The Winter Classic
South by Southwest 1998
HARVEY SID FISHER
Waterloo Brewing Company, Wednesday, March 18
"There is a Holiday Inn in Hell, and I've just checked in." That was my realization about halfway through Harvey Sid Fisher's set in the spacious outdoor area of the Waterloo Brewing Company. Best known for his set of astrology songs (one for each sign of the zodiac), Fisher decided this South by Southwest showcase was a good chance to display his newer observational songs about various aspects of the human experience (mostly sex), sporadically backed by a couple of guys he knows from L.A. and a pair of mail-order backup singers, who seemed to know a few of the songs reasonably well. The mere sight of Fisher in his trademark tux and two besequined babes had a cheese factor high enough to feed Wisconsin, but adding his trademark warble and the girls' tentative harmonies to the mix produced such a surreal show that the crowd didn't seem sure whether it was laughing with Fisher or at him. The fact is, though, that Fisher's lyrics are actually very clever and totally unlike those of anyone else alive; the reason he seems so strange is that he's a man out of time, the last novelty act of the century or perhaps ever. When he turns more serious and uses his lower range, he sounds an awful lot like Leonard Cohen, and perhaps that's an apt comparison, since Fisher's songs rise from a deep well of emotional pain and insecurity, even if they are chiefly humorous in nature; they're peppered with infantile cries, sexual boasts, faked orgasms (from the girls), and yes, even the repeated plea, "I want my Mommy!" In the end, it seems we were laughing both with Fisher, due to his skills as a type of entertainer that we thought no longer existed, and at him, nervously, because the words he was sharing with us were so uncomfortably, frighteningly personal.
- Ken Lieck
Electric Lounge, Wednesday, March 18
You never know quite what Gretchen Phillips will pull out of the bag for a gig, but then that's half the fun of getting out to see her play. Although billed by South by Southwest as a solo show, Phillips was joined by her new "supergroup," Lord Douglas Walston-Phillips. The show's theme was that of an evangelical ministry, with band members all donning vaguely monastic robes, which made them look like the waitstaff from the Medieval Inn. Phillips herself was wearing a shiny, $3 used suit that would make TV faith healer Benny Hinn green with envy. The set started out quiet with hootenanny-styled shout-outs to the Lord (not Terri Lord, the other one) that allowed for plenty of harmonic interplay between Phillips and Meat Purveyor Jo Walston. And just when you were getting settled in that tangent, Phillips went electric, taking it to the beach with "Girl Curl," which may just well be the cornerstone of a budding lesbian surf-rock revolution. The audience was particularly enthusiastic, singing along thanks to the photocopied "hymnals" passed out before the show; you'd have to be dead not to be enthusiastic about singing a catchy chorus like, "Going to the place where only girls go/Hanging on the island where waves are nice and slow/Taking a dip/Touching the lip/Feel how hard your tit can get/Yeah yeah." Former Gretchen Phillips Experience e-man Andy Loomis made a guest appearance as a beneficiary of Phillips' faith-healing powers, staying onstage to sing harmony for a few songs, including "Burning Inside." The show came to a funky close with "Gretchen Phillips Says `Amen,'" a hilarious reworking of the immortal Waskey Elwood Walls, Jr. song-poem, "Jimmy Carter Says `Yes.'" Sang Phillips: "Can your minister be a sodomite? Gretchen says `Amen.' Gretchen Phillips says `Amen.' Can your minister rock your ass all night? Gretchen says `Amen.' Gretchen Phillips says `Amen.'" The fact that Phillips uses her angelic, well-versed voice and wit to deliver cleverly astute, punker than punk sentiments is a key factor in her continuing significance to Austin music. She is one artist you can be a localist about and really mean it. - Greg Beets
THE NEGRO PROBLEM
Waterloo Brewing Company, Wednesday, March 18
Standing front and center, the Negro Problem's Mark Stewart is wearing a windbreaker with a camouflage and orange pattern. It looks distinctly camouflage, except the orange that rings the greens and browns changes the whole function of the jacket, forsaking functionality for something playfully and archly stylish. And that's an apt enough metaphor for the band's sound. In the space of the Negro Problem's Wednesday night South by Southwest showcase, the audience was able to tour all the indie rock detours and departures of the last 10 years, as they appeared in the band's sound as signposts. A little Pixies here, a little funk there, touches of Wesley Willis mayhem here, a roots-rock departure that they described as "their most Austin song" over there - all coming just maddeningly or whimsically short of coalescing into an easy-to-peg core sound. Half the fun was listening to Stewart in between songs. He prefaced one song by stating, "This song is not about putting peanut butter and jelly between your toes and hiring someone to lick them. It's not about that at all." He also hawked the band's latest release, Post-Minstrel Syndrome, by pointing out that their CDs are bulletproof ("unless the bullet goes through the little hole in the middle") and that the CDs come with ointments ("It's a CD you can rub on yourself when you're lonely"). There was enough of a continuum running between the band's songs for the Waterloo crowd to enjoy them, yet the entire set built toward the penultimate "Birdcage," a song which, while finally fusing all the band's eclectic elements into one unified presentation, seemed more invested in needling Los Angeles Times music critic Robert Hilburn than putting the needle in the groove. While they funked it up for a final number that traded some of the petty for perky, "Birdcage" made the Negro Problem seem too invested in what other people think. When you're throwing everything but the kitchen sink into your sound, you shouldn't care about the mess you make. You should only care about how aesthetically pleasing your mess is. - Phil West
RICARDO LEMVO & MAKINA LOCA
La Zona Rosa, Wednesday, March 18
