the moderate-sized crowd at Waterloo may later be glad they bypassed the big-name acts and stood just a few feet away from her to experience it. -- Lee Nichols
Hole In The Wall, Thursday, March 14
Doug Sahm and company looked old at this shindig, not because they were sluggish or lacked excitement, but rather the opposite. Hearing the exuberance blasting forth from the Tornados -- especially Sir Doug -- it was hard to reconcile the fresh, almost garagey Tex-Mex sound with the craggy, road-worn faces onstage at this private, industry party. Sahm made much of the fact that the all-star band could've chosen a huge venue to show off their solo and group hits and tunes from their upcoming album, but wanted to play the Hole because it was what Austin and music was really about. Reprise VP Bill Bentley apparently got crossed signals about the down-to-earth nature of the show, as I heard he arrived in a long limo, but the veteran troubadors showed up one by one in their own cars and pick-em-up trucks. Sahm is the ultimate front man for this supergroup (Flaco Jimenez, Augie Meyers, Freddy Fender, and various other rotating players) and knows how to bring out the best in the others. Everybody gets the spotlight for a time, including the ones whose faces don't get on the album cover (guest drummer D.J. Fontana, a veteran of Elvis Presley's band, was trotted up to the mike by Sahm to relate his favorite anecdote about the King). Jokes abounded, from Jimenez' cracks about Sahm's tight-fistedness to Sahm's own insistence that the band wanted to play all night and that Bentley needed to just sign all the bands who were supposed to play that night and tell them to go home. A whirlwind of fun, for sure. -- Ken Lieck
Maggie Mae's West, Thursday, March 14
Bell was second up, after Hugh Moffatt, in the Watermelon Derby. To avoid the first act's sound problems, Bell brought along not only guitarist Bill Browder of Denim fame, but drummer Tommy Taylor also, forming what was for all intents and purposes a rock band. He would be heard. At last year's SXSW, Bell was mellow, a folk/country kind of guy. But this year, he showed he can still rock the way he did 20 years ago when he jammed with the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan. But this was no blast from the past. Bell was playing mostly new material this night. Of eight songs, only two ("Frankenstein," the lead-off track from his debut, Phoenix, and a cover written by his mentor Townes Van Zandt) were not prospects for the new album he hopes to begin work on this year with producer Bob Neuwirth. "Poetry, Texas," a song he wrote in honor of Ray Wylie Hubbard's new hometown, and "Push Comes to Shove," a song in which Bell shows formidable skill at creating simple, yet melodic riffs for 12-string acoustic guitar, showed the most promise at not only making the cut for the new LP, but for making it a success. Bell and company had the place packed and dancing in the aisles. At set's end, the young sound engineer greeted him with, "dude, you rock!" So much for generational barriers. Showcase him next year at Emo's. -- Joe Mitchell
AUNT BEANIE'S FIRST PRIZE BEETS
Flipnotics, Thursday, March 14
We decided to experiment with an open relationship, so, we had one last cuddle together before the bacchanalia. Aunt Beanie and I held each other tight that dear, clear Thursday night. The corrugated aluminum roof atop the Flipnotics deck glowed and swayed from the warmth of our love and the delicate harmonies. But there was an uneasiness. Their poignant lyrics summed it up: "It's like dancing through mud in your best pair of boots; Like dancing with your cousin, the high school flirt." I wanted so badly to stay with Austin's fine folk-pop combo. How could I leave my loves now? How is it possible that they were not chosen to play where I was going? Our reaffirmation made separation difficult. But we agreed. We must get this wanderlust out of our systems. We'll go our own ways. We'll be all the better for it and back in each other's arms again, soon. This night was a sublime send-off to a ridiculously raucous weekend. Au revoir, mon ami!
-- Kate X Messer
Randy Newman at the Austin Music Hall Thursday, March 14|
SMOKEY WILSON/SYL JOHNSON
Antone's, Thursday, March 14/Saturday, March 16
In these dog days of alternative/punk, blues has once again become the poor relative begging for work. Not many on hand Thursday night to lend a hand (out) to L.A.'s Smokey Wilson, who, as one well-known blues label head remarked "only does one thing, but he does it well." In this case, that meant playing an ornery brand of Elmore James/Albert Collins-style blues guitar, and having the voice and energy to go with it. (Wilson must be in his fifties). The rhythms and song structures were the same ol' Buddy Guy-isms just about every modern blues man from SRV on down plays, only unlike Guy, Wilson played his instrument, and played it the way you expect to hear it in Antone's. Chicago's Syl Johnson, who hadn't cut a record in the 12 years prior to 94's Delmark release Back in the Game, cared less about playing guitar (letting his pick-up band, which included Sarah Brown, do most of the work) and more about infusing his R&B soul with enough blues grit to keep the grinding going out on the crowded dance floor. Which he did just fine, warming up the healthy crowd for Alligator's newest Texan, Long John Hunter. In fact, by the time Johnson worked his way through his 35-minute set to his biggest hit, "Take Me to the River," he had the crowd ready to do some testifying, which needs doing when bluesmen of this caliber come looking for some help, brother.
-- Raoul Hernandez
Hole in the Wall, Thursday, March 14
Now that Carl Normal has moved to San Antonio, you can't catch a Stretford show any old time you want. For this reason, plenty of locals (as well as a few badge-wearers) crowded the familiar environs of Hole in the Wall for Stretford's showcase. They were not disappointed in the least. Within the past year or so, the band has sharpened its live attack to a point that would've seemed unfathomable to those who watched the band's genesis during the days of the Cavity. It has been a privilege over the past five years to watch Stretford develop Normal's songs toward their fullest potential. The addition of a full-fledged horn section led by Bill "Mr. Excitement" Jeffery has done wonders for audience response. At the same time, the band has fine-tuned all the nuances that Normal probably heard when he wrote the songs. Stretford plowed through favorites like "Xerox Love," "Digital Clock" and "I Used to Know" at full-throttle. There was never a dull moment in which to empty your beer-logged bladder. Stretford delivered the kind of perfectly vibed show that could happen somewhere almost every night of the week in Austin, which offered a keen perspective on all the national-caliber SXSW events. While it's wonderful to be able to decide between George Clinton, Iggy Pop, and Randy Newman for one weekend a year, bands like Stretford do wonders to make the other 51 quite tolerable, thank you.
