Closing out the year by considering the persistent question: Are there too many bands in Austin?
Several years ago, one of Austin's premier bar bands, the Wannabes, printed up a T-shirt during SXSW that starkly admonished visitors: "Don't Move Here." Since then, the only advice more egregiously ignored was the U.N. weapons inspectors' conclusions in Iraq. Maybe the results haven't been as disastrous as our commander in chief's Mesopotamian folly, but by relentlessly branding itself as the so-called Live Music Capital of the World, Austin isn't doing itself any favors. Not that our music scene isn't something to be supremely proud of. People come from different continents just to hang out at the Continental Club and Antone's. Likewise, bands from Guided by Voices (adios) to Turbonegro specifically route their tours through Stubb's and Emo's. We must be doing something right. The Austin City Limits Music Festival, all of 3 years old, is well on its way to becoming as much a signature event as Jazzfest or Coachella, while its namesake TV program is an essential component of modern American folklore. Happy 30th, ACL! Where it counts, though, in the clubs, the scene stalled a little this year. Neither Oslo, Jackalope, nor the Side Bar, three of Austin's hippest new hangouts, offer regular live music. Among local bands, there was never a lack of quality shows some nights in a half-dozen rooms at once but there was a lot of regrouping and retrenching. No one had a breakthrough year like Fastball in 1998, Spoon in 2001, ... Trail of Dead in 2002, or Los Lonely Boys last year. But watch out for Sound Team in 2005. Austin's answer to the Walkmen could well be the next name on the lips of The OC's Seth Cohen. The highest concentration of live-music activity remains on Red River, where the scene's central dilemma plays out nightly: too many bands, not enough fans. On the right Friday or Saturday night, when the street's half-dozen or so clubs are doing brisk business at the bar and the bands are as loud as they are heavy, as passionate as they are unique, the local scene is a musical experience unlike any other. It's empowering. A good night on Red River is a persuasive argument that rock & roll still might rule the world one day, and even if it doesn't, we'll all go out with a bang. But this blocks-long blowout happens less often than it should, maybe once or twice a month at most. Far more common are the nights when even regulars are rare, bands play to near-empty rooms, and the street assumes an entirely different cast: abandoned, forgotten, forlorn, seedy. Not exactly the sort of thing you design a tourism brochure around, and yet Red River has reached an interesting equilibrium. The area live music venues probably won't get rich, but as long as they share proximity to the Salvation Army and new ARCH center, clubs should be reasonably protected from developers and suburbanites alike. A more nurturing environment for the sort of free-wheeling, limit-testing, frequently confrontational music already flourishing there is hard to imagine. Of course, it would be nice if the city itself were more hospitable to these people, both musicians and clubs, who create and sustain one of its most valuable commodities. Officially, City Hall's attitude toward the music scene continues to consist mostly of sunny slogans and empty promises. It's fine to invite a few local musicians for a photo op at the new City Hall, but maybe not so fine to leave music-related social-service matters in the private sector's domain. Finding room in the budget to give even $10,000 toward sponsoring safe-ride cab vouchers, free flu shots for musicians and club workers, or just a blanket donation to the SIMS Foundation, would send a message that the city cares about the music scene beyond how much money it can bring in. Considering that figure is routinely estimated to be in the double-digit million, $10,000 seems like a pittance. Only some of the scene's difficulties can be laid at City Hall's doorstep. A fundamental issue facing local clubs right now is that there are many, many more bands here than crowds to go see them. That means bands have to play more gigs to make the same money as somewhere they might face less competition. Or it means that it may take six to eight months for a brand-new act to get its first club show. They might be around a year or two before someone at the paper even notices them. Their early gigs will most likely come on a dead night like Monday, when there'll still be easily two dozen other live music options. Not helping matters is the fact that going out once or twice a week is a lot for most people, and plenty more don't even go out that much. Inevitably, this adds up to a lot of near-empty rooms, paltry bar receipts, and frustrated musicians. Not exactly a great selling point either. But those deserted nights, when hardly anybody seems to care about live music, also bring out the people who care the most. It's a great chance to catch up with local perennials like Dale Watson. A band you stumble across by accident might profoundly alter your musical perspective or just plain blow your ever-lovin' mind. Perhaps a beloved favorite you haven't seen in a while is playing somewhere simply because they can, and all your friends will be there. What makes Austin such a fascinating musical oasis isn't the blockbuster festivals, world-class roadshows, or abundantly gifted local talent pool. All that is nice, but the city's real magic is that people move here all the time perfectly willing to play for an empty house, if that's the first step to saying they're from Austin.
Embarrassment of Riches
Yes, it's all about iPods now, but good old radio still has its uses. When Chad & Kevin on the Zone can get carried away with athletic arcana, and All Things Considered begins inducing drowsiness, often the only thing that makes the evening I-35 slog tolerable is something in Billboard with a bullet. A few "TCB" drive-time favorites from 2004:Bad Religion, "Los Angeles Is Burning"Big & Rich, "Save a Horse (Ride a Cowboy)"Black Eyed Peas, "Hey Mama"Dashboard Confessional, "Vindicated"Sara Evans, "Suds in the Bucket"Franz Ferdinand, "Take Me Out"Green Day, "American Idiot"Jay-Z, "99 Problems"Jimmy Eat World, "Pain"Alicia Keys, "If I Can't Have You"The Killers, "Somebody Told Me"Avril Lavigne, "My Happy Ending"Christina Milian, "Dip It Low"Modest Mouse, "Float On"Prince, "Cinnamon Girl"Petey Pablo, "Freek-a-Leek"Brad Paisley & Alison Krauss, "Whiskey Lullaby"Social Distortion, "Reach for the Sky"Snoop Dogg with Pharrell, "Drop It Like It's Hot"Gwen Stefani, "What U Waiting For"Terror Squad, "Lean Back"Twista featuring Jaime Foxx & Kanye West, "Slow Jamz"U2, "Vertigo"The Used, "Take It Away"Usher with Ludacris & Lil Jon, "Yeah!"Velvet Revolver, "Slither"Kanye West, "Jesus Walks"Gretchen Wilson, "Redneck Woman"
TEN FROM TEXAS
Beyoncé featuring Lil' Flip, "Naughty Girl"Bowling for Soup, "1985"Destiny's Child, "Lose My Breath"Kevin Fowler, "Ain't Drinkin' Anymore"Lil' Flip, "Game Over"Lil' Flip featuring Lea, "Sunshine"Los Lonely Boys, "Real Emotions"Willie Nelson, "Big Booty"Pauline Reese, "One Less Honky Tonk"