Event Review: SXSW 2006: Teach Your Children Well
20 Years On And Still Dancing Strong
March 15-19, Austin, Texas: The streets and clubs here in Music City are choked with business, with pleasure, and with high crackling energy. If youíre looking for the big time, youíre looking in the right place. Whatís about to unfold is a celebration of two decades of music, music love, and music business: the South by Southwest music conference turns 20 years old this week, and there is much rejoicing. This is the biggest and baddest version of SXSW that Austin has ever seen, and here we are in the thick of it.
Once upon a time back in 1986, in a galaxy far away, a merry band of music lovers decided to grab the world by its vinyl platters and rattle something good out of the mix, in the context of good eats, good drinks, and downhome Texas hospitality. The first SXSW lurched to its feet before a music industry just guessing at the grand lucre in the newest medium in music delivery, the glistening CD.
Twenty years later, the conference is Americaís biggest working shindig for the music industry, with a mighty organizing arm and a wide network of staff and volunteers coping with a record crowd: the numbers arenít precise at press time, but the office tells us there are over 10,500 registrants in town to see more than 1,400 bands in 50+ venues, and thatís not counting the scores of day parties, after-hours shows, hanger-on jamborees, in-stores and more. The sky is probably still falling, but judging by the crowded schedule of events, it wonít be landing any time this year.
Tuesday, Day 0: Sometimes the Swollen Circus unofficial night-before-SXSW revue up at the Hole in the Wall is a weathervane for the days to come, and sometimes itís just a Grand Olí Operetta, a tasting menu of music served up among friends. One way or the other, itís a traditional way to get the juices flowing.
This is Year 11 for the party, put together annually by Walter Salas-Humara of The Silos (New York) and bandman around town Michael Hall(Austin). The hosts have polished their music as smooth as sandalwood grips, and itís as warm in the hand as anyone could ask. The Silos play their rock-edged Americana so easily and with such joyous conviction that they almost look uncomfortable when theyíre off stage; Hall too has his groove down to an art, and together they anchor a wandering evening that stays for the most part to middle ground.
That Dayna Kurtz (Brooklyn) finds her best audience abroad is proof positive that America just doesnít listen - her dark smoky vocals are warm as night, and her bruised songs flutter on the verges of hope, never quite trusting the lay of the land. Sheís the kind of singer who changes the shape of a room in subtle ways, and the short one-two-three format of the Swollen Circus is far too brief a haven.
Jon Dee Graham (Austin) brings the same gravitas to his turn on stage, with eloquent, irresistible loping guitar behind his firm, baked-sand desert vocals. Between them they arenít on stage more than 20 minutes or so. Itís remarkable how much good work can get done in 20 minutes.
The rest of the lightning night is a mixed bag. Some of the better prizes include The Moaners (Chapel Hill), who mix pell-mell chops and spiky swagger into a brief and appealing come-hither get-lost rush, but this isnít their room to win this time out. Don Piper and Matt Keating & Emily Spray hit stride quickly and snatch luminous moments from thick air, and Cordero (New York) freshen the mix with a splash of Latin indie rock that adds a welcome bit of zest to the lineup - they even have a trumpet on board. Itís a sly reminder that music is a pack event, and if youíre not lead dog you may be best off running in a totally different direction.
Cordero - www.corderomusic.com
Jon Dee Graham - www.jondeegraham.com
Michael Hall - www.michaelhall.org
Matt Keating & Emily Spray - http://mattkeating.com
Dayna Kurtz - www.daynakurtz.com
The Moaners - http://themoaners.com
Don Piper - www.adonpipersituation.com
The Silos - http://thesilos.net
Wednesday, Day 1: The Beastie Boys are the luminaries this afternoon if you roll that way, and if you donít, then this is a spin-up-to-speed respite of a prep day. Throngs move relentlessly in on the convention center, eager iron filings in search of a comforting magnet. The first parties launch. Itís days like these that make fatted calves really, really nervous. Moral of that story: Hooves 0, Opposable Thumbs 1, and pass the barbecue sauce.