-- Greg Beets
HAMELL ON TRIAL
Electric Lounge, Thursday, March 14
It didn't take long for Ed Hamell to say, "It's good to be back home," and the locals in the crowd couldn't have agreed more. The show carried all the hallmarks of a typical Hamell/Lounge soiree: off-color jokes delivered with an ebullient grin, mock stern warnings to people talking during the show, and of course, great songs propelled by one of the most ferocious acoustic guitar sounds around. The show was a sad reminder that we in Austin can no longer mark the week-to-week progression and evolution of the Hamell sound, yet he's clearly making greater and greater strides in his new hometown. Take "The Vines," for instance. When he debuted it for Austin audiences at his reunion show last fall, friend and sometimes-collaborator Wammo ribbed Hamell for the "cheesy Casio sound" he was getting by tapping his guitar to create a rhythm track. This time around, he's replaced it with a thumb-slapping acoustic rumble, a perfect backdrop for his wild tale about working on a government-sponsored vine-cutting team. Most of his showcase's focus, however, was on the tried and true songs that audience members could (and did) sing along to, including the SXSW-apropos "Z-Roxx," which brought the room together in a smiling chorus of "I don't give a fuck about your band." He closed out the evening with his love song to Austin, "Cool Town." That was, of course, the only logical choice. -- Phil West
THE SMOKING AREA
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 14-Saturday, March 16
Warning: the Surgeon General has determined that not smoking is hazardous to your career. Nic fits never seemed so profitable as they did on the terrace overlooking Cesar Chavez, a constant site of such intense networking it managed to put even the Four Seasons Bar to shame. Here, there wasn't time for pucker-up-buttercup small talk and pictures of the wife and kids over criminally overpriced alcohol and schmoozy power lunches -- a cigarette only lasts long enough to cut to the chase. And since the Convention Center was packed with writers, musicians, and label people, who all smoke or know someone who does, everyone from SXSW managing directors on down ducked out to cap their jones and do a little business. No one, except maybe the convention center's custodial staff, may ever know how many hands were shook and deals were closed on those black-lunged balconies, but the businesslike attitude and no-bullshit dialogues were infinitely refreshing -- even if the air wasn't.
-- Christopher Gray
Outdoor Stage, Friday, March 15
Height often lends perspective -- two things found on the fourth floor of the parking garage at the corner of Seventh Street and Brazos. From this well-attended perch, for example, it was clear that the outdoor stage has outgrown its space between the Driskill Hotel and the Mexican consulate. It was also apparent from the overhead view that the city is still clueless about South by Southwest, as the police sat by idly watching the crowd pour into the building-locked channel like the cattle scene from Hud, yet doing nothing about the overflow onto Seventh, which found citizen and car face to face. Most obvious from my concrete ledge, however, was Joan Osborne's Janis Joplin-like howl, which rose into the night like a siren wail. The pierce of her voice was as strong a block away as the weave of her songs is solid, in particular "Spider's Web," and a new tune about aquatic traits in your friends called "Hammerhead." "If you wanna have a good time, just come on down to the front," she summoned by way of encouraging the already-erect crowd. Yeah, right. Can you say "claustrophobia," Joan? What about Auditorium Shores? -- Raoul Hernandez
Liberty Lunch, Friday, March 15
"This is going a little too smoothly," Britt Daniel said after nailing a vicious, perfect version of "All The Negatives Have Been Destroyed." It was on the same stage last month, opening for Pavement, where Daniel was still showing fill-in bassist John Croslin the ropes. But what a difference a month makes -- Croslin's about to go on a 10-day tour with the band, and they've never sounded more bombastic and confident than they did at the Matador showcase. It's hard to put a finger on what's happened to the band. It's the same good, consistent set they've played the last few months -- "Negatives," "Dismember," "Not Turning Off," the aMiniature and Godfathers covers -- but there's a bite to Daniel's guitar and a crack to Jim Eno's drums that didn't seem to be there before. It's unfair to saddle Spoon with the "Great White Hope" title that so many Austin bands have had to carry before. Reports on the upcoming Telefono album are that it's fantastic, and after a set as charged as this one was, it's tempting to feel that anything short of Nevermind-sized sales will be conclusive proof of injustice in the world. No matter what happens though, we'll always have the SXSW '96 show. -- Phil West
Scholz Garten, Friday, March 15
Appropriately, surf music comes and goes in waves. Ever since Dick Dale played 90210 and Jennifer Aniston made the shag once again the most popular haircut in America, surf has been ready to crest in a big way. Satan's Pilgrims, five guys from Portland, Oregon, clad in matching workshirts and butt-length black capes, are the foamy whitecaps of the current surf revival wave. Friday, the Pilgrims' music -- short on both length and complexity -- hearkened back to the days of yore, when beach-bound bands rode the reverb in front of the campfire while the surfers hung 10 nearby. "Plymouth Rock," "Beach Creep," and the rest of the material from the Pilgrims' recent Estrus CD Soul Pilgrims (especially the "Tequila"-like "Shit Sandwich," the only time the band used the microphone for anything other than introducing their songs) stuck to the unshakable formula forged by Dale, the Surfaris, and the Ventures long ago: simple guitar lines, a high-powered relentless rhythm attack, and an exuberant attitude that inevitably leads to much dancing and other surfside fun. Leaving the guitar explorations and metal-edged mood swings to the Mermen (who followed them on the Scholz stage), the Pilgrims bounced and chugged their way through 45 minutes of surf-pop as gleeful and exhilarating in 1996 as it was in 1962. Surf's up! -- Christopher Gray
GRATEFUL DEAD PANEL
Austin Convention Center, Friday, March 15
For sheer entertainment, it was hard to beat this lively foray! The question posed, "Were The Grateful Dead Really Any Good?," was provocative enough and it didn't take long for the fireworks to begin. Among the panelists were Crawdaddy founder Paul Williams, resplendent in orange and yellow tie-dye, who has followed the Dead since 1966, and Generation Echh! co-author Michael Krugman (both rabidly pro-Dead) along with Rolling Stone editor Jim DeRogatis and Chicago Reader critic Bill Wyman (both anti-Dead). What best characterized the Dead fans were, as you might imagine, the fervor and the emotional intensity of their arguments. Many folks cited how the Dead's music opened them up to other musical styles such as blues, country, and bluegrass. Others, myself included, detailed the band's socio-cultural significance in advancing ideals of the Sixties. Williams was particularly articulate in explaining to non-believers how the Dead were about creating "live" music, not cranking out records, and how their knack for taking chances every time they played and their improvisational prowess were on par with Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Ornette Coleman. The funniest moment came when a self-proclaimed metalhead described how he went out on tour with the Dead and didn't have a positive musical experience until his 17th show. This, of course, begged the question as to why he continued to go to see a band he didn't like 16 times. Austin Chronicle provocateur Mindy LaBernz lightened things up a bit when she feigned innocence in asking, "I came in late, could someone tell me where the taping section is?" DeRogatis, who has written a book on psychedelic music, objected to the commercial exploitation that has abounded in the wake of the Dead's enormous popularity. At one point, my dear Deadhead friend Penny became so impatient with those who didn't seem to have a clue, she leaned over and whispered sarcastically, "If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn't understand." But in the end, most everyone recognized and agreed that, whether you love 'em or hate 'em, the Grateful Dead were a musical phenomenon unlike any other. -- Jay Trachtenberg
Split Rail, Friday, March 15
Why didn't somebody tell me that the Pecan St. 'Dillo was canceled for the weekend? I ended up having to walk all the way across downtown and missed all but the last two Cornell Hurd songs. Fortunately, Hurd can pack more fun into two songs than most bands can in two showcases. Crowd musta been all Yankees, though -- nobody was dancing (in fact, there was hardly any dancing the whole night at the Split Rail), which should have necessitated mass arrests or something. Not dancing while one of the world's swinginest bands is presiding over the best dance floor this side of the Broken Spoke is criminal.
