Jesus Gonna Be Here

Johnny Toxic

Stubb's, Wednesday, March 17

It has often been said that rock & amp; roll is a rather transparent metaphor for extreme sexual frustration. If this is indeed the case, a porn star should be the last person on earth with anything to gain by strapping on a guitar or grabbing a microphone. This drugstore thesis was immediately proven beyond a doubt when Johnny Toxic, the kielbasa-wielding star of such alleged "punk porn" classics as Splatter Puss and Anal Graveyard, took to the giant outdoor stage at Stubb's Wednesday night, the first night of South by Southwest. Toxic was part of the nothing-if-not-novel "Porn to Rock" showcase to promote the Callner Music compilation of songs by adult film stars released earlier this year. Although this pedigree would immediately raise suspicion among even the most prurient-minded bastards, porn stars have occasionally crossed over into pop music with some degree of success. Who can forget the cooing aural popper in the disco bathroom that was Andrea True's "More, More, More"? Unfortunately, Toxic's take on porn rock comes off more like Dirk Diggler singing "Feel the Heat" in Boogie Nights combined with Tonya Harding's ill-fated foray into hip-hop. Judging from his choice of material, the last band to have any resonance within the adult film industry was the Red Hot Chili Peppers. Toxic's warmed-over white funk got one apparent inebriate to do the running man dance (there was plenty of room), but the other few hundred or so in attendance just stood and stared like they were observing a painful and embarrassing medical procedure. The band's segue into Mötley Crüe's "Shout at the Devil" was a doubled-over laugh riot, but it was damn near impossible to tell whether the act was tongue-in-cheek or fodder for the next Penelope Spheeris documentary. Another highlight came when Anal Demonstrative starlet Nina Whett joined Toxic onstage to sing something called "Drink Beer and Fuck." Although Whett demonstrated only limited singing ability, she did manage to woo the crowd with surprising between-song quips such as, "Get ready to rock and watch me get fucked!" and "Thank you -- suck my titty!" In the end, even die-hard Howard Stern fans were made to feel like they were slumming. By limiting its focus to the crude, superficial aspects of what ideally is a highly spiritual act, Toxic's music failed to deliver in exactly the same manner that most pornography fails to deliver. To be fair, though, a porn film featuring rock musicians would be an even bigger nightmare. -- Greg Beets


Victory Grill, Thursday, March 18


The Mercury, Wednesday 17 -- Friday 19

Roy Hargrove

Roy Hargrove

photograph by John Anaderson

As the lone musician alongside a bevy of industry suits on the "What Is Jazz?" panel, Russell Gunn was asked by moderator and Blue Note Records President Bruce Lundvall to open the discussion with his thoughts on the topic at hand. The young trumpeter's remarks were perhaps the most insightful and succinct of the day: "Jazz is music that is constantly changing; if it's not changing and not reflecting the sounds of the street, it's not jazz." The previous night Gunn had put these words into action with a groove-heavy set that practically tore the roof off the venerable Victory Grill. His feisty septet included a trumpet-trombone-sax front line along with an electric piano and DJ Apollo, a deft (and, indeed, def) percussionist in his own right. Together, they cranked out a uniquely up-to-the-minute sound that was unquestionably rooted in the mainstream tradition of jazz, yet funky enough to provide the soundtrack for a raucous street dance. Most of the music was taken from Gunn's new Atlantic release, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1, one of the most inventive and successful jazz/hip-hop experiments ever. "Sybil's Blues," in particular, dug an irresistible, percussion-laden groove that had the nearly full house whoopin' it up and rockin' in their seats. This was the antithesis of the introspective and cerebral music too many folks associate with jazz. Down on Sixth Street, a more seasoned young trumpet player, Texan Roy Hargrove, was mining the same funky mother lode. Instead of hip-hop beats, however, Hargrove's all-star quintet focused on grooves you might have heard on an old Lee Morgan or Horace Silver album from the Sixties and Seventies. Joining the trumpeter for his weeklong non-SXSW residency at the Mercury was Blue Note alto saxist Sherman Irby and the extraordinary Larry Willis on piano. Hargrove & Co. were in the middle of their five-night when I dipped in on Wednesday night following the Austin Music Awards. The place was packed with buoyant spirits and the band was supercharged, cruising at an unbelievably intense level with Hargrove riding, rather than just hitting, flurries of piercing high notes. Irby and Willis, too, stoked the fire in an amazing display of technical and communicative brilliance. Needing to return on subsequent nights to see if my ears had deceived me, Thursday and Friday nights found the band back on planet Earth, but sounding superb nonetheless.

-- Jay Trachtenberg


Austin Music Hall, Thursday, March 18

It should have been a night to remember. The bands were there, the energy was there, but the audience just wasn't. Whether it was the sudden bad weather, the high cover charge, or both, the Austin Music Hall was only slightly more than half full. Even though the show was part of SXSW, there were very few badges floating around -- this event depended on the general public to be successful. Also the lineup made it difficult to draw a big crowd that would go for a diverse group of Tejano, California, and Mexican acts. When Javier Galvan y Fama, the first act of the evening, came on at 9pm, the small crowd that greeted him was dead, and even though he put on a good performance, he just couldn't get them to move. Things livened up soon, however, when Rick Treviño delivered one the highlight sets of the evening. After having jammed earlier that evening during a private performance at Las Manitas with Joel Guzman y Los Azteks, Ruben Ramos, Freddy Fender, Rosie Flores, Joe Ely, and Mariachi Campañas de America, Treviño took the stage and continued the creative and collaborative roll he was on. Several of the musicians at Las Manitas followed him to the Music Hall and performed with him, surprising and delighting the crowd awake. Treviño, whose set was almost all in Spanish except for a number with Joe Ely, ventured down a nostalgic path into the past, from which he drew old rancheras and mariachi classics he recalled hearing in his youth. He may not do Tejano, but for Treviño, who started his musical career in country, doing these old songs certainly seems to be bringing him both enjoyment and back to his roots. The most touching moment of the entire showcase extravaganza came when Treviño's father joined his son onstage and dueted with him on the standard classic "El Ranchito" to the accompaniment of the Mariachi. You can be sure they've done this many times at intimate parandas with la familia gathered 'round. Los Fugitivos from L.A. began their set next with a smoke-filled light show synchronized to some of their rock instrumental music and quickly jumped into fast-paced banda, getting some feet shuffling in the audience. This high-energy group had the most varied set of the night, doing Rock en Español, pop, rancheras, salsa, and merengue. Los Mismos came on and swooned the crowd with their pop and international sound, getting the audience to sing along to one of their biggest hits, "Me Esta Doliendo Deharte." It was a shame there wasn't a larger crowd to see this mega-group from Mexico City making a rare appearance in Austin -- they're a class act. Coming on after midnight, Tejano supergroup La Tropa F finally wrapped up the night with a galvanizing set and got almost everybody dancing with their huge salsa hit from last year, "Juan Sabor." This family act always delivers, and they pumped the crowd up to the very end.