It would be difficult for any band to follow Altan's blistering set, and harder still for a band that doesn't specialize in that group's Celtic fireworks, which was what brought droves of fans to La Zona Rosa in the first place. Those wise enough to stay, however, were treated to fireworks nonetheless - fireworks of a different dynamic altogether: Ricardo Lemvo & Makina Loca's Afro-Latin powerhouse. On a world map, you can draw a straight line from the Congo area of Central Africa, through Cuba, right to California. This imaginary line is the very voyage that bandleader Ricardo Lemvo made, from his native Zaire, through Havana, to his current adopted home of Los Angeles. Each locale was represented in Lemvo's wholly unique blend of Zairian soukous and Cuban old school salsa. An extraordinary arranger and musician, Lemvo, who spoke to the audience in English, yet sang in Lingala, Spanish, and Portuguese, treated the modest-size but mobile crowd with a brimming set of foot shuffling, heart-racing dancing tunes. If the idea of an African singing Latin lyrics sounds odd, it shouldn't. Ever heard the term "Afro-Cuban"? Well, it ain't just one of those useless record company labels; it's more of a historical description. Related Afro-Cuban styles - such as rumba, salsa, and soukous - are results of Western Europe's slavery of Africans, mixing the exiled with the equally subjugated indigenous cultures of the Caribbean, Central, and South America. Yet such a tragedy as slavery was the last thing on anyone's mind this first night of South by Southwest; the crowd was there to gig and the band gladly obliged. Like Dizzie Gillespie's famous United Nations Orchestra, Lemvo's band Makina Loca is a planetary pastiche of seven musicians from Russia, the Netherlands, the United States, and Zaire. Driven by two piston-like trumpets, a dexterous guitarist, and a locomotive drummer, Makina Loca pumped out bubbling soukous-seasoned salsa that kept the crowd grinnin' and groovin' even after the encore. If a crowd's satisfaction is a measure of success, then Lemvo & Co. can go home as pleased as they left the audience. - David Lynch
La Zona Rosa, Thursday, March 19
An hour before the show, the line stretched to the end of the block, and by the time organizers started letting people in - after splitting the crowd into laminate caste and wristband caste - the line had doubled. It would be enough to give any musician a rock star complex, except that Sonic Youth is seemingly immune to swelled head syndrome. They walked casually on stage just five minutes after their scheduled time with no ego or fanfare, plugged in, and started a showcase of the new. The opening song, "Anagrama," from last year's set of two self-released CDs, is a marked departure from their previous three DGC albums. Whereas the DGC efforts placed the band's trademark swarm-of-locust guitars into pop frameworks, "Anagrama" is more concerned with space and sculpture. And from the sounds of the group's new material, the forthcoming A Thousand Leaves (seemingly played in its entirety here) is more on the art rock side of the spectrum than anything Sonic Youth has done in years. At Thursday's show, songs often sprawled out over seven or eight minutes, with symphonic structures throwing sparse middle parts between gorgeous, alien salvos, and blasts of layered noises. The builds often came unexpectedly, eschewing a pyramidal, layer-by-layer structure for a more postmodern architecture of jagged angles and minarets. For much of the show, bassist Kim Gordon played third guitar, adding simple and woven patterns into Thurston Moore and Lee Renaldo's detuned chords and breaks, which still manage, after all these years, to throw monkey wrenches into the Western musical scale. And although it's wondrous to see the music being wrought in the live arena, more wrestled than crafted, it's even more wondrous to see how placid they remain in the wake of their own noise. Moore's head will shake from side to side occasionally, but save for that, they remain workmanlike and almost nonchalant. At one point, on an Allen Ginsberg tribute titled "Hits of Sunshine," Moore apologetically brought a lyric sheet to the stage to help him along. Toward the end, he thanked the crowd for skipping dinner to see the show, but the capacity crowd seemed more than content to be fed on art. Their closer, "Heather," centered around repeated, screamed goodbyes from Gordon, but the real goodbye came in one last blast, obscuring the preceding tense, sparse, elongated interlude with an unfurled curtain of noise. Then they walked off, 80 minutes after they started, completing another day at the office, making the impossible look easy.
- Phil West
Liberty Lunch, Thursday, March 19
"We came all the way from San Francisco to play here tonight," said Roddy Bottum four songs into Imperial Teen's Thursday night South by Southwest showcase. "It feels like there's a lot riding on it." With 800-900 people filling Liberty Lunch amply in an early, 9pm time slot (just down the street and just after Sonic Youth's festival headlining set at La Zona Rosa), it was easy to see why Bottum, best known for his keyboard work in Faith No More, was just a little bit nervous. The whole band was clearly nervous. Garnering excellent reviews for its 1996 Slash/London debut, Seasick, a ruefully bitter yet wickedly funny diary of post-Cobain angst (complete with loud guitars and prodigious pop smarts), the Bay Area quartet had come to SXSW for the same reason so many bands and their labels visit Austin every March: to test new material and the music industry's reaction to it. "We'll be putting out a new record sometime before I die," announced Bottum's guitar foil Will Schwartz with theatrical exasperation. "It's called What Is Not to Love - no question mark." Opening with two new songs, "Amps" and Bottum's "Potsticker," an insistent needler displaying all the earmarks of the finer songs from Seasick, the band's nervous energy charged the already electric air in the crowded club from the first note sounded. Rather than dissipating this current with Seasick's moody opener, "Imperial Teen," the group stoked the tension quotient that much higher before exploding into their self-titled anthem's album segue, "Water Boy." Brimming with angry sarcasm and sharp, jagged riffs, the frenetic energy of the tune expertly showcased the charmed chemistry of this talented quartet; the hunky Bottom and impishly playful Schwartz cranking out walls of guitar on either side of voluptuous blonde bassist Jone Stebbens while powerhouse drummer/bassist Lynn Perko (ex-Sister Double Happiness), high on the drum riser at the back of the stage, pounded out double times - all four alternating on vocals while contributing sugary harmonies. From that point on, from the no-brain candy pop of "The Beginning," to the driving drone of "Alone in the Grass" and Bottum's wounded "Lipstick" ("why ya gotta be so cruel, I'm the one with lipstick on"), and on down to the set-ending Seasick standouts like the bouncy homoerotic junkie ode, "You're One," and "Balloon," Imperial Teen demonstrated why a core group of fans as fierce as any Redd Kross kult has risen around this little-known group. Better still, the foursome seemingly enthralled a curious throng that had come to investigate an industry buzz as persistent as the group's united quirkiness. In fact, when time was called after an all-too-brief 35-minute set, the band ending with the deliriously happy `n' heavy "Yoo Hoo," one could feel the crowd's collective heart sink with the band's. Maybe a lot had been riding on this showcase, because after a roadie came onstage and turned off Schwartz's abandoned, feedbacking guitar, the buzz suddenly got a whole lot louder.