The BMI-sponsored Day Stage is parked in a useful spot near the coffee stand in the convention center, properly arranged with care and attention, and finely booked. Band Marino (Orlando) beams infectiously through a noontime kickoff set that matches jammy urges with pop sensibility, mixing heartfelt and goofy songs in a grinning winning combination. Paris Motel (London) follows, an airy quintet dressed in a smart yesteryear welter of fedoras, suspenders, and starched shirtsleeves, fronted by dark-haired Amy May on vocals, violin, and smashing red dress. At first I think this is a clever bit of Paris Hilton cheek, but the band is actually named after - get this - a motel in Paris, which figures into the lyrics of their first number. Their dreamy lounge-a-billy goes down easy, and in fine style.
Austin By Night: The Carrots (Austin) lift their schtick from schtick gone by, which makes it feel fresh again: theyíre a girl band, and for the most part they cover girl band hits. Holding the mirror up to nature passes for irony these days, and they handle their material with respect but not reverence. The unpolished homespun air is probably unintentionally historically accurate, and though they go by Prude, Rude, 'Tude, Crude, Nude, and Lewd, in fact theyíre all well-behaved and tastefully turned out. The Carrots are a charming one-trick outfit, but itís a fine trick, and they have time to learn new ones. Down at the far creekside end of 6th Street, Sean Costello (Atlanta) is unleashing some mighty guitar blues - heís been a first-water sideman, and heís a performer who lets the music coil through him as he plays.
Itís not SXSW until I see Cruiserweight, a local pop-punk whirlwind quartet that bounded onto my must-dance card a few years back. Singer Stella Maxwell is a blaze of energy on stage as always, tuneful and mocking and self-mocking and earnest and irrepressible all at once. With her brothers Urny and Yogi making order out of chaos on guitar and drums - and their friend Dave on bass - theyíre anthemic, sweet, and faintly risky, like Teletubbies for the young 20-something set.
Running purely on the strength of Band Names That Make Me Smile, I detour to catch a few songs by , who turns out to be Sam Duckworth (Essex/Southend), Sam Duckworthís guitar, and a set of backing computer tracks. Heís got a big skilled voice and an appealing honesty on stage, and when he breaks into little dances you feel like youíre intruding into his private rock-star fantasy. It works.
My favorite first taste of the night is Coach Said Not To (St. Paul), an unexpected quartet of women who sing boppy and slightly dotty songs pitched carefully between novelty and import, and rendered in pleasant and partially-deconstructed fashion. Thereís suburbia in this band. Not the suburbia of Stepford pacing and whitebread tastes, but the suburbia of half-finished rec rooms and cluttered garages: you might find anything in there, if you root around enough. All that, and spangly tops. It doesnít get much better than this, at least not on a Wednesday.
Band Marino - http://bandmarino.net
The Carrots - www.myspace.com/thecarrots
Coach Said Not To - www.coachsaidnotto.com
Sean Costello - www.seancostello.com
Cruiserweight - www.cruiserweight.com
Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly - http://getcapewearcapefly.co.uk
Paris Motel - www.parismotel.co.uk/
Thursday, Day 2: Thursday is Celebrity Day at SXSW, and before the sun sets over Town Lake, the convention center hosts Neil Young and Jonathan Demme in a keynote interview, reconstituted Manchester Mozzer Morrissey, a twinkling and practical k.d. lang, Eminence Grise Kris Kristofferson, and a few other notables along the way. Theyíre all worthy and fascinating, and each is worth an article of his or her own. At the same time their details and moments arenít entirely relevant - in a larger sense, the fact of Morrissey is more important than what Morrissey might actually be here to say today. In an even larger sense still - Morrissey? Isnít this supposed to be 2006?
