SXSW: Austin Powers the Biz that Shags You
Up to the Flamingo Cantina on Sixth Street
Up to the Flamingo Cantina on Sixth Street (what is it with flamingoes and Austin? They're everywhere) for a big warm party put on by the Indie Alliance, a group of fellow-traveling promotion and distribution companies working hard with musicians of all stripes. In fine indie form we are regaled with crudites and pizza, and with particularly loathsome beer. I'd like to know just when California's Sierra Nevada Pale Ale became an "imported brew" not covered by the drink tickets ... hmph. There's an impressive lineup of bands booked for the party, so we make a note to swing back later after more explorations. We don't make it for most of them. They've put up a back wall in the Flamingo, closing the gaping holes that looked out blithely onto the back alley. This makes it a lot more presentable but takes all the ramshackle out of the club. Well, life goes on. Who knows, maybe one day CBGB's won't smell like piss in the back. Wouldn't that be strange? (Actually it hardly does these days. But it sure looks like it's gonna.)
The Flagellation of Temptress
We peek in at Antone's and find that El Vez, the self-proclaimed illegitimate South-of-the-border offspring of Elvis Presley, won't be going on until later. Further west, then, to Waterloo Brewing Company, where the Green Brothers Management showcase is springing for good beer, floppy depressed burgers and hot dogs, and a fantastic array of bands. Temptress is on the bill, doing their wacky and delightful drag rock show and promising gratuitous nudity by the girls from Sugar's, a nearby strip club -- though the gorgeous Bad Habits backing singers and faux dominatrices swear to keep their personal snug black vinyl outfits on, to general dismay. In fact there's some confusion with the strippers and they don't show up until the evening showcase, but the band pulls out all the other stops and in just three numbers we're treated to a generous helping of solid old-fashioned grinding rock and roll decorated with the traditional Temptress plastic nurse uniform and enema equipment ("Pills"), tranny-chic fetish costumery ("Queen for a Day"), and a gleeful kitsch whipping ("Crack the Whip") of Temptress and of an eager audience volunteer. I was tempted to give it a go myself -- if you're going to get whupped ever, it might as well be by these particular girls. Temptress is a monster promotional machine, with appearances on Howard Stern and national TV shows under their studded belts and a major album deal in the works. If there's ever a remake of Rocky Horror we know who's doing the soundtrack; until then this show is a glamdrag romp in the very best of bad tongue-in-someone's-cheek taste. The Temptress CD, "Wizard of Odd," doesn't go half as far as the band live (as if that's possible!), but is, er, completely satisfying in its own way. Novelty doesn't get much more novel than this. Be brave, and bring your friends.
El Vez is ultimately a delight, but it's getting on the dinner hour by now and we've done a long spate at Waterloo -- excellent sets were also turned in by Queens hard rockers One Step Beyond and the energetic bouncy good-natured Piranha Brothers from the Bronx, among others -- and it's hard to tell if our feet are grumbling more than our bellies or vice-versa. So following a flawless rendition of the crooner "In El Barrio" ("If there's one thing she doesn't need / It's another little bebe vaca to feed / In El Barrio") we head back to the Flamingo to invite Pageant the publicist to dinner. Pageant invites promo folks Long Tom and Roamer and Shy and we've got RIAA Nancy coming after she meets Neil Young, and they've all got friends, and when the dust settles there are a dozen of us squeezing into a reservation for 8 or maybe 6 at The Bitter End. Our waiter isn't speaking to us by the end of the meal. Oops. The great food and happy resting feet give us an excuse to bag this evening's supershow at Stubb's with The Supersuckers, Nashville Pussy and Reverend Horton Heat. I'm wondering if we'll run into Sounni and Eric, the MusicDish editors who bring this column to you, but apparently they're still in New York. Which is just as well. I'm not sure they should be seeing how much fun I'm having when I'm supposed to be at work.
Mr. Cyrano tends to miss big shows; it's a philosophy. There's always something smaller and better out there. We sojourn uptown on Thursday through a night turned arctic to see Hamell on Trial do a spectacular set. Ed Hamell is a New York regular whose one-man acoustic wall-of-sound guitar variety show defies easy description -- was it Shaw who said that any philosophy that can be put in a nutshell belongs there? -- and will get the attention it deserves here at a later date; he spurts out the usual run of delightful potty-mouth jokes and his blizzard-strum songs of want, ambition, rage, crime and joy, including the new "single," which he describes as a grown-up meditation on adult dating ("I Want to Kill Your Kid"). We burrow into the basement Elephant Room for the spiky late-night addled jazz humor of Sex Mob. We meet a ridiculously honest cab driver (no kidding). There's a pumped afternoon set at Emo's by Man ... or Astroman? that's almost an updated by-the-numbers homage to Devo. Johnny Dowd starts in on a powerful performance of warped and culty guitar-based obsessions that demands more attention than I've got on Saturday night upstairs at The Ritz Lounge, leaving me feeling that I've brushed up against a future connoisseur's budding legend. But we have to meet Pageant and the gang at Babe's for Hot Sauce Johnson, whose drummer hits the high hat with his foot.