- Raoul Hernandez
State Theatre, Thursday, March 19
Just hours before, Jonathan Demme's Storefront Hitchcock had premiered at the Paramount Theatre, and now, next door, the celluloid was to be made flesh - at midnight, just like the South by Southwest pocket guide said. The only problem was that at midnight Kathy Mattea was still 15 minutes shy of finishing a very polished, very conventional set of folk songs to an audience of her fans, many of whom stuck around to see Hitchcock. Uh-oh is right. You see, what passes for eclectic for the Hitchcock fan may well seem downright weird to the folk aficionado. A man and his acoustic guitar looks folk, but when you're more Syd Barrett than anything else, nothing probably is what it appears to be. Of course, Hitchcock did ease them in slowly, letting collaborator Tim Keegan warm up the crowd with two bright, scrubbed-face songs. Hitchcock's opener, "Don't Talk to Me About Gene Hackman," poked gentle fun at the actor and drew laughs from the audience. That led into "Chinese Bones," a tale about two gourds in love that was charmingly quirky for the novice and old hat for the fan. Then it really became Robyn's world. The next song covered the year 1974 from Hitchcock's inimitable perspective, with phantom helicopters and fanciful conversations patched together to explain an era the singer described as a "void." After that, violinist Deni Bonet came on to assist on "Egyptian Cream," a Hitchcock stalwart that brought his first sex-change reference into the arena. Later, he managed an entire song built around the line, "Somebody ring the cheese alarm." He still had enough charm to entertain the audience through an entire 90-minute set, and when Hitchcock and Keegan debated whether to play an intro line to start a new song, Hitchcock embarked on a playful exchange with the audience. He introduced "Let's Go Thundering" with a spontaneous game of charades, trying to coax the thunder part of the title from the audience. Someone got it after a few tries, too. Although Hitchcock is perpetually writing new songs, some of which he featured during this show, his 20-plus prolific years (starting with his Soft Boys days) means that even with 90 minutes of song and banter, there's still entire sections of his work that will be - and were - left locked in the vaults. And while this show was as intimate as Hitchcock gets, the true fan could have remained rooted until 4-5am to get their fill. - Phil West
PANEL: "IF I KNEW THEN WHAT I KNOW NOW"
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 19
Robyn Hitchcock: "I was ripped off, then fucked over, then I pissed a few people off, then I was on MTV and everything was all right." Billy Bragg: "In the Seventies, they invented cocaine to get our money back from us. In the Eighties it was video." Indigo Girl Amy Ray: "You could feed a small nation with the money you spend on a video." Video may have been the leitmotif that, like Dirk Diggler, kept coming back up, but the "If I Knew Then What I Know Now" panel with Robyn Hitchcock, Billy Bragg, Jerry Jeff Walker, Indigo Girl Amy Ray, Kathy Mattea, and Roddy Bottum, was more about how you are inevitably going to get screwed as a musician in this business and how screwed up the business itself is. First, the entire thing is predicated on the improbable and the fallible. Hitchcock: "Let's face it, McCartney and Lennon being born in Liverpool two years apart was kind of a lucky break... not only for us, but for George and Ringo as well." Walker: "This whole industry is built on the fact that I have to remember the third verse." Then, once you start making music, club owners, labels, and publishers are going to want to exploit you any way possible. Ray: "People would want to pay you in drugs or they would miscount the door so they could pay you less." Bragg: "It's your rights they want you to sign away." Hitchcock: "I've made too many records." Then, if you actually "make it," great, you're rich. Mattea: "I spent so many years being poor, I knew how to do that. I didn't know how to be a grown-up with money." The funniest thing of all - where "funny" means "twisted" - is that little to nothing of what the panelists had learned could help anybody in the audience. No amount of advice can keep you the musician from the sleaze waiting to take advantage of your talents. So, you still want to be a rock & roll star?
- Michael Bertin
PANEL: "WHAT'S NEXT FOR ELECTRONICA"
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 19
Q: How many DJs does it take to change a lightbulb? A: Six. One to change the damn thing and five others to argue about what a lightbulb is in the first place, where lightbulbs are headed, whether or not lightbulbs have been co-opted by the mainstream, and if the term "lightbulb" should be replaced by "ambient-electro glow source." Yeah, it's a bad joke, but so was this howlingly dopey "Whither Electronica?" panel, which was nearly as engrossing as watching Steven Hawking overdose on Rohypnol. It just goes to show, however, that even well-spoken industry heads/DJs like Columbia's Jason Jordan, Maverick's Jason Bentley, Silver Worldwide's Matt Silver, Green Galactic's Susan Mainzer, Quadrophonic Records' Dubliner Donnell Scannell, and Grand Royal's Mark Kates have as many qualified opinions as they do replacement needles for their envelope-pushing turntables. The issue at hand was "electronica," or as Silver insisted, "DJ culture," and where it's going, if anywhere. Obviously, now that Mazda has requisitioned The Crystal Method for their new commercials and breakbeats litter the cathode ray tube like frothy Dr Pepper jingles, something's up, but whether or not this means the mainstreaming of the underground is nigh appeared to be anyone's guess. Scannell's take on U.S. techno was full of valid points, many of which had to do with the States' preference for good old-fashioned stage shows to go with their radio diet. On the far side of the pond, DJ culture has fused with the common zeitgeist, leaving little room for annoying arguments about pop culture and the music's place in it. "In the U.K.," said Scannell, "there's no longer any differentiation between `dance music' and music in general. It's just accepted that when someone is speaking about music, they're talking about Norman Cook, Roni Size, [and others]." Meanwhile, the U.S. scene struggles to find some sort of identity outside of the midnight-to-four-in-the-morning time slot, with little success. Everyone agrees that last year's flavor - "alternative rock" - is deader than Scrooge's door-knocker, but is electronica (or some weird electronica/hip-hop variant) the coming thing anywhere outside of Los Angeles and New York? Fervently, all six hoped it would be so, sweating bullets and droning on about "other stuff." Scannell hit the unintentional comedic high point when, commenting on the majestic sales figures of the Titanic soundtrack, he asked hypothetically, "How can you listen to an album that's essentially the same song over and over?" Maybe that is what's holding electronica back, Donnell, or haven't you heard the new Keoki? - Marc Savlov
Tropical Isle, Thursday, March 19
Set amid the fake plastic palm trees and neon-pink flamingos of the Tropical Isle, Kraut-night at this year's South by Southwest took on a surreal tone made only more disturbing by the puzzling array of abstract German artistry on display for the bulk of the evening. When Berliners Surrogat took the stage and its amiable frontman intoned, "If you are looking for Nirvana, they aren't coming," I was certain to be in for more incessant droning. And yet at no time during the week was I more pleasantly surprised, as I was treated to the best (and only) German interpretation of Nirvana's In Utero that I had ever encountered. Steve Albini couldn't have colored the guitar tones any darker, and the tortured wails evoked less the image of the Holocaust than of some drunken law school student (as these fellows claim to be) retching his lungs out after one pilsner too many. Dare I say it even rocked. After enduring several hours of dour, ambient techno from Laub, and bloated, formless, prog-rock from Kante (let's not overlook their chart-topper "Technique du Sport"), Surrogat proved a welcome substitution. Those wacky Germans may make great scientists, but sometimes rock is supposed to bypass the brain and hit below the waist; bring me the head of Klaus Meine and some black leather pants. Surrogat proved willing and able with dick-joke simplicity on "Euroslut," demonstrating once again that sex is the universal language. Other tunes like "Kleenex," "Elbow on the Quilt," and "Han er der Inne" offered little in the way of a message, but by this time those nifty Tropical Isle drinks with grenadine and little rubber sharks were starting to take effect. As the music transcended space and time, I began to relish the opportunity to hear German rock even if I couldn't understand the words. Despite appearances to the contrary, Berlin-based Kitty-Yo records has done itself and its American audience a favor by coming to SXSW, bridging the obvious musical and cultural gap between our countries. Just try to imagine how the Geezinslaws' humor would play in Hamburg, and you'll know that we're all richer for the experience. - Sean Doles