In the era of geriatric Rolling Stones and the flinching morning-after irony of lines like ďHope I die before I get oldĒ and ďDie young, stay pretty,Ē itís commonplace to note that rock and roll got old somewhere along the way. Business-session audiences at the conference skew older, but come night in the venues the popular crowds, in a word, donít. Considering that neither group has much idea what the other is up to, itís a funny state of affairs. Watching the venerable soft parade of speakers from this vantage at the 20th anniversary of SXSW - Iím on my ninth year at the conference - I feel like Iím sitting courtside by the net. Each volley comes from one generation or the other, and everyoneís best attempts at communication just involve smacking the ball back where it came from.
If thereís one thing to take from today, itís a lesson in grace. Whatever the excesses of their early careers, or the twists and turns of their middle ones, the artists here in their maturity are firm in their gifts, secure in their talents, and dedicated to the craft of their art. Time is a self-correcting process, of course - Mrs. Kevin Federline wonít be appearing as a SXSW speaker any time soon - but itís hard to look at the careers and gifts of these artists without doing a few unfavorable comparisons to the charting bands of recent times. Hey, I know. Iím just sayiní.
Neil Youngís advice to the aspiring: ďBe true to yourself. Donít concern yourself with your peers.Ē If you try too hard to trap and waylay a song, he says, ďyouíre gonna lose.Ē And when a song is done, itís done. Donít tweak it to death. He speaks of songs as fickle, timid houseguests - ďYou trick them into coming by making a nice place for themĒ - and urges artists to live the lives of artists, freeing themselves from commitments and ties. Itís easier said than done.
Austin By Night: Midway through the day I slip out for a breath of fresh music at the Wildflower Records day party at Maggie Maeís. Iím there long enough for a few numbers by Amy Speace (New York), one of the recent flagship Wildflower signings. Amyís luxurious voice is a honeyed match for her honest writing - I imagine her setting a nice room to put future songs at ease, a la Neil Young. Itís not hard to picture. Backed by her star band The Tearjerks, Amy is smack in the Americana zone, at the junction of pop and rock, alt.country and folk, torch and tinderbox. Itís a music for all seasons.
Eighteen floors up is plenty high for Austin, and the stretch of city lights below is a pretty backdrop in the upstairs lounge at the Capitol Place hotel. I dig in for the count. Persephoneís Bees (Oakland, CA) make a dark, tactile music, sleekly redolent of bands like Garbage but with a reckless, raunchy edge. Angelina Moysov fronts the Bees with an air of exotic Old-Country Tolstovian flavor - think Shirley Manson with a glaze of wanton, laugh-while-you-can Grace Slick salted in. ďI havenít been this sweaty since I left Russia 13 years ago,Ē she says after one rousing song. Iíll drink to that. Their major label debut, Notes from the Underworld, is out presently on Columbia Records.
Magnet (Bergen, Norway) lays down layers of solo live looping sound on electric guitar, banjo, and lap steel, painting moody shifting settings for his careful songs. He starts his show simply, without much in the way of tech. ďIím Magnet,Ē he says, ďand you are the audience, and I think this is going to be just fine.Ē Half an hour later the room throbs with rough noise, as of great beasts crunching past on hard soil. Denmarkís Tina Dico follows with a chameleon set - sheís trim and model-pretty with a confident air, easy to like and hard to penetrate. When her songs take a turn for the deep, the change is unexpected. Her poise falters artfully, her face is suddenly bare, the easy shield of beauty is as much a lock as it once seemed a key. Itís a fine and canny performance, though whether itís art imitating life or the other way around is anyoneís guess.
Iíve been thinking about age and generations all evening, so I smile when (Boston), toward the end of their arty hit ďCoin Operated Boy,Ē flawlessly simulate a skip in the music, as if they were a stuck phonograph record repeating, repeating, repeating. The crowd - the very college-age crowd - goes wild. Have these people ever owned a record player, I wonder? Does this have any relevant meaning to them, or is it an artefact, a cultural echo stuck in the national mind? The Dollsí usual pop-Brechtian Kabarett styling is toned down tonight. Theyíve strayed perilously close to precious in the past, so Iím pleased to see them pull a peg or two from column Art and move it to column Booty.