-- Lee Nichols
George Clinton at the Austin Music Hall Saturday, March 16|
Coffee Plantation, Friday, March 15
Every year, I have my discovery of the conference. Last year it was the sweet folk goodness of Dar Williams. This year it's this insane man from New York City. In vocal style, Lucas sounds at times like Bob Dylan in the middle of shock treatment after a three-week acid binge. Other times, he's Lou Reed in a vortex without sleep in a week. It sounds pretty neat at first, but can really get on one's nerves after five songs. Luckily, he doesn't sing much. Most of Lucas' work is instrumental. When he's bangin' on his old trusty Gibson, which sounds halfway like a toy, he sounds like Daniel Johnson playing Jimmy Page. But when he gets out his Dobro and finger slide, he becomes Robert Johnson in the outerspace mosh pit. Lucas' songs are short and sweet. He gets in and out without wasting time making the point. I lost count, but he must have played 15 to 20 songs during his 25 minute set. Most songs this night were, according to Lucas, from either his LP Gods and Monsters, which he says got four stars in Rolling Stone -- and there was a mullet-headed dude from Stone smilin' in the crowd -- or from another of his four LPs, Bad Boys of the Arctic. His eyes all crazed and his bald head sweating, Lucas doesn't look like someone palatable to hang with. But when it comes to listening, he's my friend. -- Joe Mitchell
Liberty Lunch, Friday, March 15
The line outside the lunch was around the corner and almost to Cesar Chavez when the Matador showcase opened its doors, and first up was Chan Marshall, aka Catpower, who quickly revealed herself to be all about pain in its many forms. She took on painful subject matter. She hit a lot of painfully sad minor chords. Standing alone with a guitar on stage, she looked pained. Some of the audience members looked pained. That might not have been wholly Marshall's fault; some of the Lunchroom crowd had been waiting a long time to get in and probably wanted an act who could deliver the rock in a loud, fast, and fun format. Instead, they got an introspective singer taking the chorus to Carly Simon's "Nobody Does It Better" and turning it on its ear. There was something compelling about what Marshall was doing, and the studio potential is definitely there for a good-dose-of-melancholy kind of album, but there was no denying something was missing. A drummer would have helped, and confidence would have helped too. Maybe one would have given her the other. Late in the set, she mumbled, "How long am I supposed to be up here?" She probably wasn't the only one asking. -- Phil West
Radisson Hotel Ballroom, Friday, March 15
Hosted by Andre Walker, Will Strickland, and DJ Snoopi, this Friday-night event presented a deep lineup of hip-hop groups wishing to get their flows on proper. With only Don Scavone representing out-of-state territory, the showcase wound up as a Texas throwdown. Up from Clutch City, the Triathlon Project put on a decent set which peaked when Fliponya, Tabu, and T-Wrekz traded lyrical blows on the Psyko Ward classic "Equilibrium." Straight outta Arlington, Epatomed flipped intricated stanzas of street verse over some smooth-azz, gangsta-jazz tracks. Epatomed's originality makes them one of the freshest crews on the southwest circuit. Austin's own Sociopath Left, sporting tight turntable cuts by Spinner T, received hella props as Crop and Jack Fiend got illmatic with their vocal projections. Spinner T also manned the wheels for Don Scavone, as the New York native abandoned his planned repertoire to battle a couple snapperheads from the crowd. Both signifying for Dallas, Shabazz 3 and the Distortionists brought down the house with well-polished styles. Shabazz 3 is on some true school shit, while the Distortionists follow the lead of Quasar into uncharted levels of frantic elevation. Other notable artists included Teddy Lee, Tee Double, Seeds of Soul, and Mad Scientist. The crowd seemed somewhat overwhelmed by so many different approaches to music hitting them in the face and then the stomach and then the face again, but overall the reception was positive. Texas hip-hop has a promising future. The question of who within the established industry is gonna finally wise up and help some of these brothers and sisters out is what remains to be answered. It's now way past time to put all frontin' aside and peep game. -- Rashied Gabriel
Elephant Room, Friday, March 15
When faced with a brief power outage just prior to the opening of his quartet's second set in the jam-packed Elephant Room, trumpeter Terence Blanchard appeared totally unruffled, calmly remarking, "That's okay, we play jazz, we don't need any power." And indeed, more than enough juice was generated from within when the band, electricity intact, opened their late set with a devastating one-two counter of the boppish "The Premise" and the sublime "Divine Order" from last year's wonderful Romantic Defiance album. The latter provided the evening's most inspired playing as Blanchard's long, spiraling solo soared ever higher over his churning rhythm section propelled by drummer Troy Davis. The trumpeter's gorgeous tone and inventive lyricism were apparent on everything he touched. On par with Blanchard was his sensational pianist Edward Simon, a recording artist in his own right, whose deliberate and intricate solos were often breathtaking. Much of the material played this night was from Blanchard's new Brazilian-flavored release, The Heart Speaks. Crescent City singer Manuel Philips added a totally new dimension to the quartet's sound. He often used his voice as a percussive instrument and was most memorable when his relaxed and exotic vocalese blended beautifully as a lead instrument in tandem with Blanchard's warm, melodic trumpet. Seeing a band of this quality really tends to put things into perspective. This is precisely the calibre of jazz for which so many of us constantly hunger but rarely get to see in this neck of the woods. -- Jay Trachtenberg
Split Rail, Friday, March 15
