Monday, March 31, 2008

SXSW '08: What Happened

I think it's very telling that the question people ask most when they hear you've been to SXSW is "What music did you hear?" Increasingly, that's the only reason people attend the music segment of the event, and maybe it's my preoccupations of the past couple of months, but it does seem, in a way, to be whistling past the graveyard.

I saw music. Not much, but I saw some. Some was good, some was not.

The first night, for instance, was almost a total disaster. As it turned out, the two main acts I wanted to see, the Slits and Charanga Cakewalk, were on at the same time. This is business for usual at SXSW for me; it's inevitable. I calculated that the Slits might be overcrowded and/or not so good, and Michael Ramos' Charanga Cakewalk record has remained one of my faves since it came out a couple of years ago. Trouble was, there was nothing I actually knew anything about happening before then. I parked my car (tip for those with autos at SXSW: the official Convention Center parking lot is only seven bucks, you get three ins and outs, and you can get your car any time of the night or day

although these signs are a little disconcerting), and set about finding the Rio, the club where Ramos would perform.

I found it, and a Danish "world music" band, Afenginn, was performing some grim fusion of musics they didn't seem to understand. The blond-dreadlocked frontman was particularly earnest. I did a U-turn and left. What now? There was an hour and a half to kill. Moping along to Congress Avenue, I decided to see what the Intuitive Music Orchestra from Moscow was all about. The Copa, the club where they were performing, was sort of dingy, and on stage a motley crew of time-warped hippies was surrounded by hundreds of "little instruments," basically noisemakers of various sorts. They were in the process of picking them up, tinkling or rattling them, blowing into flutes, and so on. Clearly this wasn't, as advertised, "world music," but instead something far worse: "free improvisation," a genre of music that can be fun to play, but pretty trying to listen to. Still, sometimes it rewards sticking with it for a while in case inspiration strikes.

Inspiration didn't strike. Inspiration seemed to be fleeing as fast as it could. Soon, so was I.

Soon, I was back at the Rio. Rupa and the April Fishes, a band whose CD I'd gotten shortly before leaving, was on. I hadn't had time to listen to the CD, but the premise seemed interesting. Rupa is a waif-like young woman of East Indian extraction who grew up in Iceland and France and was currently based in San Francisco. The band on the album was a nicely-mixed bunch of oddballs, so this could be interesting. But it wasn't. For one thing, only two of the band had made it to SXSW, a drummer and a cello-player. Rupa herself strummed the guitar and breathily intoned new-agey platitudes while the cello shrieked glissandos. I lasted a couple of songs, then went outside to await Charaga Cakewalk. Standing there, I found myself in the odd position of having various people walk up and show me their badges, thinking I was a doorman.

Finally Rupa & Co. left the stage to a smattering of applause, and I went in. Walking over the floor, I saw a wad of bills lying there. As I reached for it, a guy turned around, patting his pocket, and we both realized it was his. I fell into conversation with the guy, who told me he was in the cleaning fluids business back in England, but had used his profits to get into the music business, coming to Austin frequently and finding bands to manage. He was also a journalist. I sort of envied him, especially when a very attractive Texan woman joined him. They'd met accidentally the night before, and had hooked up. Some guys have all the luck.

Ramos had far more equipment than anyone else, which figured, due to his electro-goes-TexMex approach, and it took him a long time to set up. I wish I could say that the stage show matched the record, but while workmanlike, it wasn't particularly inspirational. Or maybe I was just tired or something; at any rate, I left after he performed because it was getting late, knowing that I'd be fried if I waited for 1am, when 17 Hippies were going to play. They had another showcase the next night, anyway, so I'd see them then.

And I did. There were some other acts I half-heartedly wanted to see on Thursday, but logistics were against me. Uncle Monk, the bluegrass duo Tommy Erdyeli of the Ramones is half of these days, was on, but the word later was they were terrible. There was also an Americana group, the Wilders, which I missed because they were on at the same time as the Hippies (who, being friends and neighbors, I didn't want to miss), and I also missed Susan Cowsill (who's usually great live) and a reunion of her family's band, the Cowsills, which was intriguing, but alas, both were on too early for someone who, like me, sees SXSW as an opportunity to grab a good dinner as often as possible.