Maggie Mae's West, Thursday, March 19
There's a sentiment that says you don't have to be Irish to love things Irish, and that would be the case during South by Southwest's Irish night. It was heartening to see that badges were not the most popular accessory for this showcase, indicating a healthy percentage of the crowd were wristband-wearing locals - good news for the Austin Celtic Association as well as the Gaelic League. As Maggie Mae's West drew a comfortable crowd into its frat-hallowed walls through the first set of the evening, Jack L. delivered the kind of impassioned balladry associated with Van Morrison, though he dressed more like Tom Jones. The following act, Prayer Boat, played largely seductive melodies in the background as my companions at the bar were too fascinating to leave - Irish brogues and Texas accents plying blarney and bullshit with Guinness and Dos Equis. By the time the folk-rock of the Frank & Walters trio wound up, we'd found a table, and not a moment too soon; it was midnight and Dublin's Crush, the evening's buzz band, were about to start. Irish modern rock is hardly an anomaly (look at U2, for starters), but for an island where you're never more than an hour from the ocean, its influence is tremendous. Crush were appropriately named, then, as they crunched the most basic rock & roll with a dervish fury that didn't deny its poetic roots on the Emerald Isle. Leave it to Kila, who followed, to end the night with their traditional touch. Was that the sweet sound of the fiddle's notes reaching to the seat of the High Kings or the cry of the fey in a distant memory? Kila lit the fires of the night with music that swooped and swirled deliciously across the spirit. Good thing too, for there's nothing like the muse to melt the Celtic soul deep in the heart of every Irishman. Sláinte! - Margaret Moser
Ritz Lounge, Thursday, March 19
Ragtime began as a very crude, almost self-deprecating style of music that had more to do with the revelry and dancing that was inspired by the rhythms than it did with concern over the music itself. It wasn't considered significant as a musical form until Scott Joplin came along, and as far as popular music goes - in the lifetime of this writer at least - ragtime has remained a largely unexploited resource. Now, out of Asheville, North Carolina, come the Blue Rags, five young white guys on Sub Pop that go back to the genesis of the form and capture the raw, irreverent attitude that gave rise to the music in the first place. The spirit of the rag is where it's at - passion before mastery - and with this group's altruistic devotion to the inherent fun of the ragtime rhythms as a shared ideology, the Blue Rags' show upstairs at the Ritz was the most unbridled fun to be had at South by Southwest. The double-bass player (in addition to having the most fascinating array of rock-show faces) kept the tunes chugging along in synch with the crashing regularity of the drummer, both musicians impressing one and all to hoots of elation when their solo time came up. The two guitarists were on fire as well, belting out call and response hollerin' lyrics in distinct styles - one a hoarse-voiced bellower, one a red-eyed smirking baritone. The piano guy, Jake Hollifield, though, was the shit. At the pace he was moving, especially during "I Got Rhythm" and "Billy Goodbye," it was impossible to tell how clean his moves were, but it made no difference whatsoever - he had the spirit in him. They closed out with a Bill Monroe tune and a go at the classic "Salty Dog" that threw the full house into a whirling frenzy. No one seemed to be prepared for exactly how good or how unique this band was, but considering the rate at which bandwagons are jumped on for far lesser innovations or revivals, a slew of imitators can't be far behind. If we're smart, we'll welcome them with open arms. - Christopher Hess
JOHNNY DOWD BAND
Scholz Beer Garten, Thursday, March 19
In contrast to the stark staring photo on his debut CD, The Wrong Side of Memphis, Johnny Dowd - in a peacoat and glasses - looked more like a writer at a booksigning than the closing act of a Chicago's Checkered Past Records South by Southwest showcase. That is, until he took several healthy swigs from a bottle of Bushmills while tweaking his guitar. Stage fright from a high profile gig? Perhaps, but more likely the whisky helped Dowd and his band members brave the meat-locker windy chill of the Scholz's outside stage (where were those outdoor heaters from last year?!). Dowd started heavy with an invitation/warning to those who braved the 1am frigidity: Prepare to enter the universe according to Johnny Dowd. The calling card was a rumbly cacophonous version of "Welcome Jesus," where Dowd bids the Anointed One welcome to his "dismal swamp." The second song, "It Might Not Get Any Better," found the drummer reinforcing the song's fatally realistic lyrics by unaffectedly throwing miscellaneous cymbals on the stage. Dowd's DIY vibrato vocals, similar to a Blue Mask-era Lou Reed, fit his ironic lyrics. "Murder," with a slightly treated trumpet, was transformed from its slow, almost easy-paced studio version to John Wayne Gacy conducting John Phillips Sousa's band. In the introduction to "Butcher's Son," Dowd said that every day his father - a Safeway butcher - would come home to hug his wife with blood-stained arms. The Texas-born Dowd ended the song with a deconstruction guitar solo, stopping only briefly to grab another swig of the warming brown liquor. Dowd, now a resident of Ithaca, closed his set with the introduction, "You Texans should know a bit about this last song, it's about sex and fried chicken," and proceeded to tell the story "of a baby born in a Motel 6" sung over a twisted boogie shuffle. The Wrong Side of Memphis is a surreal and honest view of humanity's dark side. On a very cold and late SXSW stage, its songs lost a bit of their distant studio scariness, yet the result was still powerful and entertaining.
- David Lynch
PANEL: "WHO KILLED BOBBY FULLER?"
Austin Convention Center, Thursday, March 19
Historically, one of the most refreshing aspects of South by Southwest's lineup of panels is the inclusion of fascinating and eccentric topics like this one to keep the monotonous industry-speak pontifications in check. Although most people only know Bobby Fuller from hearing "I Fought the Law" on oldies stations, the powerful, panoramic beauty of his songwriting and production is the glue that connects Buddy Holly to Brian Wilson. The strain of melancholia that permeates tunes like "Let Her Dance," "Another Sad and Lonely Night," and "Never to be Forgotten" is as enveloping as the desolate landscape of West Texas where Fuller grew up. Music is the obvious hook to Fuller's story, but his rise to fame and sad demise on June 18, 1966 at the age of 23 opened up a myriad of dramatic elements, including true crime, illicit romance, conspiracy, and mystery. This panel's star witness was Randy Fuller, Bobby's brother, who played bass for the Bobby Fuller Four. Shortly after receiving a call from his mother that Bobby was dead, Randy raced to the corner of Franklin and Sycamore in Los Angeles. Bobby was laying face down in his car in a puddle of blood with his eyebrow torn halfway off. He was also doused with gasoline. Randy claims the L.A.P.D. took the gas can out of the car and threw it in the dumpster. Later, the L.A. County Coroner would rule the death a suicide by asphyxiation and inhalation of gasoline. If anyone on the panel really knew who killed Bobby Fuller, no one was talking, but there were plenty of interesting facts, rumors, and bits of hearsay to be bandied about - like Fuller's worsening relationship with Del-Fi Records, the label's alleged connections to organized crime, and Fuller's dalliance with a high-priced call girl named Melody, to name a few. Even now, 32 years after Fuller's death, there still seems to be a reticence to divulge too much. Fuller fan Marshall Crenshaw spoke of receiving late night phone calls from people who claimed to know who the murderer was, but hung up before telling him. "There's a lot of people who are afraid to say anything," said Miriam Linna, who has researched Fuller's career. "Including me," added Randy. When asked where he thought Bobby's music would have gone had he lived, Randy spoke highly of his brother. "He had the ability to do anything he wanted with his voice," said Randy. "I think he was excited about the psychedelic trend, but he didn't know how to jump in without taking drugs." Indeed, one can only wonder what sort of leverage Fuller's solid El Paso bandstanding would have exacted on the Sunset Strip as that scene drifted off toward flowerdom. And it's not much of a leap to assume that Fuller would have been at the forefront of country-rock alongside Gram Parsons and Michael Nesmith, either. To think of what might have been only highlights the magnitude of what was lost when Fuller was killed.