-- Mary Jane Garza


Convention Center, Thursday, March 18

Greil Marcus

Greil Marcus, "I Can't Help it If I'm Still in Love With You: Hank Williams" panel, Thursday
photograph by John Carrico

He passed away in 1953, but as any good American could tell you, Hank Williams lives, celebrated not only on a postage stamp and a recent 10-CD box set, but also from the looks of things, the nightly prayers of any woeful cowpoke worth his chaps. In recognition of that fact, the folks at SXSW corralled a promising panel of Hank experts to reflect on Williams and his legacy, and why a talk on Williams could draw a standing-room only crowd nearly 50 years after his death. As for flat-out first impressions, that prize was clearly taken by Boerne's Big Bill Lister, whose cowboy poet look -- wind-bitten face, gravy-colored Stetson, and jaunty plaid string tie -- drew knowing eyes away from BR5-49er Gary Bennett's fresh-faced cowpunk reverence and Greil Marcus' streetwise intellectualist charm. It was Lister, too, who was the most entertaining: A former friend and sidekick of Williams, he regaled the eager crowd with bass-note tales of life on the Hadacol wagon train, the strength of legendary country singer's humility, and tarp-and-rainstorm tales of lost-and-found Williams acetates. Good stories, starchy, authentic, and wise, but a bit off the subject; for all of its promise, the Williams panel drifted by as loose and rambling as one of old Hank's songs. Nashville Tennessean country music critic Jay Orr gave a learned recitation on the exploitation of Hank's image; Williams biographer Colin Escott contributed a tweedy bit on the Hadacol circuit and Hank's penchant for plagiarism (or, as they say, his prudent use of "folk archetypes"); Greil Marcus, cultural critic-at-large and potentially the star of the show, disappointed with a shot-by-shot account of a Williams movie he once saw on The Nashville Network; and Gary Bennett finished with a 15-minute run-on sentence about the place of Williams in the BR5-49 pantheon (answer: pretty high). None of it was unlistenable, and each panelist contributed a thoughtful turn or two, but the collected monologues contained nary a whiff of argument or exchange. Far from being resolved, the import of the Williams legacy was barely skimmed in the parsed proceedings; far from arriving anywhere interesting, the panel failed to leave the parking lot. Blame the moderator (for giving the panelists so much unfettered time), or blame the panelists (for taking it), or perhaps blame the subject itself, for getting old even before his 75 minutes were up. Yes, Hank Williams was an inspired and dangerous musician, a poor Alabama cracker and dilapidated Everyman who rode his demons right to the top, ascending from singer to hero to legend to symbol, and rightfully so, but by God, maybe it's time to leave old Hank alone. A sad and beautiful saint, but like Elvis, Jesus, or Sinatra, handled so much he's getting a little worn around the edges. Put him down for a bit. Give Hank a rest. Lord knows he needs one.

-- Jay Hardwig


La Zona Rosa, Thursday, March 18

If SXSW has a song length continuum, Guided By Voices' two-minute tunes place them firmly on the end of brevity. On the other, more lengthy pole is smashing local drummer Terry Bozzio, who played only five pieces during his 45-minute set. Because the weather on the second night of the music festival was so crappy, and since "solo drumming" and "popular culture" are rarely used in the same sentence, one expected La Zona Rosa to hold a few hundred drum freaks, plus some fans of Frank Zappa and Missing Persons (two of the many groups Bozzio has put the beat beneath). These contingents were there, but many others were too, because the club was nearly three-quarters full. Reasons why someone attended were unimportant once the opening salvo began -- at that point everyone was a drum fan. Like most of the songs performed, the opening "Djon Don," based on a Malian pattern Bozzio learned from West African Guinean master musician Mamadi Keita, came from Drawing the Circle, one of Bozzio's four solo releases. As with this particular studio recording, in which Bozzio performs live to tape without overdubs, the percussionist started by playing a sometimes simple, sometimes complex drum line (how's 5/16 for a challenging time signature?), and, using triggered footpedals, would then record and repeat these ostinatos, playing around, through, and in them. The second piece, "Ufuk," was influenced by Debussy, but sounded as if Indonesian gamelan components were incorporated thanks to Bozzio's unparalleled work on the cymbals (not your run-of-the-mill rock & roll metal plates, but finely tuned inverted cymbals hung like a Calder mobile). The mid-show "Quintessence" was performed as the appellation suggests, in a sequence of five beats, after which Bozzio's pre-teen son came from backstage to give his father a break-a-leg hug. Before you knew it, time was up. Time for one more "Klangefarbe Melodie," which translates from German as "Soundcolor Melody," an appropriate title in any language for the cymbalic improvisation drop funk that closed the show. No question about it: Bozzio is a drum orchestra. Let's hope that even though he's busy traveling the world giving master workshops and concerts (this summer Bozzio is playing with an orchestra in Vienna), this performance was not an anomaly in Austin. -- David Lynch


Red Room, Thursday, March 18

How the most famous DJ in the world snuck into the midst of SXSW without a showcase and with barely a smattering of pre-gig publicity is a mystery akin to the Sphinx, the Mona Lisa, and how Tamale House gets away with such big portions for so little dinero. And it's no exaggeration to say that, yes, this London-based trance and progressive house wunderkind is the most popular DJ working these days; the Guiness Book of World Records has declared it to be official, based on an arcane tally of attendance at Oakie's past gigs, his immoderate performance fees, and of course his legendary remix work, which cuts across the musical spectrum from Will Smith to Björk to the Rolling Stones. All that popularity comes with a price, though (and I don't mean having to hang out with Zoe Baird): Oakenfold has taken hits over the past few years from longstanding fans on both sides of the pond who feel he may have gotten a wee too big for his britches. Memories are notoriously short in the land of DJ culture and dance music, however, and these same people forget this is still the same artist behind everything from the "discovery" of Ibiza, the Balearic sound, and dozens of other historical footnotes to what is now a fabled time in electronica. Short, with a cocky, infectious grin, Oakenfold, touring in support of his recent Tranceport CD, kneecapped naysayers at this outrageous (and apparently last-minute) one-off. For well over two hours, Oakenfold, clearly relishing the chance to bring his melodic blend of propulsive trance rhythms to America, mixed everything from the obscure to the sublime, creating and then filling huge gaps in the steady bass thud with snare riffs that roiled up and out and over the 300-plus audience until virtually every pair of arms was scraping the blackened ceiling in uniform joy. It's rare to find a trance DJ these days who can simultaneously unite and excite a coterie of fans like this, much less stumbling across one in the midst of the musical melee that is SXSW. Oakenfold, impish, occasionally silly, sweating buckets, and grinning like a schoolboy when not furrowing his brow beneath his beaver-pelt mop of spiky black hair, did just that, and it was a wonder to behold. It was, and remains, to paraphrase Speed Levitch, an ongoing wow.

-- Marc Savlov


La Zona Rosa, Thursday, March 18

The towering persona of Tom Waits looms large over SXSW 99, but down in the shadows, in the clubs and at the parties, Idaho native Doug Martsch was taking Austin and all its visitors by storm. The frontman for Built to Spill, the band that caused perhaps the greatest stir of the weekend, finally decided to play in Texas, much to the ecstasy of Thursday night's capacity crowd at La Zona Rosa. From the dissonant strum of "The Plan," the opener and raucous first track on the band's new release, Keep It Like a Secret, Built to Spill had the minds and ears of everyone in the room. Martsch has spent four albums and approximately six years redefining the Stratocaster standard with his band, creating a new and beautiful six-string language from grand rock & roll riffs, squealing harmonic breaks, and tumultuous melodies that build upon themselves to seismic proportions. Every time Martsch launched his guitar into a time- and tone-changing bridge or one of his anticipated solos, like at just past the mid-point of "Time Trap" or with the swelling opening chords of "Stop the Show," an anticipatory rush of heat and energy ballooned not only my own heightened nervous system, but the almost tangible electric field connecting the entire audience as well. Due to the time constraints of a 45-minute set, the long-form jams that Built to Spill have become known for in a live setting were cut short or abandoned altogether, and the show was much more about songs than about improvisation or exploration. Some of the songs were even cut off before a final verse, like "Randy Describes Eternity," while others had the solos and transitions shortened, like "Kicked It in the Sun." But every song -- every note -- was as powerful as it could be. With two official showcases and a number of unofficial appearances, including Saturday night's SPIN party, this bearded fellow from Boise with the high voice seemed determined to play more gigs over the span of the conference than even Jon Langford. Final tallies, and for a lucky few, Tom Waits aside, no one left a mark on SXSW 99 as profound as did Doug Martsch. -- Christopher Hess