Ted Roddy's showcase merely confirmed what was shown on his recent HighTone album; that his best course is away from roadhouse blues and straight into country. Although he can play an impressive blues harmonica, it's Roddy's two-steppers that allow his Conway Twitty-like voice to shine. For that half of his set, he showed that he deserves a place right alongside Dale Watson, the Derailers, and Junior Brown. And on a politically correct note, Roddy's current band has the best female instrumentalist representation of any honky-tonk band I've seen; having the superb talents of both Amy Tiven and Lisa Pankratz in his group is quite a coup. -- Lee Nichols
COWBOYS & INDIANS
Split Rail, Friday, March 15
Y'all come back now, y'hear? Somebody please book these guys again! From note one, this cowboy jazz band from Dallas had everyone wondering why they don't get booked every other week here, and why they haven't been signed yet. If you loved their CD (and you should have), their live set literally blows that away, with a bold, in-your-face horn section swapping licks with twangy guitar. They seemed to have tapped into both of Austin's most prominent trends at once -- the strong country trend and the lounge thing, somehow melding such seemingly incongruous styles, hillbilly and highbrow, at once. Given that many of those genres' fans tend to cross over, they should already have a fan base here just waiting to discover them. -- Lee Nichols
Austin Convention Center, Celis Stage, Friday, March 15
It took me a while to realize this, but somebody needs to say it, so what the hell: Golden Smog are pussies. Individually, their bands may be vaguely rockin', but put `em together and it's a sound only Tabitha Soren or your favorite rock critic could love. They take everything bad about this Americana thing -- it can be musically glib, lyrically insufferable, and flat plain boring -- and shove it in your face. And stupid me for calling them "unpretentious" -- these guys are as smug as the proverbial cat with a fresh canary in his gut. Dan Murphy, who, one day, should realize just how much he needs Dave Pirner, may say "I feel like I'm at a 4-H club or the State Fair," but what he really means is "Heh, heh. Look at us. We can strap on some acoustics, gather a bunch of outtakes from our various bands, release it on Ryko, and these idiots will eat it up." Pity poor Vic Chesnutt, who must have some twisted obligation to one or more of the members. Why else would he want to get onstage with them and help them butcher his heartfelt, meaningful songs? (Though, admittedly, Chesnutt's songs weren't nearly as bad as the crap they were playing before he wheeled himself onstage.) Friends, Romans, alternative countrymen, lend me your ears: this is not what it's purported to be. This is the Nineties' answer to the Eagles. God help us all.
-- Christopher Gray
Hang 'Em High Saloon, Friday, March 15
Perhaps I set my expectations just too high; after seeing Rusty Rae's magnificent performance in the title role of Always, Patsy Cline, how could I not? Yet I feared that Rae's own act might lean a little more in the modern Nashville direction, and indeed, it did. Ultimately, I just wasn't persuaded to stay. Sorry, Rusty, but don't worry about it -- the bands I like end up starving and working miserable day jobs, so you're better off. But let me repeat, definitely go see her theatre performance; no compliment of it would be sufficient to describe how good it is. -- Lee Nichols
Liberty Lunch, Friday, March 15
There's nothing quite like the anticipation of a full concert hall ready to break out into a collective "Ooooooh" for a favorite star. Liz Phair's short set, given her reputation and the show's on-again, off-again status, was the reason much of the audience came early and exodused shortly after she wrapped up. She started with three new songs, including one that worked the words "That's the way I like it" into something different than what K.C. and the Sunshine Band had in mind. The stage fright reputation seems unjust, for Phair looked confident and radiant, and sounded fine, but the songs were only, well, fair. Then she broke into "Divorce Song," from her glorious Exile In Guyville debut, and it cut and stung like the emotional shaker it is. But the momentum didn't hold long. She broke into a new song, "Rocket Boy," due on a movie soundtrack soon, and it sounded redundant and collapsible compared to what preceded it. The pattern held for the rest of the 20-minute set: brilliant renditions of brilliant songs from Exile... and weak little brothers and sisters from her post-Exile... songbank. When the book on the Nineties finally closes, not many albums will stand up to Exile... as a document of gutsy and subversive expression. It's a unique and bold masterpiece of wisdom, wistfulness, and sadly smiling wit that not many songwriters can match. Unfortunately, Phair doesn't seem to be able to match it anymore either. -- Phil West
Austin Music Hall, Friday, March 15
Leave Liz Phair to those who are willing to cram into Liberty Lunch for no other reason than that the people they schmoozed at the Four Seasons or the Hyatt said it was "the place to be;" I'll take Kelly Willis and a bunch of honest-to-God music lovers who were at the Austin Music Hall for no other reason than to have a good time. Willis could probably be the Liz Phair of country music if she wanted to: She's an attractive, independent woman with a knack for appealing songs. Thank God she doesn't, though. While Phair's career is constantly in danger of being chewed up and spit out by the very machine that made her, Willis just writes and sings music she and her audience like, and if the major biz-nessmen are interested, fine. Without a Phair-like burden (which may be responsible for the Chicago chanteuse's notorious case of stage fright) to bear every time she picks up a guitar, Willis is free to be as loose and easygoing as her set was Friday night. Backed by Brad Fordham's bass, Casper Rawls' fiddle and guitar, and Chris Searles' drums, she could have been anywhere: the Continental Club, Arlyn studios, her back porch, or right where she was. There was hardly a badge in the bunch, and the Music Hall crowd thought she sounded just fine. So did I.