- Greg Beets
Atomic Cafe, Friday, March 20
Hardcore punk and I parted ways at a Dicks show sometime in 1980 when I was hit in the face with the studded wristband of a slamdancer. At that moment, the fun was over for me - I preferred the Pogo - but all those memories came thundering home to me at Choreboy. Trouble was brewing before the band even took the stage, as vocalist Phil Owen taunted the club's security guards while checking the mikes. In a flash, one tattooed guy jerked Owen off the stage onto the club's concrete floor while a second guy, a ponytail in a security T-shirt, stood with his boot on Owen's chest to the horrifying dismay of the band's audience, wives, and friends. Owen wrested his way back onstage and Choreboy cranked up with "I'm Not Sorry," dedicated, of course, to the club security. He continued the baiting and in mid-song, Ponytail responded by charging from sidestage and punching Owen in the jaw as the bassist brought his guitar down on Ponytail's neck while both slid back onto the floor. Moments later, Owen sprang back on his feet chant-singing "I think I've had a bad day... Mommy, I've had a bad day..." following it up with "Dicks Hate Police." No shit, I thought - hell, this was only the second song. "Ain't nothing like a boot sandwich to lighten things up," sneered Owen by way of intro for "Bury Me in Texas." For "Bust Your Ass," Owen, pacing the stage like a jungle cat, growled, "It sure is lonely up here without a boot to my throat," and I could see exposed skin on the back of his head from one of his plummets to the floor. Meanwhile, guitarist Chris Gates is chunking chords of punk muscle into the audience against the band's relentless outpouring of "Stay Out All Night," "Alternative to What?" and "Skinheads." Suddenly, "Fun Fun Fun" segues into "The Eyes of Texas," and Owen's at it again, questioning the security guards' sexual orientation in graphic terms and the atmosphere grows tense again. Choreboy then breaks into "Chemical," and as soon as it ends, Owen stalks off stage, screaming "No more!" at Ponytail, who has met him on the side of the stage, camps forming to separate the two. Damn. I was really hoping to hear "Rub It Raw," but the adrenaline rush was enough to send me back out under a sky so dark and shiny it looked like black leather. - Margaret Moser
Bates Motel, Friday, March 20
There's nothing like low concept, minimalist-by-nature geek rock, and the steady flow of Pabst Blue Ribbon to put a smile on your face. Houston's Junior Varsity certainly wasn't the most competent trio playing South by Southwest, but they displayed a clearer than clear understanding of why most people go out to see live music instead of sitting on their couch listening to albums on Friday night; it's about the immediacy and community of a shared experience. It's about relinquishing some degree of control in favor of maybe finding a sliver of transcendence in loud, dank, smoke-filled rooms. And if you're Junior Varsity, it's about dressing up as high school cheerleaders and performing Brent's TV-flavored laundromat beat-punk with smiley-faced vigor. Cheri Oteri and Will Ferrell of the Saturday Night Live cheerleading skit could take a lesson or two from this spirited trio. I suppose one could overdose on JV's hyper-saccharine tales of hot rods, pep rallies, and ice cream socials, but their performance lasted no longer than your average sitcom. Like many of the bands playing SXSW, JV turned the idea of actually getting signed into a big in-between-song joke, which was a hell of a lot better than seeing a group of nervous musicians play to the same likely end result: one or two business cards, a few free drinks, a plate of BBQ, sampler CDs to sell at used record stores, but no big deal. The group's tongue-in-cheek "contract demands" fit right in with the "1997 Annual Report" that Peek-A-Boo Records "CEO" Travis Higdon was passing out. They were having fun with it, so the audience was having fun with it, too. In honor of the festival, JV brought along a "water boy" who would periodically quench the band's thirst by holding a ladle to their mouths. However, JV's biggest stroke of genius was to bring their own fully costumed mascot to the show. "Bippy Bear" brought joy to even the most cynical of hearts with his (her?) handshakes, high-fives, and Banana Splits-style choreography. Entertainment acumen may not carry Junior Varsity all the way to the end zone, but it does give them much better field position than those who dare to abandon showmanship. - Greg Beets
JON LANGFORD & SKULL ORCHARD
Hole In The Wall, Friday, March 20
How to play a South by Southwest set: come out kicking, never let up, and end on a bang. At the beginning of his regrettably short set, the ever-witty expatriate Brit and current Chicago resident Jon Langford told the densely concentrated Hole in the Wall crowd, "Right. Since no one's introducing the bands, I'll tell you, we're Skull Orchard and we've got about 20 minutes to play all of our music, so we'll hold off with the clever commentary between songs, eh?" Then, like badgers, Skull Orchard dug into the small Hole in the Wall stage and came out fighting with a searing version of, "Tubby Brothers," from Langford's Sugar Free debut, Skull Orchard. Folks who came solely to hear tunes from Langford's other projects (Waco Brothers, Mekons) were left wanting, but the more open-minded were handsomely rewarded with songs from the semi-autobiographical Skull Orchard. Onstage, "Penny Arcades," "Pill Sailor," and "Inside the Whale" were even more potent than their powerful studio versions. Skull Orchard comes across as being both wildly out of control, yet simultaneously as solid and polished as Harley chrome, due in part to the frenetic bass playing of Alan Doughty. Wheels permit a car to roll, but it's the engine that propels the vehicle; likewise, drums may keep time, but the bass gives the song heft and moves it forward. Doughty's bass work, as in "I Am the Law," had the focused energy of a stampede. His near-flawless execution is rather remarkable as Doughty moves around onstage like a bucking bronco after ingesting a handful of Trucker's Friend "wake up" pills. What's more, Doughty (also a Waco Brother and member of Jesus Jones) is a damn fine harmony singer. The band's taut delivery was even more commendable given the fact that Langford had to grab a replacement drummer (also a Waco Brother) to fill in at the last minute. Sadly though, the Skull Orchard experience was over as quickly as it started, another casualty of a short SXSW set. Next year, give the band 45 minutes, stand back, and watch the stage ignite. - David Lynch