Emo's, Thursday, March 18

When you're busy enjoying excellent pop-punk albums from the Hi-Fives, Pansy Division, and the Donnas, it's all too easy to overlook the Smugglers. The decade-old Vancouver quintet fits quite comfortably into the bop-happy Lookout! Records rubric, but their studio output usually sounds undistinguished next to such high-octane labelmates. Given this situation, it was odd to see the Smugglers deliver a fast-paced, tightly executed set that left the rest of the bands on the Lookout! showcase gasping for air. They may not have the tunesmithing skills of the Hi-Fives or the sex appeal of the Donnas, but the Smugglers still managed to make this night their own in a very decisive manner. Perhaps they should play in torrential downpours more often. Early on in the show, lead vocalist Grant Lawrence laid out the Smugglers' M.O. succinctly, saying, "Rock & roll should be loud, but not unbearable." Hopefully, some would-be wanker of six-string distortion in the audience took these magic words to heart. The Smugglers' focus on sharpness over decibels was obviously a bit out of place in a concrete bunker like Emo's, but if the number of heads bobbing was any indication, the crowd wholeheartedly approved. Their set flew by with a precision more akin to a military review or synchronized swimming contest. Short, hook-laden nuggets such as "Melee in Madrid," "She Ain't No Egyptian," and the appropriately titled "Rock & Roll Has Never Been This Fun" came and went like rabbits out of a hat. Despite the less-than-ideal weather conditions, the energy level never waned. At one point, the band stopped the show to hold an erstwhile dance contest judged by Pansy Division bassist Chris Freeman, in which two audience members danced off for an old hockey trophy. Watching the band's expressions of amusement at this spectacle drove home their collective glee at the prospect of showing the audience a good time. Joe Queer from the Queers also made a guest vocal appearance for a couple of songs. The night culminated with a rousing rendition of the 1974 Brownsville Station hit "Kings of the Party," which captured all the raucous exhilaration of the original and then some. By this time, the room was jam-packed with buzz-chasers waiting to see the Donnas, and although they certainly had their moments, their subsequent set was ultimately no match for the showmanship of the Smugglers. If the Smugglers somehow manage to capture their formidable live prowess in the studio, their spot in the upper echelons of pop-punk will be assured.

-- Greg Beets


Club DeVille, Thursday, March 18

If no one else is gonna do it, allow me to be the one to get the ball rolling on adoption proceedings for Slobberbone. This band needs to be local. Anyone who responds to a rainstorm like we had on Thursday afternoon with a rock show like Slobberbone pulled off under the leaky tent outside Club DeVille is a welcome addition to any scene. The consistently sky-high energy levels of their live shows, their total commitment to life on the road (about 200 dates this year), and the joyful abandon of their self-destructive lifestyles embody what being in a rock & roll band is supposed to be all about. The headlining Bottle Rockets were no-shows at this day party for Doolittle Records, so following a long, tight set of swinging rock by Chicago's Mount Pilot, Slobberbone took the stage after much extra time and beer had come and gone. The skies darkened, and after the first few songs the clouds let loose with a downpour that sagged the tent roof and chased everyone out from under it or inside. Singer/guitarist Brent Best, along with guitarist Jess Barr and bassist Brian Lane, laughed in the face of electrocution, standing in an inch-deep puddle of water during their entire set. And what a set it was. Slobberbone has been tagged, with songs about drinking, fighting, cheating, and drinking, but beyond the obvious country subject matter and the drawl, it's all rock. "Barrel Chested" and "Front Porch" were high-powered enough, but by the end, when the unmistakable opening riff of Judas Priest's "Breakin' the Law" cut through the wet air, Slobberbone had everyone convinced that this was more Social Distortion than Lynyrd Skynyrd -- the "Sweet Home Alabama" cover notwithstanding. As often happens with knock-down, drag-out shows, things started to deteriorate into onstage anarchy, Best saying, "The quality control of this show has slipped below even our standards. Thank you very much," and walking off the stage. He was nearly coaxed back for a number with Jimmy Smith of the Gourds and Deborah Kelly of the Damnations TX, but the powers-that-be and long-fought safety concerns prevailed and the power was cut. "Austin-based rock quartet Slobberbone." Sounds pretty good to me.

-- Christopher Hess


Steamboat, Friday, March 19

Kitty Gordon may have entered SXSW with the distinction of being the most hyped band from Austin whom the fewest people had seen live, but there are still far more comfortable ways to showcase at the annual music industry conference than with one gig under you belt. That's right, aside from a series of shows a year or so ago featuring Will Sexton, the Borrower's Nina Singh and Mark Addison have played as Kitty Gordon just once pre-SXSW -- six days earlier, also at Steamboat. But whereas the Sexton incarnation was merely a side project, this Kitty Gordon is all about Singh, Addison, and the duo's phenomenally written pop songs (showcase backing came from bassist George Reiff, drummer JJ Johnson, and two keyboard players, Stewart Cochran and "special guest" Tony Scalzo of Fastball). In theory, the overall game plan behind Kitty Gordon seems to be this: Their brand new seven-song EP, Seven, is so immediately and undeniably radio-ready and compelling, whether they can cut it live is an A&R afterthought -- a bonus. More than perhaps any other Austin band right now, Kitty Gordon is built for the airwaves -- rock, modern rock, AAA, Top 40, you name it. They also more than cut it live. In fact, Kitty Gordon's SXSW showcase was everything the previous Steamboat gig wasn't: confident, cohesive, and completely captivating. Up front, Singh is a commanding presence, and she's even better when she sits down to sing and play drums, the dual-drummer approach lending a hot buttered rhythm the CD lacks. And while the live offering may have featured a bigger and busier sound, the subtleties of the songs themselves never got lost in the transition. Both the opening and closing ballads ("Somebody Beautiful" and "House of Broken Chairs") were met with the rare SXSW silence they deserved, while the three biggest testosterone-fueled rockers, "Enuff," "Dead Letter," and "Hollywood Killer," actually had the roomful of weasels bobbing along, if not outright dancing. Putting the album's genius aside, if this surprisingly solid sophomore gig alone didn't back up the buzz and earn Kitty Gordon the deal they deserve, nothing could. -- Andy Langer


Copper Tank Main Room, Friday, March 19

Flyering and postering their way through the first few days of the festival, the girls of ex-Girl seemed to be everywhere. Yet the intent wasn't born of make-it-big, full-of-themselves ambition; they just wanted people to see them and have a good time, and judging from the size of the crowd, they talked to a lot of people whose curiosities were piqued. What did those folks get? Spectacle. Utter, joyous spectacle, starting with ex-Girl's entrance in Day-Glo dresses and giant foam bouffants perilously balanced on their heads, followed closely by chaotic bursts of stop-start music from plastic recorders and other toy instruments. The astounding number of photographers and videographers in the audience, hoisting a Circuit City's worth of Handycams and cameras, drank this up. The band quickly settled into a more standard guitar/bass/drums set-up, except the drums were a riot grrrl-style stand-up set, the guitars were vintage Vox, and the music was considerably and resolutely in deep left field. Song structures veered from pop mode to freakout mode, with guitar lines being counterpunched with samples from a tiny keyboard sampler the bassist played with her platform-shoed foot. At one point, they broke out into a three-part a capella round, followed later by their coaxing the audience to chant "kero," the Japanese variant of "ribbit." Between songs, they were some younger, savvier version of Shonen Knife, using cloyingly innocent Sanrio charm to make themselves indisputably adorable. During songs, however, they were primarily experimental, with pop sensibilities ranging from anchor to afterthought. On the last song, the guitarist found a set of twin pulsing notes she liked, and went into reverie. After the giddy slumber party energy they exhibited throughout the showcase, it was an unexpected ending for a band that proved to be joyously unclassifiable, no matter how many times videographers review the tape. -- Phil West