-- Christopher Gray
Ritz Theatre, Friday, March 15
The Ritz was packed beyond the gills this night. Many had been halted at the door, the theatre's capacity having been exceeded long prior to Moore's tip-off time. With some luck and friends, I got in just as Moore commenced her first song, finding no other place to stand but at stageside which became increasingly cramped as the set wore on. It was hot and damp. The inside temperature and relative humidity achieved what felt like the high nineties at set's commencement, becoming worse as Moore and band rumbled through the thick of what, with little thought or comparison necessary, was the most electrical performance and atmosphere this reviewer was fortunate enough to witness this conference. Moore and guitarist Mitch Watkins, drummer Chris Searles, and harmonica man J.P. Allen, to name a few members of the band whose numbers ebbed and flowed over the 45-minute set, created excitement that buzzed this crowd like a million 60-hz hums. Innumerable strangers seeing me mouth along with Moore's words were grabbing me, asking "who is this?" with the same unbridled fervor of the old Balzac line, "Eureka, I found it!" A sinewy, well-tattooed and copiously pierced bouncer named Tim, taken with Moore's backstage charm and stage performance, vowed to guard her purse and band's possessions with his life. His motto, "Share the Love," became my mantra for the conference. Moore and company heeded in powerful fashion. -- Joe Mitchell
Split Rail, Friday, March 15
After leaving to go see another act that didn't pan out, I quickly realized my mistake and rushed back to the Split Rail (Austin's best new club, in my opinion). It paid off. Although I always expect a good show from Rosie Flores, she was smokin' this night. Let me reemphasize that -- smokin'. It was possibly the best she's ever sounded, largely throwing down the blasting rockabilly tunes from her most recent album, Rockabilly Filly, but sans Wanda Jackson and Janis Martin (which was just as well; if it had gotten any hotter, the Rail would have burned down). I once heard Rosie say she wasn't any good as a guitar player -- wrong, lady, you're a hell of a guitar player. -- Lee Nichols
Waterloo Brewing Co., Friday, March 15
Boy, it's just not fair to all the new bands playing SXSW when you're forced to choose between them and one of your old favorites that's playing Austin for the first time since Reagan's first term. The Plimsouls spent the early Eighties crafting big, beautiful pop songs that owed as much to the Byrds as anything from the new wave in which they're often lumped. Suddenly, they're back together, writing new songs, and not missing a beat. If anything, the beat is stronger due to the addition of Blondie drummer/Keith Moon disciple Clem Burke. It was absolutely great to hear Peter Case sing "How Long Will It Take?" live and in person, and Eddie Munoz' insertion of a few riffs of "Eight Miles High" into the bridge of "A Million Miles Away" lowballed the Byrds' imprint on the band, but Burke was the consummate showman. His mussed-up hair and a sleeveless undershirt conjured up visions of Booger from Revenge of the Nerds carrying out some sort of vendetta against a drum kit in perfect time. The Plimsouls introduced quite a few newly written songs in addition to the hits everyone knows from Valley Girl. "Falling Away" in particular was a standout, but all of the new songs stood up to the charm of the band's past work. The fact that the Plimsouls didn't sound a bit dated is a true testament to the strength of Case's songwriting skill. -- Greg Beets
Sheriff's Posse Arena, Friday, March 15
There are, in this world, people who have no use for wristbands or badges, who avoid the industry noise of SXSW like musical Luddites. They are the friends of Eris, the pseudo-Dionysians, the urban aborigines, the modern primitives. They are the followers of Crash Worship. The shamanic drum-and-noise collective finally managed to play a show within Austin's city limits for the first time since the fall of 1994, in a Chicon Street warehouse, and the crowd's mood between opening act Mr. Quintron and Crash Worship (ADRV to their friends) was strangely subdued. That is, until the door to a smaller warehouse banged open and the first of the evening's many processions marched across the yard, huge puppets, painted bodies, and drums all a-flailing. Then it was fire and fireworks and popguns and naked people and chaos and ADRV gathering on the blackened stage to pound out hours of arresting rhythms. This is real dance music, and nearly everyone wove into an ecstatic mass of flesh. Wine and water sprayed as if from the heavens; goddesses come to earth toured around the room on huge platforms, including a giant foil tiger. After a brief lull, the procession returned with two skinned sheep heads (oh yes, they were real) festooned with fruit, and a ragtag tuba corps. I picked up a plastic noisemaker and jumped into the crowd, blowing myself into space. Now, at last, I understand.
-- Ken Hunt
Electric Lounge, Friday 5pm, March 15
A trail of bruised brows led the casual visitor from the outer edge of the Electric Lounge area into the club itself, as head-butting wild man Willis prepared for a set of his oddball punk anthems about whatever happened to cross his mind. A large, dangerous-looking black man who has certainly seen the inside of several mental health facilities, Willis spends his time onstage with his face buried in his notebook, singing/reciting lyrics about subjects ranging from other bands (a series of similar-sounding numbers including one, in this case, about the Frogs) to Jesus to wanting to kill you. Punctuating the breaks between songs with the same line about rocking London and Austin, along with unsolicited commercial messages ("Rice a Roni -- it is the San Francisco treat!"), Willis was a fright and a sensation, and ended up signing more autographs than probably anyone else over the SXSW weekend. Buy his CDs -- or he will kill you. -- Ken Lieck
HOT WHEELS, JR.
Emo's Jr., Friday, March 15
Irony is never in short supply during South by Southwest, but sometimes it's really, really acute. The following is a shining example. It's Friday night, midnight. On the outside stage at Emo's, there's For Squirrels, a band that sounds almost exactly like pre-1990 R.E.M., has a modern-rock radio and video hit about the dead Nirvana frontman, and is trying to recover from having lost two members in a tragic car crash last year -- giving them the best hook in the world: death (just ask Courtney Love). Of course, it's packed. Now, on the inside stage, there's Hot Wheels, Jr., a local band that has no video, no radio hit, no A&R rep, no "deal." In fact, all they have are a bunch of tight, solid, bracing, riffy punk rock songs that, for the most part, are nothing short of inspired. Naturally, it's nowhere near packed. This is such an obvious metaphor for the fatuous state of the music business it's almost not worth mentioning, except to say that SXSW's relevance is severely in danger if shows that are hyped and crowded remain those of bands that have already been bought and paid for. Yeah, SXSW brings great bands to town (not For Squirrels), but the point too many people miss these days is that a lot of great bands are already here.