We stop in at the Cropduster Records showcase for a twangy pop outing by The Other 99, missing Julia Greenberg's set but admiring the attention that she's been getting over on mp3.com in recent days. MC J speeds off to see Sally Timms of The Mekons and New York rockabilly rocker Patricia Vonne while Mr. Cyrano surges up to see favorites Amy Rigby (recently departed from New York to Nashville; NYC music deity Rita Houston of WFUV 90.7 FM and I share the space outside the door when the College Students With Personal Issues won't let us in to the crowded room) and Pat DiNizio (see our MusicDish coverage of the Philadelphia Music Conference for more on Pat's solo work). We're pleased but not thrilled by Gorky's Zygotic Mynci, and we take in Tara McLean, Amy Correia, Llama Farmers, Ian Moore. We catch Mary McBride one morning before we've even had coffee, and come back later to hear Mojo Nixon vow to tie his pecker to the gate next door and wonder if Jesus will drink with him ("I know you can walk on water / but can you walk on all that beer?" he sings, hoping the Savior will make it home OK after a long night at the bar). And more, and more, and more. We do a mentor session with a Village VOICE critic and pick a fight with him over how irrelevant the VOICE's music coverage is (well, excuse me, duh). We bump into Amy Rigby over lunch at Stubb's and barely miss a band called Linus of Hollywood (I was looking forward to going up afterward and introducing myself as Linus of New York) and instead are treated to a fine surprise in the shape of singer/songwriter Miles Hunt from Shropshire, UK in the next slot.
Friday night. We make it in to Lucy's for the tail end of Philadelphia band Stargazer Lily (f/k/a Cory), a first time viewing for me and a recommendation from Long Tom and Roamer of the Indie Alliance gang. Ushered up to the balcony by the bothered bouncer, we wave our blinking red lights (given out by strippers, er, models at the Temptress showcase) over the railing until Pageant spots us from the floor. (Pageant got a Napster t-shirt. Apparently SXSW vendors favor lovely insistent redheads, and the booth guys are softer touches than the booth girls.) Stargazer Lily, named after a favored flower judging by 641 Alta Vista hits on the name, is entrancing; the band's paired lead vocalists, Susan Rosetti and Steph Hayes, lead the unwary through a sultry show of casually displaced eroticism and concentrated, tuneful rhythmic explorations. Currently under an Arista Records development contract, the band tours our region and is an easy pick for a night of back-seat and almost droll rapture. I'm looking forward to another viewing without a music conference hung around it, as I'm looking forward to hearing their CD.
Mike Viola, Saturday morning, 2 a.m., pickup truck
After Stargazer Lily I adjourn for a quick margarita break up to The Ritz, with acoustic bluegrass accompaniment by Jim & Jennie and the Pine Barons from Croydon, PA. A lucky few of us regroup at The Blind Pig across the way for a 1:00 a.m. set by Mike Viola & The Candy Butchers. Mike Viola, a near-Boston native (Stoughton, MA) is based out of New York these days, and I had not seen him before despite his many downtown shows. Here he headlined a late-running showcase for RPM/Columbia (Sony), which left him starting off far too close to Austin's 2:00 a.m. closing to do any justice to his powerful material.
A few songs in, The Candy Butchers blow the sound system, and Viola leads the audience in a singalong while the bar staff digs around for relevant circuit breakers. Mod-suited and bespectacled in fine tinted-glasses Roy Orbison chic, he radiates early Elvis Costello energy and showmanship, minus the bitter hostility but with every erg of confidence and drive. His voice and melodies draw from the finest of Costello's (and, by extension, Orbison's) impulses, mellowed by a softer sensibility that reminded me of Joe Jackson's early work. It's skinny-tie stuff, all right, but in a fresh direction, spilling out of a slightly-bent urge to share rather than from geeky chips worn proudly on jerky shoulders. Power restored, the band charges through another few tunes before the circuits snap off again on the verge of their last number. Viola has had it by then, and grabs his guitar; the drummer snatches up his snare, and we all pile out onto Sixth Street. Some kind soul has parked a pickup truck in front of the Blind Pig and Mike jumps into the empty bed, acoustic in hand, and sings another short set (including "All I Have" and "I Don't Know Anything") out in the street, in the company of the in-the-knows, the newly converted, and the drunken passersby who have no idea what's going on but know a good thing when they see it. RPM label brass is there taking it all down in digital video and there's a t-shirt giveaway for the girl who knows the words to "The Cow Goes Moo" (damn, I missed another shirt). Check their creative but hard to navigate Web site for a new spin on "home" pages, and don't stop til you find the photo of Viola with Jennifer Love Hewitt. If ever there was a reason to get into music...