Stubb's, Friday, March 19

Nearly a decade into their careers, little has changed about L7. They're still raunchy and raw sounding, maybe the most purely rock band out there, with a gloriously crunchy guitar sound that remains the envy of every metal band. Yet there were some surprises in there: a new, slower number which guitarist Donita Sparks prefaced by cracking, "This is a mellow song," followed by the song's vocalist Suzi Gardner instructing everyone to "find a partner and get to fucking." There was a guest appearance by Exene Cervenka, which momentarily re-energized a crowd more inclined toward stationary headbanging than moshing on the still-sodden Stubb's lawn. There was the nude guitar tech, sporting only a cowboy hat and black electrical tape across her nipples, who was maybe even more popular than the band by the end of the set. But it was largely a journey from point A to point A, "Andres" to "Fast and Frightening," a journey that was tacitly uncomplicated. When L7 broke out in the early Nineties, they had tangential connections to the grunge movement and were nearly parodic in their excessively executed rockness. We've come back to big rock since then, to a certain degree, and what L7 is doing doesn't come off quite so tongue-in-cheek. Yet what they're doing hasn't really changed. Even though they've been held up as some sort of groundbreaking act due to gender and genre, they're ultimately just a rock band that turns it up to 11 and loses their minds whenever they hit the stage. They've kept the entertaining raunch factor, they've achieved the increased polish of veteran bands who keep at it because they love it, and they still revere the power of a power chord. Time moves on, but L7 just covers the clocks and the calendars with jumbo amps and lets it rip. And really, they
shouldn't do it any other way. -- Phil West


Steamboat, Friday, March 19

Whether London's Moke jumped off the Black Crowes tour to procure a record deal or just a publisher seemed a bit sketchy to everyone, but the weasels came out in force anyway. And for once, they were pursuing something artistically and critically worthwhile, a blues-based Rage Against the Machine-meets-Lenny Kravitz thang, only without the politics or nostalgia. Sure, they called it Led Zeppelin 30 years ago or Living Colour more recently, but if you believe the talk at the panels, everyone's looking for rock to make a comeback and Moke looks as fresh a place as any to start. The talk midway through Moke's well-paced set proved it: Badge #1: "I was hoping they'd suck and they don't." Badge #2: "Why? Everyone in the room is here because they want them." Badge #1: "Yeah, but if they sucked, I'd have an excuse when we didn't wind up with them." Since Moke did almost everything but suck, Badge #1 is gonna have some explaining to do. First off, frontman John Hogg is a natural-born rock star with not just real charisma, but also the range to switch between rock, soul, and hip-hop without his shape-shifting looking forced, awkward, or worst of all, Korn-like. And because no real rock band angling for arenas is without a singer/guitarist dynamic, Sean Genockey plays the old school to Hogg's new. Across the pond, Clapton is still God and Genockey is obviously faithful. Add your Bonham figure in drummer Jonny Morgan and a bassist just as unobtrusive as a good rock bassist should be, Alex Evans, and you've got a genuinely potent and efficient live force. To that end, exactly what they played -- 45 minutes of AOR friendly tunes from their self-titled UK debut -- didn't wind up nearly as important as how confidently they endured the SXSW heatlamp. The irony is that while Hogg has often complained to the UK press about the subdued nature of Brit crowds, the Steamboat reaction still wasn't nearly as roaring as Moke's set warranted. Then again, what can you expect from a crowd full of suits already busy working up excuses for their bosses?-- Andy Langer


Convention Center, Friday, March 19

German-born American author Thomas Mann put forth the notion that perfect things were uninteresting precisely because of their flawless character. Human things, such as music, are made fascinating by their beneficial accidents, not by sharp corners and exact totals. While Mann's theory -- called "plastic irony" -- was not specifically referenced in the "Recording Strategies" panel, the notion was central to their discussion. And a discussion is exactly what it was, as moderator Michael Molenda chose the loosest possible format for the panel: question and answer. Molenda, editor of Guitar Player magazine, started by introducing the remaining panel members -- Shimmy Disc's Kramer, Tape Op's Larry Crane, and local producer and studio owner John Croslin -- and then opened up the floor for questions. If anyone needed proof that music literally runs through the streets in Austin during SXSW, they were hit over the head with evidence when Kramer's introductory remarks were interrupted by an amplified band who rode by the conference room's window on a truck bed, giving the mostly white, mostly male audience a good smirk. While questions for the panel ran the gamut, a few main ideas resonated. One maxim agreed upon is that recording is an art that comes down to two things: experience and equipment. And they go hand in hand, or as Kramer said, "using recording equipment is like learning a new instrument." The desired effect is not necessarily to produce pristine recordings, but that might be a by-product. No, as moderator Molenda said, "It's all about seducing the listener." Naturally, the analog-digital discourse featured prominently in the panel's comments, with the overall opinion being that analog sounds much better than digital (analog has more "plastic irony"), but that digital is a helluva lot easier to edit than analog. Crane, founder and editor of the respected DIY recordist magazine Tape Op and Elliott Smith's working partner, offered the most pragmatic technical solutions and ideas: "A creative person can do anything with any gear." This sentiment was echoed by Austin's John Croslin, owner of the local Music Lane Studios and producer of Spoon's A Series of Sneaks and Sixteen Deluxe's Emits Showers of Sparks (among many, many other local releases): "Look at Tom Waits and Squirrel Nut Zippers. I think their recordings sound good because they allow a bit of error into them." The panel also agreed on another truism: A distinguished mix is one that sounds great on a crappy car stereo. When it came to mastering, the final fine-tuning process that most musicians know surprisingly little about, Croslin opined, "mastering is basically paying for someone else's ears." The rest of the panel chimed in that it was the one part of recording process in which it's extremely wise to research and pay for the right set of rented ears. Another chunk of wisdom from an experienced, straight-talking panel.

-- David Lynch


Electric Lounge Pavilion, Friday, March 19

Good ol' fashioned word of mouth brought the small crowd of approximately 40 people to an early Electric Lounge Pavilion showcase by Omaha's Bright Eyes -- not necessarily because of teenager Conor Oberst, the group's centripetal force -- but rather thanks to the free Lone Star from the bar inside. If they came for the beer, though, they stayed for the band. Based on the group's angst-ridden dream dirges, the name "Bright Eyes" must have been taken from the nickname bestowed upon Charlton Heston's smarmy, seething George Taylor in Planet of the Apes. Oberst's backing band of electric guitar, bass, drums, pedal steel, and keyboards included members of Nebraska's Lullaby for the Working Class, who along with personnel from Neutral Milk Hotel and Of Montreal guested on 1998's Letting Off the Happiness, Bright Eyes' second full-length on Saddle Creek. Oberst spent the entirety of the too-short, half-hour set sitting with his acoustic guitar. It wasn't one of those quiet, sensitive kind of sit-down shows, however; he was the picture of a Violent Femmes-like manic depressive, bursting up from his seat but seeming glued to it, screaming, leaning his head wide-eyed against the mike between songs -- like Daniel Johnston stuffed to bursting in the slight frame of an 18-year-old. "I had a brother once. He drowned in a bathtub," cried Oberst on "Padraic My Prince." "I don't know what his name was, but my mother does." From there, the sweet, tremulous songs of death and sex and drugs ensnared the audience like the runt in a litter. Terrifying stuff coming from such a young pup, but most songwriters with decades on Oberst couldn't approximate the maturity and inventiveness of his song structures: dreamy harmonies punctuated with stop-start breakdowns, overlayed with pedal steel and keyboard cascades, propelled by fuzz bass. "If I can't make myself feel better, how can I expect anyone else to give a shiiiiiiiiiiit," Oberst hollered to break down the solo closer "If Winter Ends," then dropped the guitar with a clunk and exited stage left without ceremony. Anyone else should give a shit, because if this prodigy doesn't implode by the time he hits 21, he could front the next revolution in indie rock. -- Kim Mellen