-- Christopher Gray
Ed Hall's Gary Chester at Emo's Saturday, March 16|
Electric Lounge, Saturday Afternoon, March 16
I was headed out when The Damnations took the mike at the outdoor stage -- I'd had enough barbeque, enough beer, and had grabbed my Prodigy giveaways. The voices stopped me at the gate. I turned around and took a seat under the tent. The new trio with two female leads seemed to have the same effect on just about everyone else. Tentative, yes, but the harmonies were as polished as the melodies were simple. I don't even want to mention The Indigo Girls, because these two women are twice as cool and the songs -- centering around Southern folk stories -- are twice as bitter and whiskey-bred. So far, one of them told me, they've played at the Hole in the Wall, and Electric Lounge. If they were banking future bookings on this performance, the investment should pay off. -- Louisa C. Brinsmade
ALTERNATIVE COUNTRY SHOWCASE
Split Rail, Saturday, March 16
Here in Austin, the flame of country music is being upheld by retro types with slicked-back hair and Nudie suits, and a definite throwback sound. Elsewhere, however, it looks like the true country faithful are the ones who actually aren't faithful -- it's the guys with the hair in their faces a la Son Volt, who are determined to make square pegs fit into round holes by rocking the grunge while tipping their hat (oh wait, they don't wear hats) to Hank. And apparently, that approach is creating a hell of a buzz; I had to wait in line and missed most of Dallas' Slobberbone, but from the street, it sounded pretty great -- a loud, pounding sound, with a wailing slide guitar, perhaps a steel, that truly embraced the term "cowpunk." I did manage to get inside for their last two songs, and all I can say is please hurry back. After that was one of the bands that several people were insisting was a don't-miss, Whiskeytown. They were right. Much like Slobberbone, they were expertly skilled, loud, and twangy at once -- aided by a solid fiddle player (something the other bands would do well to adopt). Bloodshot Records' The Old 97's and the Waco Brothers also had that don't-miss buzz going, but they didn't quite meet expectations (well, mine anyway -- the crowd loved them). The 97's get big points for effort, and they did indeed have the house rocking, but for my personal tastes, I would've liked it just a tad rootsier, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't have a good time. Jon Langford and his Waco Brothers were a frustrating experience for me; I was at once extremely impressed by them and disappointed. Musically, I just didn't get it. They pounded their guitars, and threw in the requisite bended note, but nothing to perk up my ears. If I wasn't already aware of their songwriting, I probably wouldn't have paid attention. But that's exactly what does get my attention; lyrically, this might be my new favorite band. Being a flaming left-winger, I have tremendous appreciation for their exuberant celebration of labor unions in "Plenty Tuff Union Made." People keep calling them country, but they come off more like the Pogues. Maybe someday all the parts will come together, and this will become my favorite band, period. As for the evening's closer, Blue Mountain, all I can say is, okay, now I get it. Their album didn't impress me that much -- I thought it sounded like watered-down Son Volt -- but everyone else kept singing their praises. After their showcase, it's easy to see why. Okay, it's still Son Volt, but not watered down at all. The sensitive (read: wussy) folky element was obliterated by a hammering, crunchy guitar, and made me not regret missing SV at all. They're not at the top of the new alt-country pack, but they're running strongly just behind the leaders. Just goes to show that many bands deserve a second chance.
-- Lee Nichols
Stubb's, Saturday, March 16
Disaster '96. Mother Nature (rain) and SXSW (big show, new venue) may not be fault-free here, but there was really only one party to blame for this showcase -- Sony. With the Fugees tearing up Billboard and an overflow crowd expecting to see what their phenomenal rise is about, Sony opted at 8:25pm to pre-empt the already rain-pre-empted Fugees show with a 25-minute unannounced Mary Lou Lord showcase. Sony knew we'd stick around while they exploited a sold-out crowd and exposed a new artist. That Lord has absolutely nothing in common with the Fugees didn't seem to matter to Sony. That sending a singer-songwriter out before an already hostile hip-hop crowd wouldn't seem to do Lord any good either also didn't seem to matter to the Sony suits. That it was drizzling by the time the Fugees hit the stage and the Houston group allowed 15 minutes for a sound-check/hip-hop "this is what a DJ does" tutorial didn't seem to matter either. Another rain delay, and four and a half truly brilliant, exceptionally delivered Fugee songs, may have just barely cleared the Fugees themselves from the blame of their mastubatory intro, but try telling that to Sony's own low-priority Schtum and the bill's indie contingency of Laundry, King Black Acid, and Claudine Kielson, all of whom reluctantly agreed to do 30-minute sets so the bill would be only 30 minutes behind. Sony also refused to trim the set of their big-draw trip-hop act, Ruby, citing a 42-minute pre-programmed sequence. When a SXSW stage-manager suggested pulling the proverbial plug could indeed make hers a 30-minute sequence, Sony officials reportedly went ballistic. Got a schedule to keep? Coming to see unsigned talent? Sony says you'll have to wait. It all makes for a future SXSW/Music Industry Jeopardy question: "The first three bands to get screwed by Sony without even signing a deal." "Alex, what are Laundry, King Black Acid, and Claudine Kielson?" -- Andy Langer
Continental Club, Saturday, March 16
The 10 or so minutes between sets may be the 10 most important minutes of South by Southwest. First of all, it's prime schmooze time: no annoying band to drown out those all-important conversations. It's the time to coordinate schedules, check the watch, and head out and let the club fill up again with a new mess of people. Or, if you stay, and especially after as cookin' a set-closer as the Blazers' cover of Canned Heat's "Goin' Up the Country" was, it's time to towel off, go to the bar, take a leak if you need to, maybe light up a smoke, and get your mind ready for the next band. There's so little time to relax during those four ever-fateful days, you take it where you can get it -- and taking it at the Continental is always best. The soothing, timeless strains of Elvis helped set the stage for Nashville's Delevantes and their blue-eyed, Loose-Diamonds-meets-the-Bellamy-Brothers sound, but after two songs it was out the door and back into the madcap whirl that is SXSW. Taking a breather was fun, though -- while it lasted. -- Christopher Gray