PANEL: "THE JAZZ REPORT"
Austin Convention Center, Friday, March 20
Marchel Ivery, sitting low in his seat, said of Mark Elliott, the man behind Dallas-based Leaning House Records, "I thought Mark was crazy for wanting to do a record with me, with my name. I mean, I was known, but I didn't have that kind of name." This from a man who has gained international respect for his tenor saxophone work ever since his long stint with pianist Red Garland, and whose credentials would make nearly every other South by Southwest participant blush. This low-key demeanor and the quiet respect that accompany it are dominating characteristics of mainstream jazz music as it's represented in popular society. Jazz is dignified - it's different than all that other stuff. It doesn't need the hype. This panel, though, eventually came to the conclusion (akin to a small appliance bulb) that the separatist, elitist air that "trad jazz" works so hard to maintain is the cause for the lack of huge popular acceptance. They discussed the good old days (somewhere in the mid-Sixties, I believe), when they were first turned on to jazz because radio was unsegregated; you could hear Coltrane while you waited to hear the new Stones song, which is where the concept of crossover came from. Speaking of the programmers who decide what gets played on the airwaves, New York producer Danny Kapilian pronounced loudly and definitively that "they are chicken-shit assholes, I'm sorry. Let me make one thing clear," he continued in the inflammatory manner that was so surprising and refreshing for a panel on this subject. "Radio is not the music industry. It's the broadcasting and advertising industry. It has very little to do with music." A scary point, but true nonetheless - a white elephant even - and it only emphasizes the reasons for traditional jazz's retreat into public radio outlets, its last true arena of existence on the airwaves. And crossover appeal and broader definitions of jazz (as Kapilian suggested) are good ideas in theory, but when lounge acts, smooth jazz acts, and other such loosely connected aberrations of the form try to squeeze in under the "jazz" umbrella, things can get messy. Interestingly enough, there was little discussion of the music (as if it were an entity separate from the discussion, impervious to these ideas, merely affected by the distribution of its physical manifestations), and whether it was stale or directionless as a form. Easier to blame it on the marketing departments, I guess. - Christopher Hess
Hang 'Em High Saloon, Friday, March 20
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, walking into the Hang 'Em High Saloon to catch a set by Stax legend Sam Moore was a little like walking into the Bob's Country Bunker sequence in The Blues Brothers. Not that it could've been any more odd than seeing Moore perform "Dole Man" to the chagrin of composer Isaac Hayes during the '96 campaign. There's nothing like the nostalgia circuit for culling what you might have thought to be the most disparate elements together into a strange bedfellow brand of harmony. Some audience members were obviously hardcore Stax/Volt aficionados, others were probably just there for the hits, but this was one oldies revue that left no one disappointed. Which isn't to say there wasn't a fair amount of the cheese we've come to expect from oldies revues. An elongated two-minute introduction, the requisite "Sam Moore - let's bring him back out one more time!" at set's end, and a half-time show-caliber interlude from one of the backup singers were just a few of the evening's Velveeta moments. Nevertheless, Moore's band was smart enough to take the groove with no fancy-pants embellishments. In an age where too many low-budget revues just have a synthesizer for the horn parts, the crack three-piece horn section was a welcome sight. And Moore himself worked the songs in a manner that appeared almost effortless. With just a slight beck of the hand or step away from the mike, the 62-year-old Moore made songs like "I Can't Stand Up" and "Soothe Me" come alive. In addition to the Sam & Dave hits, Moore also delivered credible versions of hits by fellow Stax artists Otis Redding ("I Can't Turn You Loose") and Eddie Floyd ("Knock on Wood"). My personal favorite moment of the show came when Moore called for more audience participation. "I want everybody to clap their hands!" he exhorted, pointing to a smoker in the front row. "You! Put down your cigarette and clap your hands!" Even in a context that's laughably far removed from Sixties Memphis, those songs still have enough power to make your hands tremble.
- Greg Beets
Electric Lounge, Friday, March 20
Here's perceptive for you: There's a lot going on during South by Southwest. It's sooo obvious, but it's salient nonetheless, because you can be at a showcase, and no matter how good the band is, you're not as concerned with what's going on as you are concerned with what else is going on, thinking, "Gee, this is good, but is there something better somewhere else?" At 11pm on Friday night at the Electric Lounge, the answer to that was, "No, there is nothing better than this," because there is no way there was anything better going on at the conference. Period. Cornelius rocked. Period. Listening to Cornelius on his Matador debut, the Japanese musical savant comes off as some techy, avant-garde sound collage artist. But with a band, Cornelius' live show was a full-on rock assault; driving guitars with as much discordant hook as psycho-crunch combined with low-frequency organ-liquefying noises and mind-scrambling video synched up to the music with rapid-fire cuts that make MTV look like the documentary channel - all topped off with judicious use of samples and melodious use of a theremin. It was overwhelming to the senses until one of the songs broke. The song itself didn't break - the video failed - but the loss was more of a payoff, because without the aid of the visuals - and they really were a big part of the sensory overload - the music still held up as music. Correction, it held up as rock music, and for 40 minutes nobody at the Lounge was wondering what else was going on.