Convention Center, Friday, March 19

No one really expected an enlightening or revolutionary answer to the question posed by this year's obligatory jazz panel. Some definitions were tossed about, though: Trumpet player Russell Gunn offered that the nature of jazz music is freedom and change, and if it's not changing then it's not jazz. Writer John Swenson took the contrarian's role, saying that the music, obviously, depends on the musicians. "Jazz has been around for about 100 years, and we're only 250 years old as a country. Jazz is an important word in defining what the United States is about culturally," said Swenson, adding that "Jazz crossed racial boundary lines before sports or anything else did." Liz Penta, manager of Medeski, Martin & Wood, described jazz as a process of creating spontaneous music; Mark Elliott of Leaning House Records proclaimed that it's not a way to make a living; Chris Wheat of Verve called it an art form not easily defined with a clean sense of history that's changed drastically over the decades. Bruce Lundvall, president of Blue Note Records, referred to the language of jazz, of a player finding his own voice on an instrument and a fan coming to a level of comprehension and heightened appreciation of structures and different players -- solo vocabularies. The value in these perfunctory definitions was a variety of perspectives on exactly how the music can not only remain vital but grow to the popular status it enjoyed in the Fifties. On this, Penta was the expert, and the magic formula of MMW -- a band that has had the most success in bringing jazz to popular levels -- was equal and relentless parts hard work and innovative approaches. MMW has put its music into rock venues, often playing multiple-night stands in a city, and through touring the country for the better part of eight years has established a solid and faithful audience. The problem with this approach is that most jazz musicians or bands are unwilling or unable to slog around the country in a van for months at a time, sleeping on floors, playing for next to nothing. If the rock & roll approach to touring is what will save jazz, then taking that one step further, independent labels should also be part of that formula as proving ground for up and coming musicians to build a good catalog and establish a following through touring. Who knows? It worked for something called "alternative rock" about a decade or so ago.

-- Christopher Hess


Austin Convention Center, Friday, March 19

David Marsh, David C. Thomas, Watne Kramer and John Sinclair

photograph by Martha Grenon

Dave Marsh summed up the living legacy of the MC5 perfectly when he said, "You walk down Sixth Street tonight and you will hear the echo of that band coming from dozens of stages." Yet out of all the pillars upon which punk rock was built, the MC5 may be the most under-venerated. The Velvet Underground appeals to modern-day scribes by virtue of their ability to connect art, literature, and rock & roll amid romantic downtown decadence. The Stooges' fiery fuck-all attitude and violent stage presence also makes for timeless good copy. By comparison, the MC5's connection to the Sixties revolutionary movement seems hopelessly dated. If Friday's SXSW panel on the band's history was boiled down to one take-home message, it would be that the revolutionary aspects of the MC5 should be remembered just as much as their proto-punk pedigree. After all, the insane political climate that sent MC5 manager/White Panther Party chairman John Sinclair to prison for two lousy joints isn't much different than the mandatory minimums of today. Principal players in the discussion were Marsh, Sinclair, and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer. Also present was David C. Thomas, director of the forthcoming Future/Now Films documentary MC5:A True Testimonial. "You're not going to see this on the VH1 Legends series," said Thomas. "This is a story that's still a little too hot for people to handle." With that, he rolled a seven-minute preview trailer of the movie that drew a louder round of applause than most of the showcasing bands. Sinclair and Kramer both gave a number of compelling anecdotes that illustrated the degree to which the MC5 was despised by their supposedly hip record company (Elektra), local and state law enforcement, and even the federal government. In fact, the documentary footage of the band's show in Chicago's Lincoln Park during the riotous 1968 Democratic Convention was shot by the U.S. Army Signal Corps. "A lot of people didn't take their politics seriously, then or now," said Marsh, "but the police did, the government did." Much of the MC5's authenticity stems from the fact that they stood up to the police and the government instead of tuning in, turning on, and dropping out. Popular culture likes to focus on the image of hapless hippies getting stoned and dancing in the mud, but what's often conveniently left out is that the Sixties counterculture stopped a war waged by the most powerful government on earth. The MC5's oft-repeated "Are you ready to testify?" invocation served as an electric rallying cry for a community that was fighting a battle for the soul of the nation. "It's a shame that sense of community wasn't passed down," lamented Marsh. Indeed it is.

-- Greg Beets


Emo's, Friday, March 19

Oh, yeah. Fuuuuuuck, yeah. Wayne Kramer of the infamous MC5, playing a Firebird, ably backed by the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs. Sure, it's not Detroit, not 1968 anymore, and the whiff of revolution, gunpowder, and tear gas is no longer in the air. Wayne knows that, and he's adapted the Motor City Five's incendiary stances to late-Nineties realpolitik. His songs still celebrate and honor the people who work every day for a living, still calls on the carpet the powers that be, still questions the status quo (Latin for "the mess that we're already in"). There are songs about the salad days of the MC5, Chicago '68, and the heady times that went along with it all, but there's no desire to relive the past in any of them. And the rock; sometimes a Frankenstein-like leaden drag, sometimes a forceful rock & roll rabbit punch, sometimes nearly funkified, always dominated by the wizardry of Kramer's licks. He eschews fretboard gymnastics, though, for embellishments that fit within the boundaries of each song, never playing completely over the top and never quite throwing in the kitchen sink. The Cheetah boys, an L.A. punk rock quartet capable of an explosive performance themselves, wisely sat back and let Kramer run things his way. Sure, it's not the MC5, and it's Austin, not Detroit, but this showcase was the real deal, anyway -- high-octane, high-compression, high-output, high-bias rock & roll that leaves the scent of overheated amps, stale beer, burnt rubber, exhaust, and gas fumes lingering in the air like the ringing in your ears. So let's review: It's 1999 and we got bands with politically correct lyrics, stop/start arrangements, pretty melodies, and tight harmonies. We got bands with the guitars tuned down a step or two, playing molasses rhythms with vocals that consist of low, tuneless hoots and grunts. We got old geezers dragging around the country for oldies shows and a quick paycheck. We got bands with fluffy tunes and inoffensive lyrics for the Levi's Dockers crowd. Word: Don't pile your Gibsons and Fenders like cordwood, soak 'em with diesel, and set 'em aflame just yet, but take a lesson from Brother Wayne about how to rock. Oh, yeah. Fuuuuck, yeah. -- Jerry Renshaw