Electric Lounge, Saturday, March 16
Whoever thought of having daytime SXSW parties is a genius. What better way to get right into one's arduous day than showing up at a not-yet-overflowing club, scarfing free food, and getting started drinking early? Local noisemeisters Enduro played with the Apples and Lotion at a function sponsored by the Prodigy on-line network. A representative called the show an attempt "to return to what SXSW was supposed to be all about." (Sponsorship by enormous corporations? Hello?) Although Enduro's mutant blues is reliably loud, gritty, and nasty, this set was particularly so. Mike Corwin and David Bucci were thundering from the first seconds of "Two for a Dollar." Perhaps it was the force of the vocals that kept knocking Corwin's mike out of its stand. Even the older songs, such as "Bombshell," received an enthusiastic thrashing, and Corwin's Moog keyboard brayed through songs like "Party At Ray's." Those in the audience that weren't shimmying about hung back and looked somewhat intimidated -- first-timers perhaps, or tired from Day Three of partying and schmoozing. Although Enduro had played a "South By So What" show at the Blue Flamingo less than 48 hours prior, they seemed quite comfortable with this quasi-showcase, which proves that flexibility is always a virtue. -- Ken Hunt
Liberty Lunch, Saturday, March 16
Kim Deal is still not a rock star -- she was out on stage a full 15 minutes before her set, meeting and greeting the crowd and smiling broadly. As her polo-shirted band (including Jim Macpherson from the Breeders) ambled on, Deal approached a heavily echo-effected mike and told the crowd something she'd return to throughout the evening: "We're from Dayton, Ohio." The former Pixie and vacationing Breeder then launched into "First Revival" and the party was on. That's party, rather than concert, because it was more fun than good. Deal seemed, shall we say, a little loose: forgetting to play guitar on some songs, coming in late with words on others, having trouble putting the microphone peg in the microphone stand hole. But it almost didn't matter: her all-star Dayton band picked up the slack, and the songs from the Amps' debut Pacer are good enough to come in clear through the beer-goggles. They chugged through 11 of the 12 tracks and ventured onto Breeders turf with the instrumental "Flipside" and the going-way-back "Fortunately Gone." By the near-closing "Tipp City," things truly started to gel together, and the band lurched as one to the song's triumphant chorus. Those judging it as a concert would call that song the one bright moment of the set; what it really was, though, was the place where fun and good finally collided.
-- Phil West
Scholz Garten, Saturday, March 16
Well this was a treat. Fresh off a European tour ("It was like Cortés in reverse," quipped Mr. Vez), the L.A.-based "Mexican Elvis" graced American shores again with a knockout performance that lasted until 2:45am. El Vez hits the stage with the requisite hairdo, flashy sequined outfit, and undulating pelvic region, but his schtick goes much deeper than just a Mexican take on the ins and outs of impersonating Elvis. He takes Elvis' songs and infuses them with Mexican history lessons and political commentary on everything from sexism to immigration laws. Subsequently, "Kentucky Rain" became "The World of Frida's Pain," an introspective yet tongue-in-cheek look at the sad life of artist Frida Kahlo. "Suspicious Minds" was transformed into "Immigration Time," while "Rubberneckin'" was recast as a modern-day vote for safer sex. El Vez's performance was bolstered by two energetic (and sexy) female vocalists and a crack band that delivered high-octane classic rock medleys right out of Bill Murray's "Nick the Lounge Singer" routine. You'd think that such a novel act would start to get stale pretty quick, but El Vez and company displayed a level of consummate showmanship that would make Tom Jones, Neil Diamond, or even the King himself rightfully proud. -- Greg Beets
Maggie Mae's West, Saturday, March 16
Even frat-daddies leaning over the balcony at Maggie Mae's courtyard couldn't obscure the heavenly edict. Kathy McCarty is a wonder of this earth and had she not played in an open-air courtyard, the gods would've surely torn the roof off the sucker just to get a peek at this more-than-mortal. The gods indeed looked down with favor upon our red-velvet-clad Xena the Warrior Princess. McCarty and disciples Peter, John-Paul and er, Kris soared through a transcendent set of gorgeous new songs, plus Glass Eye and Daniel Johnston tunes, with an innate understanding of tension and resolution like no other rock band in our time. Exhuming the spirits of Robert Wyatt and Richard & Linda Thompson, our lyrical laureate splayed these influences and miraculously screwed a dead-on, true-to-life (deth?) version of "War Pigs" (with swing break) until it fit right in context. K. or Kathy, under any moniker, can do anything.
-- Kate X Messer
AMPHETAMINE REPTILE SHOWCASE
Emo's, Saturday, March 16
Of course it was loud, but within the maw, the three bands drawn from the AmRep stable showed a nifty array of diversity and, dare it be said, fun the label has to offer. Southern California's Supernova distributed aluminum foil to the audience prior to their set, and were therefore greeted with a bobbing sea of headgear by the time they took the stage in green shorts and glowing suspenders. Their pop-punk was so sweet and happy that even the predictable "faggot" and "hippie" jokes were taken good-naturedly. Bassist Pat received the bulk of detritus thrown at the stage, never breaking his Billy Zoom smile. By the time they got to "Chewbacca" and "Close Encounters," the crowd was swayed to their side. That mood was instantly inverted by Today Is The Day's quasi-industrial assault. They seemed briefly detained by equipment problems, but without warning burst into songs from the new album Willpower, the guitarist rolling his eyes to the back of his head and hollering through a clenched larynx. Even the somewhat ambient "Black Iron Prison" turned into a drum-pounding fuzz spasm. Hammerhead was a different animal altogether. Although nearly as aggressive as TITD, their stage demeanor was reserved, lost in the billowing sound. Bassist Paul Erickson vocalized hypnotically through "New York? Alone?" and "Earth (I Won't Miss)", while the guitarist hunched over, bleeding his instrument. Their set was a satisfying synthesis of everything before, and the cap of a fantastic night of noise.
