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Playback – SXSW: Zero Hour

SXSW started early this year, but now – as usual – everything hits at once

By Kevin Curtin, March 14, 2014, Music

We didn't have time to brace for impact. As usual, South by Southwest hit earlier than expected, beginning last Friday during SXSW Interactive when newly anointed Grammy recipient and local boy Gary Clark Jr. played a surprise concert at Mohawk via an afterparty for SXSW Film premiere Chef, Jon Favreau's new comedy. Sunday, Johnny Depp, in town for the Texas Film Hall of Fame Awards last week, made a surprise appearance at Rodeo Austin with Willie Nelson. Later that same night, catastrophic pop star and current Rolling Stone cover boy Justin Bieber popped into Rainey Street sausage house Banger's for an unscheduled performance.

Monday revealed that the Game of Thrones chair that's become one of the most popular photo ops at SXSW won't be the only "throne" being "watched" at the Austin Music Hall. Tonight, Wednesday, Jay-Z and Kanye West perform together there. Another hip-hop megastar, Lil Wayne, whose Carter V drops in May, just got added in as a SXSW interview on Friday. Considering that Kendrick Lamar, Nas, 50 Cent, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris, and Sean "Diddy" Combs are all appearing at the Festival, SXSW enjoys another banner year on the mic.

And let us not forget that SXSW Music waited not just until the 11th hour to unveil its keynote speaker, but the 11th hour and 59th minute to trumpet Lady Gaga, who performs Thursday night at Stubb's, then addresses the industry the next day at the Convention Center.

"She's our youngest keynote to date and the first female keynote since 1999," observed SXSW Music GM James Minor. "But as far as any perception that this is some sort of a statement, it isn't. It's just the perfect time for her to be here."

Stacked against the last 10 keynotes – Dave Grohl, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Geldof, Smokey Robinson, Quincy Jones, Lou Reed, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, Robert Plant, and Little Richard – the 27-year-old dance diva might as well be an infant, her catalog and industry experience paling in comparison. On the other hand, she possesses a uniquely modern outlook when compared to Rock and Roll Hall of Fame vets. As an audience, we want new perspectives, compelling stories, and inspiration. Can Gaga accomplish all that? Find out at 11am Friday, when she's interviewed by John Norris. Until then, reserve judgment.

Last week's bulletin that Gaga's Doritos-sponsored concert would require fans to take on "bold missions," like getting crazy haircuts, skating against Derby girls while wearing sumo suits, and jumping off a 30-foot platform to score tickets, prompted a Cool Ranch blowback from critics charging (since year two of SXSW, at least) that increased focus on celebrity appearances and corporate branding is degrading the underdog spirit of the ginormous fest. That's a reasonable concern, but numbers alone – some 2,100 official acts – prove not one band has been left behind, never mind all the unofficial chaos. If the goal remains to empower underground music, then the most productive action isn't to bitch about Gaga, but instead to support it personally. Go see an international band that traveled halfway around the world for a 35-minute showcase: Korean, Australian, Welsh, take your pick. You'll have more fun watching them than standing in line for Coldplay.

Beyond the commercial annoyances of Bieber and guys on Segways wearing Google Glass, SXSW remains a summit of innovative people. With the inclusion of premier thinkers like astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson and science expert Bill Nye, political agitators Edward Snowden and Julian Assange, comedians like Portlandia's Fred Armisen and Carrie Brownstein, and big- and small-screen innovators including Wes Anderson and Lena Dunham, Austin's rife with remarkable individuals this week.

For local fare, dig the Austin Music Awards, tonight (Wednesday), 7:55pm, at the Austin Ballroom in the Convention Center. We're told that treasured psych survivor Roky Erickson will perform with the Texas Tornados, as will Alejandro Escovedo, who'll be backed by the Dead Boys' Cheetah Chrome, the Stooges' James Williamson, and Clem Burke from Blondie.

Finally, our Chronicle dailies look a bit different this year. They'll be stacked with music preview coverage to plan your nights. Look for them Thursday, Friday, and Saturday, with further reports from yours truly. Live Shots – more than 100 over the next five days – have migrated online and around the clock, so bookmark austinchronicle.com/daily/music.

The Jesus Lizard Book

The Jesus Lizard, protean noise-rock practitioners born from the wreckage of Austin's Scratch Acid, whose unpredictable and often obscene performances made them one of the most remarkable acts of the Nineties, return to town this week, not for a reunion concert, but to promote their new coffeetable book.

A thorough self-examination of the Chicago four, Book includes a mini-autobiography from each member, priceless photos, an epic list of every show they played, bassist/resident historian David Sims' obsessive track-by-track breakdowns of each album, and testimonials from peers like Krist Novoselic, Guy Picciotto, and the band's longtime producer Steve Albini, who writes: "I think of them as the greatest band I've ever seen, as the best musicians I've ever worked with, and the purest melding of the sublime and profane."

"I was overwhelmed with flattery," admitted Lizard/Acid frontman David Yow this week regarding the book's guest contributions. "Mike Watt's entry is like an abstract beatnik poem, but reading it all really warmed my cockles."

Other contributions compare the Jesus Lizard to Led Zeppelin for being able to bring each member's individual skills into a single commanding sound.

"I can see us as the Led Zeppelin of the punk rock world," acknowledges Yow, who saw Zep play Houston in '77 and still regards them as the best band of all time.

"Duane [Denison] plays like a mix between Jimmy Page and Robert Fripp, our bass and drums were good, and, with both bands, the singer was the weak link."

Yow, Sims, and drummer Mac McNeilly convene at BookPeople Friday 7pm for a discussion moderated by Chronicle Music Editor Raoul Hernandez. The SXSW timing, Yow promises, is "happenstance," but he wouldn't totally rule out playing a few songs with Scratch Acid since he, Sims, drummer Rey Washam, and guitarist Brett Bradford will all be in Austin.

Bradford's current project, Insect Sex Act, plays Friday, 8:40pm, at the Grackle, where they'll release their outrageous new album, A Fistful of Panties, For a Few Panties More, or Once Upon a Time in Your Panties.

Old Space, New Places

After a soft opening late last week, the Vulcan Gas Company held its first production Sunday, hosting dance music veteran Behrouz. "He's exactly the kind of artist we want to bring in," beamed co-owner Marc Piatkowski, who tells "Playback" that their renovation of the building at 418 E. Sixth was a total remodel down to the shell.

A giant room with an industrial design and a large balcony overlooking a monolithic DJ booth, the Vulcan's main attractions are the light and sound. With eight active spotlights and a separate projection system, the visuals are stellar and you'll feel the bass from their high-tech Funktion-One speakers in your teeth.

On Monday, a production staff was readying the remodeled Fair Market for 50 Cent's Tuesday SXSW performance, its first official event since rebranding from 1100 Warehouse. The massive East Fifth Quonset hut, which music fans know from Chaos in Tejas or Mess With Texas, has been upgraded with bathrooms and a new side entrance. The backyard has now been leveled and fitted with a new fence as well.

"We fought to keep the materials really raw because we think there's a whole lot of demand for the old Austin Eastside flavor," noted Transmission Events' James Moody, one of six owners.

In its new incarnation as a versatile events center, Moody expects Fair Market to be used less for concerts and more for weddings, farmers' markets, or motorcycle shows, though he acknowledges that Transmission will use it for shows where the artist wants to play a nontraditional space.

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