The Hippies, I gotta say, were great. I got to the venue too early, and had to suffer through a guy named Vinicio Capossela from Milan, who embodied everything I dislike about Tom Waits in a relentless, over-adrenalized set. I thought he'd never stop, although once the Hippies took the stage with their own brand of enthusiasm, the mood lightened considerably. The Hippies' music is almost impossible to define -- world music from a yet-undiscovered world, folk music from a decidedly odd group of folk -- but they can win over audiences in an instant. Poor Christopher took a hit for the crew, getting bashed in the face by an accordion while dodging in their bluegrass-band-like microphone choreography, and bled from a wound above his eye for half the set. At the end, the band and the audience were both exhausted, and everyone was talking about them for the rest of the conference, which bodes well for their summer U.S. tour.

Friday's main attraction was the Ponderosa Stomp, which ran all night at the Continental Club. This is a praiseworthy event, which is held in April in New Orleans, run by a bunch of maniacs led by a guy named Dr. Ike, who find performers from the 1950s and '60s -- soul, country, and the odder corners of rock -- and present them in a huge all-day, all-night concert. They publicize it at SXSW with a mini-Stomp, with short sets by participating artists, and it's usually pretty good. Unfortunately, I only caught the end of Ralph "Soul" Jackson's set, which I heard was pretty good, and saw Barbara Mason, whose voice has never been great, and is still much like it always has been. I'd have stayed for more, but the "Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indians," who followed, were dire, not least because Dr. Ike's wife had somehow become a member. Lost for anything else to see, I headed back to the hotel, missing Little Freddie King, who followed the Indians, and who I heard was pretty good.

One of the problems that's plagued SXSW has been the trend towards various entities putting on parties during the day, only a few of which are aligned with the conference, but all of which drain attendance at the panels and interviews (about which more in a minute). I rarely attend them, but this year I had a good reason to: Jon Hardy and the Public, with whom I'd had dinner the night before, and who've applied two or three times to SXSW and never been accepted, were playing a party sponsored by his home town of St. Louis' big roots festival, Twangfest. I didn't envy them, driving all the way from St. Louis for a 45-minute set on what turned out to be a 90-degree-plus afternoon, but they acquitted themselves well. I'm not as fond of Hardy's current material, informed as it is by the breakup of his marriage ("Lotta competition there," said a friend. "Blood on the Tracks, Shoot Out the Lights..."), as I am of his absolutely unique, more surrealistic earlier stuff, and I hope he finds healing in what he's doing next and re-introduces more elements of what I think is his major gift as time goes on, but I certainly wasn't unhappy with the performance, held outdoors at Jovita's, South Austin's funky Tex-Mex restaurant.

That evening, I had dinner with Jason Gross and his friend Tim Broun, and, in keeping with Jason's usual manic schedule, wound up seeing the flavor-of-the-month, Duffy, a young woman from Wales who's burning up the British charts. It sounded like your basic MOR to me, lending credence to my suspicion that this isn't a very good year for music, although her single is okay -- but just okay. Leaving there, I caught the end of Andre Williams' set at the Continental Club, predictably raunchy, and then settled in for a set by Jon Dee Graham, an always reliable, always enjoyable performer.

And that was it for the music.

As for the panels, I'll be brief, because this post is already too long. The keynote by Lou Reed was downright weird, with him declaring "I've got a BA in dope, but a Ph.D. in soul!" at one point (um, perhaps we have different definitions of soul...), hyping his new DVD of Berlin to the teeth, and then going on a great rant about how we've all come to accept unacceptably low fidelity as the default. He was jeered in the press by this, but dammit, he's right. Sorry.