-- Ken Hunt
THE CHARLES WHITMAN PANEL: THE HOW AND WHY OF WHAT HAPPENED
Austin Convention Center, Saturday, March 16
Both spellbinding and stomach-churning, this panel had more gruesome intensity in an hour and a half than an entire season of ER. It's hard enough for Austinites (especially if they happen to work at the University of Texas) to talk about the events of Aug. 1, 1966, but here were four who were willing to recreate the event and consider Whitman's motivation. Two panelists, moderator Jack Keever and Robert Heard, were AP capitol reporters who saw the events of that day unfold firsthand (How firsthand? Heard was wounded in the shoulder by the Tower sniper and not operated on at Brackenridge Hospital until 6pm that day); the other two, authors Dan Barrera and Gary Lavergne, have extensively researched the story of Charles Joseph Whitman and have completed or are working on manuscripts about him. From Whitman's brutal strangling of his mother at midnight July 31 (the hottest day of the year) to the final, horrible exchange of gunfire between the sniper and the lawmen who brought him down, the panelists recreated the events of that day with a sense of detail that was as fascinating as it was hard to listen to. Then, they offered suppositions about Whitman's motivation -- three possibilities: he hated his father, he was freaked on speed, or he had a terminal brain tumor. The spectre of Charles Whitman continues to haunt the imaginations of many Austinites, and when Lavergne said "This crime is really underrated in terms of what it did to American notions of what safety is," the squirmiest aspect of Whitman's reign of terror was made chillingly clear: It happened here, and it could happen again -- anywhere. -- Christopher Gray
Flamingo Cantina, Saturday, March 16
Under normal circumstances, San Antonio's Dropouts are an excellent, white R&B combo of great skill and drive, capable of feeding all your Brian Jones/Pretty Things wet dreams better than anyone not named Cyril Jordan. But, this evening, singer Dave Demel was out of his box. Pure and simple. The strutting Mick Jagger/Phil May polecat-type frontman, Demel was wired, edgy, and pin-eyed, attacking mike, crowd, and songs in a purely chemical frenzy. And the energy level just went interstellar from there. The Dropouts went from snotty R&B combo to punk rock band, everyone hitting instruments that much harder, guitarist Chris Lang winding pure voltage in and around Demel's screams and exhortations. Frightening. Absolutely frightening... -- Tim Stegall
MUSIC AND MIGAS
Lubbock or Leave It, 2am, Sunday, March 17
This was the grand schmoozefest I'd waited for all year, honoring Bob Neuwirth's new Watermelon Records release. One hundred and fifty people fit themselves cozily into a space meant for 50. Mirth was the point of order as Neuwirth and the likes of Charlie Sexton, Peter Case, and Butch Hancock among others, jammed the wee morn away. I felt warmer and fuzzier than cooked kiwi. With the grace of a gazelle, I honed my schmooze skills with industry elite. I slyly jostled a man carrying a plate of migas, causing salsa to make a nice Jackson Pollack on his clean white shirt. His conference badge revealed him to be a kinda bigwig at a kinda major label. This was a huge moment. I smiled, giving a "sorry, my friend." He responded in equal kindness with "You miserable stupid fuck." I could feel every fiber of every human in the room filling with ebullience. I bade my new friend farewell, only to receive copious greetings a few steps later from yet another man of magnanimity named John Wesley Harding, who showered me with praise for my silhouette embellishments of his video projection work. "Get the fuck out of the way, fucker," he waved, virtually blowing me a kiss. He was so happy to see me, his face contorted like he was getting a hedgehog enema. Too much alacrity is too much, so I carefully knocked a few people down on my way out, blowing Lucinda Williams a kiss as I passed her on the sidewalk. She snorted with excitement. -- Joe Mitchell
Ruta Maya, 3am Sunday, March 17
Chris Whitley's last album, Din of Ecstasy, was like a smashed clock; pin wheels, springs, and metal guts heaped in a tangled mess. Disturbing, restless -- often grating -- it took many by surprise because it was such a radical departure from the traditional blues found on the guitarist's debut, Living with the Law. So it was appropriate that a song from that debut, "Big Sky Country" -- played towards the end of Whitley's hour-long, after-hours set at a packed Ruta Maya Coffeehouse corner -- proved to be the missing link between the two albums. Like the set-dominating material from Din of Ecstasy, "Big Sky Country" was sung/shouted by Whitely in a raw -- often grating -- voice that accompanied the Bone Machine-like blues riffs he cranked out on a national steel guitar while percussionist Dougie Bowne clanged out his own primal rhythms. It was blues alright, 21st century, deconstructionist Blade Runner blues -- as stark and as chilling as something Robert Johnson spooked out of his soul -- and it unmasked Whitley for what he really is: a journeyman bluesman with a serious axe to grind.
-- Raoul Hernandez
DRUMS AND TUBA
Hole in the Wall, Sunday, March 17
Emcee Paul Minor introduced this band as, " the hardest working band in show business without a bass player," and "the Ken Griffey, Jr. of the guitar, drums and tuba genre." I don't know much about baseball, but in the lingo of the world's game, they are somewhere on line between Patrick Kluivert and Robbie Fowler. They're very young, very cocky, and gifted enough to back it up. Like their footballing brethren, D and T are a joy to watch. This night they seemed in top form. That guy on tuba must have more wind than West Texas. At one point near show's end, he did a solo playing two, count 'em two, trumpets at the same time. Other tricks up the band's collective sleeve include using a newspaper in lieu of a snare brush and singing vocals through the tuba. The band sticks mostly to instrumentals, gathering their influences from mid-Eighties American post-punk; hence the Minutemen cover. But there's some rap and average, everyday singing in there, too. Their call and response ditty about getting busted by UTPD outside the Music Building -- "Is that your tuba?/Can you prove it?/Instruments get stolen from this building all the time" -- is a work of goofy brilliance. If D and T keep building at this pace, they'll no doubt be champions straight away.
-- Joe Mitchell
DICK TINGLER AND JACK SABBATH'S KARAOKE
Electric Lounge, Sunday, March 17
The less said about this the better. Imagine the bulk of the SXSW organizers, thoroughly frazzled, all either given their time in front of the microphone or forced there against their will. Kudos to Brent Grulke, who managed to pretend the mike wasn't working (he had switched it off) and forced the host to sing most of the number he had been coerced into, but nothing can make up for the spectacle of the Gourds' Charlie Lewellen, shirtless and wearing a big rabbit's head, nearly toppling over the entire P.A. before falling to the floor writhing through the majority of "Wild Thing." I feel like scrubbing myself with a wire brush to clean this experience from my soul. -- Ken Lieck n