- Michael Bertin
La Zona Rosa, Friday, March 20
Austin Music Hall, Saturday, March 21
DJ superkids attack! Assume shape of: Technics 1200! Battling ravers and major headliners on both Friday and Saturday nights - all within 100 yards of each other - made for an easy stagger back and forth between the Austin Music Hall and La Zona Rosa, though the initially disproportionate crowds showed all too clearly where the conference attendees loyalties lay, and it wasn't with electronica. Friday's 1:30am slot for Bath, U.K. technoids Propellerheads drew gobs of black-clad industry lurkers and mixed locals/hangers on, filling the club to near-overflow capacity, but somehow leaving the venue's single, lonely pool table remarkably unplayed. I'll assume that was due to the Props excellent stage presence, which, like the recent Crystal Method show, proved once and for all that techno musicians can actually hold your attention if they twitch around a bit and grimace alarmingly. Sure, the same can be said for your dentist, but let's not go there without benefit of NO2. Opening early with their single claim to radio fame, "Take California," the duo (trio?) layered smooth Shirley Bassey vocals over tribal rhythms and rolling, sternum-shattering basslines. Their ongoing appropriation of Sixties spy music and Seventies kitsch alongside thunderous breakbeats is the treasured "something new" that so many have been waiting for, but I get the feeling that the shock of the new will fade rather quickly. It's gimmickry at its most sublime, though, and Propellerheads' beats are undeniably winning. Saturday's "SXSW Rave" featured a lineup that changed so frequently I never knew exactly who was playing until long after they finished, if at all. At 10pm, a full hour after local queen of the tables Jacqueline Specht finished her set, the cavernous hall was still 99 and 44/100ths lifeform-free, though a small (very small) army of local clubkids had taken up positions before the dimly lit, cinderblock-supported, poorly planned DJ stand up front. A quick scan through the micro crowd netted only three other badges, with the rest of the gang being young enough to audibly wonder what Michael J. Fox was famous for. Even the local raver contingent was slow in arriving, which made things all the more pathetic for Quadrophonic Records' Donnell Scannell (unannounced), who spun a killer set that had nearly all of the 75 or so clubbers gnashing their little white teeth in ecstasy. By midnight, the crowd had thickened appreciably, with a steady torrent of badge-holders filing in to see what all the lack of a fuss was about, but true to form, even the late arrival of Josh Wink failed to cram the house to bursting. My continuous query of "Where the hell is everybody?" was answered time and again by comments that the show was under-publicized, though that could only refer to non-SXSW registrants. As for the badges, they missed da boat, and Da Hool. - Marc Savlov
Liberty Lunch, Saturday, March 21
"No New Rock," they chirped. Who are they kidding? Buffalo Daughter "pioneer in soundingreg." like Lewis & Clark peering over that cliff for the first time with the salt of majestic, rumbling New Rock spraying their sweet Pacific Rim cheeks. As with most new discoveries, the anticipation and preparation make the virgin territory oddly familiar: Roxy Music, Flying Lizards, Gang of Four, P-funk, even Link and Stevie (W)Ray. But the bison babes pull it off with aplomb. SuGar Yoshinaga struts and pummels guitars with quiet abandon and fierce reserve, her Cherie Curie mop perfectly topping off the sinewy "S" her deliciously compact body makes as she writhes and pounces around each note. Having seen both Lee Renaldo and Lynn Flipper this week, I found it difficult to shake those comparisons to the mild-mannered monster SuGar. She's the New Rock Godzilla. Yumiko Ohno is the heart of this daughter and her bass is its beat. Her fresh-off-of-a-Clearasil-ad glances barely cover her ache and raw power. Both women master analog and digital technologies and harness those contradictions to create a soundscape as broad as the plains. Delicate Eno-airport ambiance morphs into raging oh yeah Ono banshee skree. It's confounding, yet compelling. From sweet dancey pop like the T'Heads-inspired "Super Blooper" to the civil defense siren of the encore "Autobacs," bd plowed a trench through acres of rock history. Buffalo Daughter's understanding and reinventing of modern music is best summed up by the hysterical table spinning of DJ Moog Yamamota. Delightful Moog's choice cuts, from the annals of funk, hip-hop, and AOR, are as much an homage to these dinosaurs as his name. Without stooping too deeply into the pit of gross generalization, I'd like to say that I think the Japanese embrace and comprehend the arrogant excess and wild consumptive habits of all that is American like no other culture on this planet. They flaunt cultural imperialism just like we do, rebel just like we do, and then co-opt that rebellion with the finesse of the slickest Madison Ad sleezeball - just like we do. For small cars and new rock, however, they still have our lumbering butts whipped. Yes, New Rock, Yes! - Kate X Messer
Electric Lounge Pavilion, Saturday, March 21
It's still the music industry's dirty little secret, but the sad fact of the matter is that the key to nextbigthingdom lies wholly within the pages of HITS, a glossy pay-to-play industry tipsheet that has become the A&R bible. In the weeks leading up to this year's South by Southwest conference, the magazine's ultra-influential "Wheels and Deals" column traced the weasel race towards two Northwest risers, Absinthe, a pretty-boy Portland outfit, and Harvey Danger, a momma's-boy Seattle outfit and NXNW veteran. The latter signed to Slash/London late last month and dropped off the HITS must-see radar, but because Absinthe eat their free meals right up to and during SXSW, their showcase was clearly the hotter ticket. After Absinthe's phenomenally lackluster Friday night performance, however, the free meals should be drying up. Don't believe the hype - unless of course somebody's still pitching Harvey Danger to you. Their Saturday night showcase was everything a set from signed artists should be: tight, straightforward, and representative of the upcoming album they're there to promote. It was all that, plus the birth of a genuine rock star. Frontman Sean Nelson is alternative rock's answer to Lyle Lovett, because not only does he look exactly like a slightly sturdier version of Lovett, he also has the country crooner's unassuming charm - not to mention wit. "All I ever thought we might come to was second dates and flirting eyebrows or maybe even psychic friends," he explained in "Wooly Muffler," one of the more obvious hits-in-waiting from the band's Where Have All the Merrymakers Gone? and this set's centerpiece. Sound too lyrically cerebral for modern rock? Don't worry, by the time Nelson and company got around to "Flagpole Sitta," an anthem for the mentally ill that goes on to wonder why only stupid people are breeding, all of Nelson's clever facial expressions and wandering eye contact left the crowd hanging on every word. Best of all, it all played out as both lively and pressure-free, which is just more proof that playing SXSW with a deal intact is far more fun than using it to find one. - Andy Langer
PANEL: "PRODUCERS: I DON'T KNOW, WHAT DO YOU THINK?"
Austin Convention Center, Saturday,
Quite simply, a producer's job is to help musicians get their best performances on tape. Some producers may only offer constructive criticism, others may also work with microphone placement or other technical minutiae. Moderated by Reprise Records' Susan Drew, the producers panel attempted to shed some light on this nebulous job title. Featuring producers with loads of studio experience and a handful of Grammys among them, the panel consisted of: Eric Ambel (club owner, Bottle Rockets), Austin's John Croslin (Guided by Voices, Sixteen Deluxe), Gus Dudgeon (Elton John, XTC), Tony Maserati (Puff Daddy, Notorious B.I.G.), Brendan O'Brien (label owner, Pearl Jam), Hugh Padgham (Sting, Phil Collins), and Craig Street (kd lang, Cassandra Wilson). Because a producer's role is one of the least known, yet highly integral components of the music business, a producers panel discussion is a great idea. Regrettably, however, this panel remained just a good idea. Even after an hour, only a few topics had been discussed, and these rather superficially. Secondly, with such a large panel, general questions ("How did you become a producer?"), should have been replaced with more specific questions ("Give an example of a successful low budget project"). Without the needed modicum of organization, panel members' conversations corrupted into the age-old debate about the role of technology in capturing "the take." Interesting to be sure, but nothing you couldn't glean from any trade rag. Lastly, if they were in need of more engaging questions, why not ask the audience? Apparently there wasn't time for audience questions - a strange fact for a panel discussion. The producers were there to give anecdotal evidence (such as Padgham's decision to work in a studio because he "didn't want to get a proper job"), but these real world experiences needed structure to be relevant to the role of producing. There were a few insightful comments shared, like studio veteran Dudgeon offering unabashed pragmatic commentary on how to choose projects: "It's simple; I ask myself, `Do I love the songs?'" The role of producer: an interesting and important panel discussion topic, but unfortunately short and shallow in execution.