Jazz Bon Temps, Friday, March 19/Yard Dog, Saturday March 20

Tucson's Giant Sand dropped off the SXSW band list early this year due to frontman Howe Gelb's wife's impending childbirth, but fortunately, aggregate cadre Calexico (minus their organist/pianist Gelb) represented the desert contingent at this year's music festival. Calexico's disparate influences -- Angelo Badalamenti, Pavement, Gipsy Kings, Camper Van Beethoven -- evoke a stunning array of imagery, as much spaghetti westerns and Spanish bullfights as Hawaii Five-0 and honky-tonks. The clean-cut duo of Joey Burns, singing and alternating electric and classical guitars, and John Convertino, brushing the drums and pounding the vibes, were backed by Jon Birdsong blowing the brass, Tasha Bundy shaking all manner of bean-filled receptacles, and undulating Parisian Naim Amour making love to his bass. "Minas de Cobre" ("For better metal," said Burns, flashing the heavy-metal hand sign) set the Latino backseat makeout mood, the interplay of Birdsong's trumpet and Burns' nylon-string assault carrying all the emotion of the full horn and string sections and freight-train thunder that lace the track on 1998's The Black Light (Quarterstick). For the last few numbers, Paul Niehaus (steel) and Paul Burch (vibes), members of Calexico's country cousins, Nashville's Lambchop, climbed in Jazz's wooden aquarium of a stage, joined for the finale by Richard Buckner, who led the onstage orgy through Tom Petty's "The Waiting." Now, I like Tom Petty as much as the next gal, but this was a too-straight end to the desert mysticism vibe that they'd sustained thus far. It was put right the next day, though, at South Congress folk art gallery Yard Dog's day party. Despite the taxing four shows in three days -- including a quickie at the Convention Center day stage and an in-store at Thirty Three Degrees -- Calexico's afternoon tent set belied the spent looks on Burns and Convertino's faces. "She notices a chunk bleeding from your holy chest, tries to stop the bloodflow with her best compress," sang Burns in "Missing," his sand-coated wet lollipop of a voice making the Catholic pathos of the lyrics seem soothing. The instrumentals were tight and seductive, Niehaus' swooning steel was more prominent than the night previous, and Burch lent his talent on the vibes for the whole show, meaning Convertino didn't have to split duties. This time, when Buckner jumped in for the climax, the cover was Pavement's "Here." Slanted & Enchanted should have been a Calexico album title. -- Kim Mellen


Hole in the Wall, Saturday, March 20

What exactly does a celebrated surf band from Helsinki, Finland look like? Hell if I know. They sure can pack 'em in, though, as Laika & the Cosmonauts proved Saturday night, filling the over-cozy Hole in the Wall with a shoulder-to-shoulder crowd of roots-rockers, drunken Finns, guitar geeks, and as any unlucky backrow sot can tell you, an unlikely concentration of tall people. Call it the show that was heard but not seen, even for strapping six-foot vaguely Nordic Chronicle critics. (Okay, not that strapping, but six feet, by god.) Sounds and not sights, then, but my what sounds: In a 40-minute fit of manic musicianship, Laika & the Cosmonauts wheeled, wheezed, and titled like a possessed calliope, dealing out their souped-up surf and sci-fi carnival fare like they'd crossed an ocean just to do so. Tighter than brand-new braces, cleaner than a fresh-shined snowmobile, the Cosmonauts played like the classical space glam Euro spaghetti rock collective they assuredly are, mixing whiffs of melody with a turbine-turning urgency to build a thick and spectral sound that hit both far and wide of surf's glistening shore. Front and center in the Cosmonaut cockpit was the guitar work of Mikko Lankinen, who coolly massaged any number of spry and sublime leads from the neck of his Fender, leaving no note un-tremoloed. Anchoring Lankinen's instrumental excursions were sly drummer Janne Haavisto and 16-horsepower Neanderthal bassist Tom Nyman, both of them throttle-openers who laid deeper in the pocket than last week's Slurpee change. But finally, it was Matti Patsinki that made the Laika Jell-O wiggle, his Farfisa organ riffs adding a touch of Booker T to the Dick Dale drivetrain, rounding out and spacing out the Cosmonaut continuum, gassing up the whirlybird rocketship for a spin to the farther reaches. It was a helluva ride, a bit of spastic surfsmanship, and staring into the bobbing shoulders of that lit and lofty crowd, Helsinki seems a sunny spot indeed. -- Jay Hardwig


South Austin, Saturday, March 20

Who was it that paraphrased the local bumper sticker with the more accurate "78704 -- More than a ZIP code, it's a party!"? Whoever it was, those words never rang truer than on the Saturday of SXSW. Without leaving my South Austin 'hood, this caffeine-fueled fan was able to trek from one delicious musical feast to the next all afternoon. My SXSW would not have been complete without the Texicalli Grill's genuine honky-tonk hoedown featuring Cornell Hurd's band and assorted friends. "Real music for the real people of SXSW" is how Doug Sahm so aptly put it, resplendent in his purple 'n' pink highlighted western jacket before launching into an all-too-brief two song set of Lefty Frizzell's "I'll Prove It a Thousand Ways," and of course, "Is Anybody Going to San Antone?" Texas honky-tonk legend Johnny Bush serenaded the sun-drenched crowd of two-steppers with his classics "Whiskey River" and "You Ought to Hear Me Cry." This is one of those annual gigs that brings the old Armadillo/Cosmic Cowboy crowd out of the woodwork -- gray hair, pot bellies and all. Over at the Broken Spoke, New Orleans' Continental Drifters serenaded a decidedly younger crowd with a riveting, multi-string, amplified acoustic, aural assault. This was one of the most impressive groups I heard all weekend but the dark, smokey, crowded confines of the Spoke were no match for the gorgeous weather, so it was out and down the street to catch a bit of hometown hero Alejandro Escovedo's 10-piece orchestra rockin' through a tinny sound system in back of Taco Express. There's something surreal about listening to Escovedo bellowing the garage anthem "I Wanna Be Your Dog" in a child-friendly, broad daylight environ with the distinctive fragrance of cilantro whiffing through the air. Afterwards, the Yard Dog beckoned as Tuscon's Calexico created a truly original soundscape with your basic three-piece embellished with trumpet, pedal steel, and vibes. Evoking the wide-open spaces of the Great Southwest, the band came off much better in this intimate setting then they did the previous night in the vast, crowded Jazz Bon Temps Room. The mood got darker when Richard Buckner joined in, so it was time to slide back into the sunshine. Unfortunately there just wasn't enough time to hit the auto show that was backing up traffic down the street at the Continental Club or the revelry spilling out of the Saxon Pub. Time to get some rest before heading back out for the evening's madness. Who needs to cross the river anyway?

-- Jay Trachtenberg


Far, far South Austin, Saturday, March 20

Sixteen Deluxe's Carrie Clark, Electric Lounge, Thursday
photograph by Todd V. Wolfson

The area around South First and Slaughter is about as far away from the Convention Center as you can get and still share the same electric utility, and it sure felt like it Saturday afternoon when Sixteen Deluxe introduced the local and visiting populace to their new studio space, "The Bubble." Free fajitas and beer plus a kick-ass lineup and word of mouth travels pretty fast -- so fast, even the APD showed up. Before things got too crowded and hectic, S.F.'s Coco Candissi clamored admirably through a jagged set of late-Sixties, Rushmore-style garage poses, bolstered by the keyboard's percolating Zombies licks. Spoon, due at a high-profile Waterloo Park gig later and guesting Hunter Darby on organ, relaxed a bit and let Britt Daniel's tightly wound songs breathe, an effect that especially rewarded the poignant "Advance Cassette." All the while, more and more vans and rental cars were arriving at the bizarre, windowless office park, and by the time Athens, Ga.'s Little Red Rocket came on there were way more colored lenses and three-inch wedges than at a normal night at the Electric Lounge; it didn't bother the Rockets, three girls and a guy who layered breathy, Cocteau-sweet vocals over muscular slabs of psych-rock, in the slightest. Not so with Austin's Antebellum, who with an opening invocation of "You pale, trashy, drugged-out motherfuckers" unleashed a punishing, contemptuous 15-minute metallic assault, singling out one booking agent named Tracy for particular scorn and ridicule. Hosts Sixteen Deluxe were up next, rocking the loading docks with three new songs and crowd-pleasers "Giver" and "Idea"; playing on its own turf, the always-invigorating band was unstoppable. Then fresh off the back lots of Culver City came Other Star People, L7 alumna Jennifer Finch's new outfit, who capped the day's rock & roll revelry in the only way possible: a down 'n' dirty cover of Journey's "Any Way You Want It." That was it for me. Rumors of an imminent Imperial Teen performance notwithstanding, I hit the highway secure in the knowledge that the colored-hair and cell-phone set may get the Journey covers, but Austin got the whole afternoon.-- Christopher Gray


