SXSW 2005: Like A Record, Baby (Tuesday)
Day Zero: You Spin Me Right Round
Austin, TX, March 15, 2005 - If it's March, this must be Texas. If it's March and Texas, this must be South by Southwest. If it's March and Texas and SXSW, then we must be the proud tired owners of humbled ringing ears and achy breaky feet. We're probably also stuffed to the rawhide with barbecue. You'll have to take my word for it, but the answer to all of the above is "Yes."
This is the 19th annual outing for SXSW, which reigns with even-handed dignity as the biggest and indisputably the best music conference in America. That's a lifetime, in musician years. Several other mainstay festivals have faltered and failed over the past few years, but SXSW prospers. What was always a good-time good show has become a colossus, purring away in sleek repair, helping stoke (as the Sage might have it) the starmaker machinery behind the popular songs. Or the popular downloads. Or the popular podcasts, or ringtones, or BitTorrents. The starmaker machinery is clanky and worse for wear as we move through the Noughties -- Paris Hilton, anyone? -- but no matter. SXSW abides.
We're here a day before the party starts, a habit of some years now. The extra day is welcome, the better to catch a Texas breath, to have a meal or two in peace, to scan the horizon for signs and portents. This has been a year of increments in the music business, more notable for what didn't happen than for what did: we didn't prosper, exactly, but we didn't fall apart either.
Status quo: new gadgets spawned new listening fads; outmoded law that ignores the realities of an Internet-driven world was not addressed. Status quo: radio became less relevant than ever; ClearChannel explained once again how handy it is to have those messy airwaves run by their single company. Status quo: we didn't smarten up, we didn't vote with our wallets, we failed to get mad as hell and not take it any more. But we did realize at last that Britney is a fruitcake, so that's something. And, to be fair, major label execs churned out inattentive product and bagged disgraceful cash as usual, but the strongest independents brought a hint of the good fight to their doors at last. The score? Good Guys - Some, Bad Guys - The Rest.
Charlie Robison at BMI's dinner shindig at Stubb's.
Yesterday's News: Our first stop is BMI's evening party at Stubb's BBQ, where Texas homeboy and Dixie Chick husband Charlie Robison will sing us through the first chowdown of the week. As the main courses dwindle, I join a few locals for fork-in-hand SXSW chat. The topic turns out to be bloggers and their geek-show presentations of eager technological brio at the Interactive conference a few days before. I've been coming here since 1998, and this may be the first time I've heard anyone make mention of the SXSW sisters, apart from a few celebrity-spotting boasts about stars at screenings. The thrill at the table is electric, with no trace of jaded exhaustion. I join in happily. The last time I was this excited about music rather than blogging, we were talking about Napster and the incredible cultural future it put in easy reach of us all. Note to self: Where have all the flowers gone?
Robison's set is a background matter, never rising to salience. We're ajitter with time zones and jets in here, gruntling about the chilly weather, wishing Hile and Merry-Greet-the-Day to friends, and lining up to demolish the barbecue buffet. It's hardly a fair fight. Robison has a round, affable voice, and to his credit he's unruffled by the background chatter. When I step down front to listen, the music feels tight and pressed, fine fabric in a conservative, tasteful cut. But it's a fashion that will look better on someone else, so we head out to the Hole in the Wall to dig through a wider wardrobe.
Spottiswoode at the Swollen Circus. His Enemies are nearby.
The Swollen Decade: For 10 years now -- numbers like this creep up on a fella -- Walter Salas-Humara and The Silos have hosted the Swollen Circus Erev SXSW pre-showcase, a coming-attractions salon of quick musical appetizers, a nighttime dim-sum sampler drawn in large part from the music of the days ahead. Performers step up to the stage for two or three songs and a quick wave, best foot forward and then make way for the rest. The short midway set by The Silos is always a loping Americana high point, and tonight's decade marker keeps that tradition intact: the band is rock-steady and tight with an acoustic center, slipping easily into that sweet spot that gets your blood up and spreads the rest of the night wide with promise.
Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three make more out of 20 minutes than anyone might imagine, tossing chips of melody into webs of rhythm and shaking, stirring, and otherwise agitating until the room seethes with kaleidoscopic joy. It's hard to imagine anything happier than this. New York's Spottiswoode and his Enemies spin daft and dark by contrast, with a few obsessive numbers that might have been penned by Andrew Lloyd Weill for a ragtag draft of Phantom of a Night at the Threepenny Opera.
Paul the Girl, hurting so good.
Deepest of all is a roaring solo set by London's Paul the Girl. In the naked company of a loop pedal or two, Paul's it's-only-fun-until-someone-gets-hurt songs launch her on a staggering trip of feedback and splintered sound. This is music for razor blades and regret, for absinthe laced with laudanum, for a mournful gaze you can't escape. You've had nights like this, but you forgot them by morning. Paul the Girl is a howl just beginning to find her breath, and when she abruptly turns everything off the room practically quakes in the absence of sound.
SXSW - http://2005.sxsw.com/music/
Paul the Girl - http://www.paulthegirl.com/
Charlie Robison - http://www.charlierobison.com/
The Silos - http://www.thesilos.net/
Spottiswoode & his Enemies - http://www.spottiswoode.com/
Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3 - http://www.stevewynn.net/
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