- David Lynch
Continental Club, Saturday, March 21
Most of the people sauntering in and out of the Continental Club Saturday night didn't even know who was onstage, and most of them didn't care. It was barely two in the afternoon and Mojo Nixon himself was sitting in the back of the club pounding on the bar and screaming, "This is the greatest fucking party ever." Right about that time, little-known Canadian singer-songwriter Fred Eaglesmith was charged with entertaining the crowd. On paper, Eaglesmith was in trouble; "Fire and Rain" type material ain't going to keep "the greatest fucking party ever" going. Fortunately for everyone involved, Eaglesmith is no ordinary singer-songwriter. Combining trailer park trashiness ("My Baby's Got Big Hair," "That's a Mighty Big Car") with blatant cool, Eaglesmith sounded real Texan for some guy from the Great White North, playing with the intensity and abandon that makes tame city dwellers feel like rednecks in ruin. It's the same vibe that makes frat boys flock to Robert Earl Keen shows so they can feel dangerous, only Eaglesmith does it without the sappy love songs in between. Having a percussionist who doubles as a gymnast while playing with bells strapped to his body doesn't hurt things on the visual side either. By the time Eaglesmith sang the line "Time to get a gun/ That's what I've been thinking/ I could afford one/ If I did just a little less drinking," the whoo-ing was in full effect. Sure, by set's end, most people still didn't know who was onstage, but that's only because Eaglesmith was so busy sustaining "the greatest fucking party ever" (and incidentally it wasn't by a long shot) that he forgot to mention his own name.
- Michael Bertin
EARL HARVIN TRIO
Elephant Room, Saturday, March 21
"Jazz? You're going to see jazz?" That was the question as I hurried away from the standard rock route to run to the Elephant Room. The crowd in the basement, mostly concentrated up in front, wasn't small, but it wasn't as big or unwieldy as the performance deserved, either. Earl Harvin's trio, featuring brilliant artists in bassist Fred Hamilton and pianist Dave Palmer, rendered critical contemplation of the stagnancy of modern jazz pointless as they pushed and slammed their dynamic and maniacal bop into any available wall. At the Elephant Room, vantage point is key, and had I been on the other side, I would no doubt have been mesmerized by Palmer's phalangeal fury, his hands no doubt looking like the Roadrunner's legs in full velocity. As it stands, though, the planar layout of Harvin's traps provide the setting for this recollection. Sometimes content to fill a wide open space with a single clang off a cymbal's rise, other times leaving not a hair's breadth as he obliterated the pause with rolls and crashes uncountable - Hamilton sliding out in front of each note and following the same with a smooth trill - Harvin was all over the place, as if he didn't want to let a drum get cold, or get its feelings hurt of neglect. And Palmer was out of his head, his hands flying across the keys with the grace of two birds in midair fornication. He'd stride the high end in a beautiful roll as he simultaneously broke down time and melody with a pounding, jarring low end change. At the same time. The last song, "Fuck Your Reason," was dedicated by Palmer to "all the people who piss me off every day." Frantic sixteenths and harsh flights from piano and drums, this was jazz with the urgency of punk rock - angry and refreshing, but played with a technical mastery beyond punk. And when they got crazy (though all of it was crazy by most bands' standards) it was crazy, a full-on jazz freak-out, the crowd yelling and hooting in uncontrollable approval. Yeah, jazz.
- Christopher Hess
Babes, Saturday, March 21
Aside from being the sleeper of sleepers and the comeback of comebacks, Corey Glover's Babes gig was also the conference's single best showcase, and no, you didn't have to see everything else to make that kind of statement. It was obvious. South by Southwest revival artists like Tommy Tutone may have come to terms with the nostalgia factor, but Glover clearly hasn't. He played this intimate gig like it was one of Living Colour's opening sets for the Stones, only Glover's new outfit - assembled to support his forthcoming solo debut - is more powerful than Living Colour ever was. Sure, playing "Voodoo Chile" in Austin, let alone opening with it, is ballsy, but his arrangement was brilliant, Glover opting to reduce it to its simplest vocal and groove. It's now official: the song has been reinvented twice in Austin, Texas. And yet, not only did the night's only cover set a tone - something along the lines of a James Brown fronted Minutemen - it also opened the crowd to a 40-minute run of originals. That material, which left room for both mesmerizing four-part harmonies and hilarious retro-soloing, was not just well-written but also instantly catchy; Glover could have been singing the SXSW registry thanks to the fact that he's no longer prone to oversinging and has finally come to showcase the Al Green soul that Vernon Reid always mucked up with jazzy riffing and Living Colour's rhythm section always overfunked. By the time Glover got to the set's closer and his forthcoming album's first single, "Do You Right," the crowd was already high fivin' and whoopin' it up. Trashing the mikes and Marshalls may have been overkill, because this was already the type of showcase you wanted to pause just so you could yank friends out of other clubs and let them see Glover prove the glowing testimonials you'd be giving later. Had the show ended then, it still would have been the evening's best showcase, but it officially became the conference's best when Glover, still floor flopping, called out for a last-minute, set-extending run through "Cult Of Personality." That this decade-old anthem felt so damn fresh was the ultimate treat and the ultimate tribute to Glover's rebirth. It was also more than enough to genuinely restore at least one jaded rock critic's faith in SXSW... and perhaps even rock & roll itself.
- Andy Langer
WHO GIVES A WHOOT
Hole in the Wall, Sunday, March 22
As a South by Southwest Sunday night rule, those with Monday flights to the coasts go to see Alejandro, the rest sleep, and the rare few looking to extend their buzz go to the Hole in the Wall. And if it weren't for the one-out/one-in line out front, the Hole's weekly seventh day gathering looked like any other Free for All crowd - half local musicians and half local music fans. In fact, the only visible badge belonged to Miles Zuniga, but with Fastball's sudden career turnaround it's easy to believe the nameplate represented more of a pinch-me-so-I-know-it's-not-a-dream reminder than a display of superiority. On second thought, Zuniga does live in Los Angeles now. Either way, a sample 40 minutes at this Who tribute seemed more efficient and entertaining than most prime time SXSW gigs. Spoon's three-song set was typically melodic and methodical, with Britt Daniel's acoustic approach stripping each song down to its rhythmic core, and although "I Can't Explain" was clearly the crowd favorite, a bouncy take of "My Wife" seemed like the hour's tightest tribute yet. But while Spoon appeared to take its time customizing the Who's material for it's own use, Fastball came obviously less prepared. "We didn't know that one and we don't know this one either," explained Zuniga as a segue between "Long Live Rock," and "See Me, Feel Me," neither of which were atrocious nor particularly inspired. But redemption came in a meaty, beaty, big, and bouncy way on "The Seeker," whereby Fastball turned the post-Tommy single inside out, making it as ready for modern rock radio as the original was for early FM. It was as good a point as any to officially end SXSW, which it did for most of the crowd. Superego's take on "Pinball Wizard" did sound pretty good from the middle of Guadalupe, though... - Andy Langer