Call the computer a radio, and ďHey Now NowĒ by The Cloud Room (Brooklyn) went into heavy rotation on my desktop last year. Tonight is my first time seeing the band live. Theyíve got that fashionable weedy thin hipster look, and the chops to follow it up - the single is an astonishing song, and they have a sneaky set full of other pop confections that may not be as sweet, but swallow easily enough. Note to self: itís silly to go all the way to Austin to see bands from home, but sometimes the candy tastes better abroad.
The Cloud Room - www.thecloudroom.com
Tina Dico - www.tinadico.com
The Dresden Dolls - www.dresdendolls.com
Magnet - www.homeofmagnet.com
Persephoneís Bees - www.persephonesbees.com
Amy Speace - www.amyspeace.com
Friday, Day 3: Itís hard to imagine two more different women than the star speakers of todayís day session: Chrissie Hynde has the bigger crowd, and Judy Collins the more expansive soul. Thereís no comparing the two, of course - Hynde is the prototypical rock Bad Girl and Collins the free-spirit songbird, and where one grew up in the early Boho of downtown New York the other is, well, from Akron. One probably thought that love could save us all, and the other knew it couldnít.
Judy Collins is properly paired with Pete Fornatale, a longtime radio DJ in New York City and currently host of the Mixed Bag Radio show. Their conversation is like a directed catching-up session between friends whoíve been on different paths in recent years. Judy is forthcoming about her prima ballerina role in the formative years of the Greenwich Village folk scene - she discovered Leonard Cohen when heíd completed just two songs, and was an early adopter of Joni Mitchellís music; sheís famously the Judy of the Stephen Stills classic ďSuite: Judy Blue Eyes.Ē She reflects lightly on 24 label-years with Elektra, which is a mighty track record, and looks ahead with her own new label, Wildflower Records. In the course of their talk Collins sings a few lines here and there, which is a rarity, oddly enough, at music conferences. By the time she leads the auditorium in a verse of ďAmazing GraceĒ the room is rapt, inspired, and warmed by the gentle radiance of a life lived in music.
About face: Pretenders bandleader Chrissie Hynde is all spikes and bony edges, which is no real surprise. Sheís barely on stage a heartbeat when she declines to sit in the regulation SXSW suede chair, on animal-products grounds, and from there on out sheís got her guns blazing all the way down. Rock journalist Bill Flanagan tries to moderate, but moderating Chrissie Hynde is a little like asking the fire nicely to stay away from all that dry crackly tinder. Sheís a woman who does not brook compromise, and frankly itís more fun that way.
Early on she plays more cards than she may mean to, noting that in her day you didnít start a band to join trends, you started a band to buck them (subtext: if you didnít have the band you might not have any friends at all). Itís a hole card often missed when people look back on the rise of punk, and it illuminates much of the talk that follows. In todayís play-along business of monetized streams and social lube, punk is a packaged lifestyle product and there arenít a lot of real rebels left. Scratch that - there arenít a lot of real rebels who have talent to back it up. Hynde is obstreperous and often unpleasant, but she also runs deep. Oh, and for the record: she did not hit Carly Simon. Mostly.
Austin By Night: I have no idea why I get in line for Arctic Monkeys - thereís no chance Iíll get into La Zona Rosa for the biggest nobodyís-heard-them-yet buzz-band at the conference, and itís no surprise when I donít. If the grapevine tells true, thatís probably for the best. Apart from the Monkeys, this is still crunch night at venues all over town. Everyone whoís coming in for SXSW is here by now, hardly anyone has left yet, and there are gruntling lines at just about every musical door. My mission: avoid them.
The Japanese contingent here is always garish and interesting, and tonight there is a showcase of traditional music on the east side of town. Keisho Ohno (Niigata), clad in ceremonial garb that makes me think a bit of Vulcan ambassadors (I am blissfully ignorant of Japanese sartorial culture), mixes shamisen music with regulation Western instruments, and comes up with a rich jazz-jam Jade Warrior fusion sound. His obvious glee at striking Western rock-god poses is infectious.