Not long after this our cab drops us off on distant Oltorf by our cheap digs, nearly in sight of downtown Austin, and as luck will have it there are Mike Viola and the boys unloading their gear in the driveway of the La Quinta hotel. Forgetting in the haze of the late hour and the margaritas that Mike has no idea who we are, we rush him with bubbling praise about the pickup truck set. He nearly runs away but realizes that we're mostly harmless, and graciously accepts our enthusiasm. "That," says MC Webmaster J, "was the spirit of rock and roll." "That," counters Viola, "was the spirit of survival." And so a good night.
Why am I telling you all this? SXSW is a child of the Industry, a piebald child dressed in technicolor dreamcoat hand-me-downs from fifty years and more of goodwill musical scraps. It's a kaleidoscope of missed connections, of careful plans and squandered efforts, of vague recognitions and pretty faces; a carny nightfest of too much to take in and too little time to absorb it all, of love-it-or-leave-it moments and infatuations, sentiment and dreamy meanderings. Our friend Kathode Dave stayed in the next room in our hotel for the whole of the conference and most of our communication was through a barely-opened morning door: "Dude, I'm not up yet." "OK. See you later." That's how the whole shebang works. Next time Aimee Mann gets ignored (again!) and some wasp-waisted nubile young thang warbling someone else's tune rockets up the charts in her place, remember this about the music industry: we don't know what's going on. We're just trying to be there when it happens. This is why everyone in the mainstream arm of the biz has a cell phone -- they're always calling other people to see if they know what's going on. The spirit of survival and the spirit of rock and roll are very close neighbors. But they may not have much in common.
Case in point: one of the best bands at SXSW this year didn't have a showcase. The energetic, punky four piece is called Bowling for Soup, out of Denton, Texas, and they play good-time straight-up funster retro rock, oozing oddball charisma and doing playful tossing and spitting tricks with their guitar picks on stage. They banter and cavort; they're total cut-ups. Everything I know about them comes from their Web site, which has appallingly ugly wallpaper that fits somehow, so I won't pretend I know something you don't. They say they've applied to SXSW for five years and never gotten a showcase, and this year they scored three unlisted parties. I heard them at the Green Brothers outing and again at a Levi's Jeans/Lifebeat shindig on South Congress, over sturdy plates brimming with sturdy barbecue, with Pageant and MC J and the rest of the crew. (Pageant, gazing at the invite, which is festooned with pictures of cows and pigs and chickens: "I want to eat the one that goes moo, and the one that goes oink.") These guys rock; watch for them, and check them out when you can. Good thing there were ribs, or we might have missed them.
A propos of nothing, Vin Scelsa played several advance cuts from the new Jayhawks record on the radio while I was writing this column. It's in stores in May, and it sounds really great. See you in two.
In Memoriam Ian Dury: "I'm not here to be remembered, I'm here to be alive." RIP 2000
Favorite Austin-Brewed Beer: Get Off of My Ewe Scottish Ale at Lovejoys
Niftiest Quirky Austin Venue with Killer Margaritas: The Ritz Lounge (upstairs)
"What Was I Thinking" Austin Meal: Pastrami sandwich at 3:00 a.m. at Katz's Deli, with Pageant and Long Tom (like I can't have real pastrami at the real Katz's any time I want, d'oh!)
Most Bizarre Place to See Hamell on Trial, Ever: the Austin Scottish Rite of Freemasonry Theatre
Passing Thought: RPM/Columbia stuck the Candy Butchers at the Quinta on Oltorf? What's that about?
SXSW: Austin Powers the Biz that Shags You - Part 1
Bowling for Soup
Cropduster Records (The Other 99, Julia Greenberg, etc.)
Hamell on Trial
Mike Viola & The Candy Butchers
Robert Burke Warren
Photos by Pierre Jelenc. South by Southwest is held annually during spring break.
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