Blondies, Saturday, March 20

Austin quietly lost another live music venue Saturday night. Actually it wasn't quiet at all, but the net result was the same: one more place offering free shows, free beer, and bands unspoiled by either critical or popular acclaim (except for their friends) is gone by the wayside, as the venerable skate shop's new quarters off MLK afford no room for a stage. It was a hell of a wake anyway, if a sparsely attended one; any occasion featuring the Dismukes is more than reason enough to party. But first there was Glow Force, a local bunch to be reckoned with in their own right, churning out roaring slabs of noise that were alternately gentle and threatening. Patrolling territory delineated by Radiohead, the Smashing Pumpkins, and the American Analog Set, the local quartet (which mutated from Wookie some time ago) gleaned passages of exquisite beauty from a bed of squalling feedback, and occasionally succumbed to moments of complete instrumental meltdown. Then the Dismukes took over. The best rock band in Austin isn't even a real band; it's just something Jacob Schulze, Andrew Duplantis, and Erik Conn do when they're not working on one of umpteen other projects. Opening with a propulsive instrumental that conjured visions of Ed Hall, the trio steamed into "Sugar Glider" with all the ferocity of a lost track from Nirvana's Bleach; the subsequent "Crying All the Time" was as riff-charged as anything by Monster Magnet or Mercury Rev. Much too dangerous for the likes of KLBJ or 101X, Schulze announced the band was the target of a $2 million bidding war (still not enough) and demonstrated what happens when hearts of metal meet balls of rock. "Graze" showed grunge ain't dead, it's just reverted back into metal, and blew away any post-'92 Soundgarden in Chains output. Next, instead of damming that muddy river, they turned their ferocity onto the Orange Mothers' local anthem "Soul," juicing up Ethan Azarian's spaceboy song like panthers on crank. Closing with the comparatively introspective "Magnolias," sounding for all the world like a disgruntled refugee from Wilco's Being There, this so-called side project put the other music I saw this SXSW to shame. Then they set down their instruments and started collecting money for more kegs. We'll all miss Blondies, but the Dismukes sure sent it off in style. -- Christopher Gray

Tom Waits, Paramount Theatre

photograph by John Anderson


Paramount Theater, Saturday, March 20

With a pumpkin-colored spot underlighting his face like a weary jack-o' lantern, Tom Waits delivered a near-brilliant set into the heart of SXSW's Saturday night. To say the show was a hot ticket is to egregiously dismiss the sheer anticipation that permeated the venerable theatre full of high-falutin' credential-sniffers. After all, SXSW has pulled off some fairly spectacular names (Tony Bennett, Iggy Pop, Johnny Cash) and always provides at least one free show for the plebes such as this year's Fastball appearance, but this was Tom Waits, eccentric genius worshipped by critics, suits, musicians, and fans alike. Hell, the last time he even played in Austin was 1978 at the Armadillo. Here, at the Paramount, Waits opened just past midnight with "Walk Away" then knocked down a wicked version of "16 Shells From a Thirty-Ought Six" from 1983's Swordfishtrombones followed by "Downtown Train," from 1985's Rain Dogs. In fact, the show played like a belated tour for Rain Dogs thanks to the amount of material he drew from it. "Temptation" came from Frank's Wild Years (1987) and then it was back to Rain Dogs for "Gun Street Girl" and "Jockey Full of Bourbon." "Hang Down Your Head" was devastatingly mournful as Waits crooned the tender, lovely goodbye in his rough baritone, "Tear the promise from my heart, tear my heart today. You have found another, oh baby, I must go away." Just when it seemed only "Singapore," "Tom Traubert's Blues," and "The Piano's Been Drinking" were missing, Waits up and played "Tango Til They're Sore," sounding ever the desolate angel as he rasped "Let me fall out of the window with confetti in my hair, deal out jacks or better on a blanket by the stairs. I'll tell you all my secrets, but I lie about my past, so send me off to bed for evermore." The show was blissfully devoid of album hype despite the presence of three songs from the forthcoming Mule Variations: "House Where Nobody Lives," "Filipino Box Spring Hog," and "Hold On," in which Waits lovingly intones, "Well, god bless your crooked little heart." "Jesus Gonna Be Here" and "A Little Rain" from 1992's Bone Machine met the ragged grace of "Heart Attack & Vine" and "The Heart of Saturday Night." In his simple denim jacket, unfaded jeans, and what looked like a pair of lived-in Stacy Adams, Waits wore a short-rimmed hat that framed his face like battered felt halo, so much the better for a revised "9th and Hennepin," which received a little "Gun Street Girl" repetition. That, unfortunately, incited a woman nearby to prompt his lyrics with her overly audible ones, the irony being that not even the presence of Tom Waits could silence the rubes. Another disruption occurred with the whining of a young woman in her white-girl dreadlocks who made her way to the front of the stage and yammered to Waits about not being able to get a ticket and sneaking in to see him. As the surrounding audience grumbled and hissed for her to sit down, Waits shrugged it off. "Sit down and enjoy it," he growled in that old-style California twang that uses the hard "G" when saying "Los AnGeles." Two encores later, the crowd filed out, and I grabbed a set list plus the page below it. Only it wasn't a set list. On the top page was the Sharpie-scribbled lyrics to "Gun Street Girl," on the bottom page was the unplayed "Singapore." I compared my notes with the guy who had snagged the set list. Wait's middle third of the set included a half-dozen other titles he didn't play, including -- yes -- "Singapore" and "Tom Traubert's Blues." "Tom Waits for no one," goes the joke among his fans, but there he had been, a street-corner poet performing magic with words and music. God bless his crooked little heart.

-- Margaret Moser


Victory Grill, Saturday, March 20

Midnight Saturday and it's official: due to a bit of cosmic misalignment and a snatch of old-fashioned laziness, this here badgeholder's got no Tom Waits tix. Water under the bridge, alas, and scanning the last half of the listings there's still plenty of late-night luminaries to choose from: Cesar Rosas at Antone's, Jimmie Vaughan at the Music Hall, Mojo "I Fucked Britney Spears" Nixon at the Continental. Big hoo-has, to be sure, but none with the slow and moody narcoleptic nightcap feel apropos to the moment at hand -- the witching hour at the tail end of exhaustion. Then the eye stops on the listing for George Carver, a local moodman in his own right, whose self-released debut, God the Mother, was described by a certain forlorn Chronicle critic as a "subtly sodden delight," full of the late-night cigarettes and coffee blues. Problem solved. Carver, armed with his own stack of dire and meandering tunes, would be the final fading ember of this critter's SXSW. Except when the black-suited orange-shirted Carver stepped stagefront at the Victory Grill, he did so with an undeniable shine in his eyes, embarking on a set that showed a good deal more jump than his sullen CD. Playful, even jaunty at times, Carver and his band gave up the grim ghost for a bit of nonchalance and antiquated flair; far from the tortured poet of "Letter to Australia" and "Such a Fool as I," it was the slap-happy guitar-totin' fool of "So Tough" and "I Had It but It's All Gone Now" holding court. While he did throw in a few moody tunes -- the moving "Jambalaya" and the slow, working-up-the-majumbo jazz of "Bumblebee Blues" -- Carver stuck largely to the midtempo blues in his repertoire, trading licks with pianoman T Bonta and displaying considerable fluidity and touch of his own. Perhaps it was the spark left over from San Antonio bluesman Randy Garibay's smoking set at midnight. Perhaps it was the influence of Bonta, impeccable as always but far from dire. Perhaps it was just the enlivening effects of that orange shirt. Whatever the reason, Carver seemed a much happier man than the one who recorded God the Mother. Not quite droll enough for a Waits placebo, but not a bad bit of late-night blues either. -- Jay Hardwig