The shamisen, for those who donít ride the New York subways, is a three-stringed guitar-like operation played with a large pick that looks a bit like a putty knife. It also features in the performance of Umekichi (Tokyo), whose Edo-style work is far more foreign to Western ears and whose measured and paced performance is completely fascinating. I donít pretend to understand the lay of the land in her set, but Umekichi is entrancing in a pea-green kimono and florid obi, with a layered hairdo threaded with combs and hanging decorations, all set off by a modern hands-free headset microphone. She enters at a ritual pace, her zori shoes clacking on the floor. There is a choreography to removing them, and then she opens a silk parasol in a mincing, declarative dance. Itís probably 10 minutes before she mounts her waist-high platform, kneels, picks up the electric shamisen, and begins to play. I gather we are watching the lingering art of the geisha. Whatever it is, it is detailed and spellbinding, attentive and strange. Itís good to remember that music thrives outside the natty lines of mass commerce.
Itís late, and time for a seat up front and a quality beer. That means the Elephant Room, where Iím told Norah Jones dropped by earlier to listen a bit and talk to friends (and, presumably, to have a quality beer). After a loud ramble through the nearby Red Bull House, complete with a skritchy appearance by the unstoppably trendy Lady Sovereign (London), who Iím sure is very nice if you get to know her, I make it over in time for the final evening showcase and a large glass of Kwak. Elana James and her Hot Hot Trio (Austin) are on; Elana is a winsome, lively performer blessed with a catchy smile, a businesslike guitarist, and a sizzling slapback player on the doghouse bass, and the hot hot three of them are doing just the kind of violin-a-billy cowtown swing thing that makes a Texas pint of Belgian beer feel like home.
Arctic Monkeys - www.arcticmonkeys.com
Elana James and her Hot Hot Trio - www.elanajames.com
Lady Sovereign - www.ladysovereign.com
Keisho Ohno - www.keisho.info
Umekichi - http://www.satoh-k.co.jp/ume/
Saturday, Day 4: Who knows where the time goes? Every year SXSW is over almost before it begins, leaving no sign of passing apart from the soft edges where my shoes have worn down and the - hey look, my pants have shrunk. Again. I hate when that happens.
Spatters of rain leave the streets quiet and empty. On my way to the Press Room I pass a file of six Segway riders, tootling down the deserted pavement in their crash helmets. One of the downsides to wall-to-wall day parties is a loss of center: some of the best business (and all of the best catering) happens off-site, and the draw out into Austinís weather, especially for those of us with winter back home, is hard to resist. Apart from the celebrity worship sessions, attendance this year feels even more attenuated than usual, with critical mass drawn off to day-show venues and events all over the city. This town, as the sages once said, is coming like a ghost town - at least on Saturday morning in the convention center.
Also possible: perhaps everyone was out til 5:00 in the morning and they are currently in bed, moaning. Itís a solid working theory.
When I first came to SXSW, it was the splashy mid-stride of the dotcom ka-boom, and every zealous prospector on the young World Wide Web was sharking up domain names and turning virtual real estate into some kind of new music portal - for only $25.99 a year! And so forth. We had content, and mainstream business wanted to barter for it. Then the Napster days crashed in, and traditional entertainment venues belatedly realized that something had to be done about those pesky Internets. We had property, and mainstream business wanted to control it.
Now, with p2p on the wane and the sharecropper music model easing back into place, weíve got hopes and dreams, and the starmaker machinery couldnít care less, so long as weíre willing to mortgage them. Business is back to usual, and it doesnít seem inclined to too much scrutiny. There is this for comfort, though: at the Blogs Gone Wild panel, which gathers a few feisty and seminal mp3 blogging pioneers together for a fits-and-starts discussion, thereís some confusion in the audience about what one of these here blog things might be good for. In some ways at least, the more things change, the longer it stays 1998.