Immediately afterwards, the highlight of my SXSW: Thurston Moore interviewing Steve Reich. Moore did a phenomenal job of keeping the conversation going, and Reich was as personable as can be, parrying questions with great good humor, keeping things on a basic enough level that the curious non-classical majority of the audience could follow what he was saying, and making it utterly impossible for me to believe he's 71 years old. I really regret having missed the concert of his stuff Thursday evening, but there was no program available, and I wanted to cherry-pick what I heard. Also, because it wasn't his own group performing his works and because what was performed was earlier stuff, it somehow didn't seem as urgent to go hear it. I'd heard what I wanted from Reich that afternoon, and for that I congratulate Thurston Moore.

Jason did a great job with his blog panel, which I walked into just to let him know I was there, and stayed to bring myself up to speed on the "new rock press," which, unfortunately or not, blogs are. (Unfortunate because, as I've said earlier, they don't much allow for long-form writing and of course they don't pay). Just after that was a really inspiring panel entitled Boomer Power, from which I didn't expect much despite Bill Bentley's being the moderator, but which turned out to be incredibly thought-provoking. The thoughts it provoked will emerge in subsequent posts, I promise. Doug Mosurock also had a great panel on the revival of vinyl, although once again, I just showed up because I had a message for him and stayed to learn a lot. And finally, Margaret Moser predictably did a great job with her panel on 16 Magazine and the Birth of Music Journalism, in which we got to hear not only from former editor (and, among other things, Ramones discoverer) Danny Fields, but also former teen idols Susan Cowsill and Taylor Hanson, both of whom had hilariously scary stories about being marketed to young girls.

But one piece of wisdom I'm going to follow next year was voiced by musician/rights administrator Andrew Halbreich (aka George Carver), with whom I check in every year for a little nachas. "You know, " he mused, "music has for a long time defined itself as a counter-culture, but what I find interesting is that the Interactive conference -- where you didn't attend any panels, and you should have -- is much more of a proto-culture." He's right, and I'm going to need to bend my focus towards that next year. SXSW's directors have long been saying the whole thing is involved in a complex convergance, and I believe that to be true.

But there's always next year.

Next up: food and other follies in Austin and Montpellier.


Anonymous said...

I can't wait to hear the Montpellier tales.

Anonymous said...

Hi Ed, i miss austin so mutch... thanxs for your stories...
hope next year....

greeting klisch (potsdam)

Dr. Sardonic said...

Ed, this is a great report; many thanks. Amongst other things, I was stunned to learn that Tommy Erdelyi is in a bluegrass band; have resolved to go to Interactive next year (I kicked myself for missing this year, though I'm not sure I was quite ready to drink the Kool-Aid yet); and was gladly motivated to add some Susan Cowsill to my library. I'll keep an eye out for a live show; here's a nice clip of a performance earlier this year in Germany:

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the 'counter culture / proto-culture' quote, but agree that low fidelity has once again become the rule.

And it's a shame, to, because relatively inexpensive car and home stereo equipment has gotten really, really good -- just in time for some of us to cram low rez high distortion audio through it. And no one seems to notice, or care.

Oh well, I guess we did the same thing ages ago -- listening to blown Wurlitzer jukeboxes and playing our records on any equipment we get our hands on. Music transcended the hardware then, and maybe it still does.

Jonathan Zimmerman
North Hollywood

Mike Barzacchini said...

Hey Ed:

Susan Cowsill and the Cowsills were great at SXSW this year. I caught them at their Central Presbyterian sets on Thursday night and on Saturday morning when they kicked off Mojo Nixon's jalapeno pancake breakfast at the Continental Club. At the Continental Club, they joined the Allen Oldies Band on stage for rousing renditions of "Hair," ""The Rain, The Park and Other Things," "Gimmie Gimmie Good Lovin'," and much more. On Thursday, Susan and her brothers performed a sweet cover of CSN's "Helplessly Hoping," and Susan played ample cuts from her great release "Just Believe It" and a nice cover of Lucinda William's "Drunken Angel." Hope to see you in Austin next year.

Best --
Mike Barzacchini