Jon Langford

photograph by John Carrico


Jazz Bon Temps, Saturday, March 20

Who'd have thought that six men in black from Chicago, sporting such musical pedigrees as Jesus Jones and the Mekons, could bust out such shit-kickin' rock and keep a country tinge to it? It's a fine line, especially when you think back to the days when "country rock" meant overly long, watered-down songs about horses and sunsets. No eight-track trips to the Hotel California here, though; just six guys who rock as hard as bands did back in Ye Olde Punke Rocke Days of Yore, the bastard child of The Clash and Hank Williams left on the doorstep with a note that reads "Fuck you" pinned to its cowboy-shirt swaddlin' clothes. Their version of the spooky classic "The Wreck on the Highway," in particular, is not to be missed, informed as it is with jungle drums and Jon Langford's Joe Strummer-ish yowl. Younger players could take a lesson from Langford on how to come across onstage; indeed, the whole band was as animated as if they were standing in puddles and getting 110-volt jolts from their instruments. At a time when bands increasingly lean toward tepid vocals, languid playing, and gentle singer-songwriterish sentiments, a band like the Waco boys is a welcome blast of whiskey-tinged fresh air. They may not have cut it on the Grand Ol' Opry back in the Sixties, but they take country elements and give 'em the jumper-cable treatment that should have come along years before. No jaded hipsters standing 20 feet back from the stage with their arms folded smoking cigarettes; no tight-Wrangler country poseurs either that night -- just excited, sweaty rock fans crowding the front of the stage like the Wacos were Elvis and it was '57 again. Not an easy feat in 1999. -- Jerry Renshaw


Electric Lounge, Sunday, March 21

Kimmo Pohjohen playing accordian

Kimmo Pohjohen
photograph by Martha Grenon

When Robert Fripp comes to play at a small club in your hometown, you best show up early. The visionary English guitarist, founder of Seventies art-rock pioneers King Crimson and one of the fathers of progressive rock -- the complex dialogue between jazz, rock, and classical music -- Fripp might be considered the L. Ron Hubbard of guitar freaks: an enigmatic ideologue who's inspired a worshipful cult of fanaticism. A well-deserved one. Playing as ProjeKct Three, the third King Crimson "fractal" (a sort of compositional think-tank and KC offshoot), Fripp, drummer Pat Mastelotto, and Stick player Trey Gunn had the stage so full of equipment, it was no wonder the trio's warm-up act consisted of one guy and his accordion. Finland's Kimmo Pohjonen alternately sat upon and stood among the Projekct's music equipment arsenal on his tiny square allotment of stage space, moaning evocatively into his headset while coaxing an otherwordly soundscape through his accordion by use of foot pedal samplers and loops (and a smartly-striped suit); Imagine an Icelandic tundra set to music (on the ECM label, of course). The growing crowd loved it, applauding fervently at the conclusion of Pohjonen's 35-minute trance, which segued into ProjeKct Three's set smoothly since their equipment was already onstage. The announcement that pictures of any kind would cause Mr. Fripp to put down his guitar and walk offstage preceded the man himself, the 52-year-old legend strolling onstage promptly at the appointed time. Immaculately groomed and dressed, bespectacled -- looking more like a physicist than a musician -- Fripp sat straight-backed on a piece of equipment stage right, facing across the stage, rather than out at the audience, and held a late-model Les Paul across his body like a dancing partner, caressing its neck with the smooth glide of his left hand. By the time he opened the air lock to his own unique Pandora's box, the Electric Lounge was full -- the bar empty, space in front of the stage elbow-to-elbow, and a line outside of the venue. Though eventually everyone got into the venue, it took a musical timeslip or two to get all of them in the door. Once they were in, though, they were in -- spellbound by Fripp, who was joined shortly after his arrival by Mastelotto and Gunn. With the rhythm section doing most of the work, sending pulse after pulse of shuddering, sub-atomic sound into the quiet, breath-held club, Fripp added his shimmering waves of guitar ambiance in carefully measured increments. Because he was obscured by speakers if one was standing in the back of the club, stage left by the soundboard was a popular place from which to observe the sound sorcerer cast his musical spells. In fact, at the extreme left end of the wood and clear plastic wall that separates the bar from the Lounge's main room, one could see Fripp perfectly; a bemused smile on his face, his eyes twinkling with intelligence, always watching his bandmates. He looked like a Jedi knight, channeling some kind of force through the grandeur and majesty of ProjeKct Three's 45-minute set. Absolutely mesmerizing -- like something out of a Stanley Kubrick film -- a world-renown headliner in one of the last timeslots of South by Southwest 99. Tom who?

-- Raoul Hernandez


Hole in the Wall, Sunday, March 21

As the traditional closing show of SXSW, the Hole in the Wall's weekly Sunday Rock & Roll Free for All was only free in spirit at this year's festival; you still had to have a wristband or badge or pony up $5. Though not the mob scene of last year's "Who Gives a Whoot," the crowd and the smoke was thick for the festival's penultimate showcasing band, the Mittens, playing on the heels of a brilliant circus-themed video release and on the verge of their forthcoming debut. For the deliriously tired SXSWesters at marathon's end, the good-time honky-Who band Li'l Cap'n Travis was a perfect choice for the closing slot. The signature song of these Highwaymen for the indie rock set, which unfortunately they didn't play, is a cover of the theme from Midnight Cowboy, so you know the Li'l Cap'n's thrust is Seventies glam country. You could call them a supergroup if the members' other projects weren't also so obscure, but here's the credits: Adam Bork of the now-defunct Earthpig & Fire, Moog; Jeff Johnson of the Orange Mothers, bass; Matt Kinsey and Mandon Maloney of Glow Force (ex-Wookie), guitar-vocals and drums, respectively; and Christian Braafladt, of wall-of-sound indie upstarts Pajamacus, singer-songwriter-guitar. Okay, so the Cap'n is a sloppy mess, but that's part of their raise-your-Lone-Star-to-the-ceiling charm, as are Braafladt's lyrics, occupied by lovelorn Future Farmers of America ("Alone at the Drugstore") and a rodeo clown who is sad on the inside. Following the Framptonesque "Trans Am" came their crowd-pleaser "Life in Amarillo" ("Where there's nothing to see and nothing to block the view"). Bork took over lead guitar, and from behind those big ol' mirrored sunglasses, reprised some Earthpig gems: "Truck Driver School" and a rockin' cover of Kitty Wells' "It Wasn't God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels." This marked a switch to cover mode, and their choices tell you all you need to know: George Jones' "Loving You Could Never Be Better," Willie Nelson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and a David Bowie-VU-Marshall Tucker Band-Rolling Stones medley. The flourescent lights flipped on around the 75-minute mark -- never a pretty sight at the Hole, especially not at 2:15am -- but the Cap'n kept on until the waitresses looked like they were going to throw empty pint glasses at their heads. The last song? "Flattened by the Good Times." Amen to that.

-- Kim Mellen

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