KT Tunstall (London/Scotland) is everyoneís dream girl archetype - at last yearís SXSW she was invisible, an unknown lone performer in a sea of lone performers. Now, a cool million UK album unit sales later, sheís proof positive that thereís still some mojo left in this crazy world. She isnít wacky, or topless, or an heiress, or a scandal. Sheís 30, not 21. Sheís just - get this - talented. Itís a crazy idea, but it just might work.
Last night the lines for her Blender Bar showcase were so long and ragged it looked like a riot was brewing outside. I cadge an invite to see her at the Launch day-party from a friend, and we settle in for lunch and tunes. In her recordings, KT has a husky and intimate voice, a peppered mix of Shivaree and Professor and Maryann. The warehouse venue is too boomy to let her vibrant songs connect in a visceral way - itís loud, but not clear - but what comes across with clarity is her utter dedication to all the moments of her show.
Austin By Night: Word is that Lovejoys is closing, except for the word that Lovejoys is not closing. Itís a conundrum. In the meantime, Lovejoys is still the best bar in Austin if youíre a certain kind of person, namely me, and for the half hour or so that Exit Clov (Washington, DC) plays an unofficial showcase there, theyíre the best band in town. A woven five-piece led by identical twins Susan and Emily Hsu on vox, violins, keys, and guitar, Exit Clov is delightful, packing an omnivoreís mash of influences under their shimmering harmonic finish. I hear scraps of Tegan and Sara, of Haircut 100, of the Go-Gos, of Renaissance. There are even snippets that could be out-takes from Jesus Christ Superstar. Next up is The Slip (Boston), and they launch their set with toy instruments played through guitar pickups and a rhythm groove thumbed on a tin can with rubber bands stretched around the ends. This is SXSW as I love it best - a little weird, and sounding great.
The outdoor stage at Habana Calle 6 is too small for Dressy Bessy (Denver), an outfit known for sweet tunes and ransacking volume, but the inconvenience turns handy - my ears survive the show in good perky fettle, and the hint of sugar helps the medicine go down. Glum fans cluster outside the at-capacity venue, but at least they can hear the music. Further west along 6th Street a grave guy hands over a flyer with such heart and aplomb that I start to feel guilty on line at the Best Wurst sausage place (where nitrates are your friends). I turn back to catch half a set by Humbert (Hialeah, FL) after all. The show is part madcap - and in fact singer Firny sports a mad cap, which looks like it was on a nun not long ago - and part soulful, an endearing and healthy combination.
Itís a close thing, but French of Magneta Lane (Toronto) turns out to be the Sexiest Bass Player of SXSW 2006. I know you needed to know that. The bandís publicity dwells on contrasts - angels and devils, the sublime, the profane, opposites attract, iron fist, velvet glove. At the end of the day, itís just captivating to be inside the perimeter when they detonate. Call their music indie rock, and place it somewhere between the schoolyard and the garage. As the air calms after their set I ease over to French, who is putting away her pedals.
Me: You know, itís the ballet slippers that really make your outfit.
French nods and smiles kindly, gracefully accepting praise.
Me: (encouraged) Itís sort of whimsical - you know, you have the dress-down top and the jeans - from the audience you almost donít see the ballet shoes until later, and it changes the vibe, changes the whole perception of you. Itís clever. Well done.
French nods again, looking a bit cloudy now. Oops, perhaps Iím being a creep.
Me: Anyway, I just wanted to say that Ė
French: I canít hear a word youíre saying. Sorry. Loud up here.
The faithful are at Stubbs seeing The Pretenders, so the rest of downtown is a little easier to deal with tonight. I have an ambitious plan to spackle the hour with a last burst of energy - if I time it right I may squeeze in four, five, who knows, maybe 50 bands, so long as I donít bother to listen to them. What can I say. The last day of SXSW can be hard on a sleepy brain; the road to hell is paved with unbought stuffed dogs. Happily the plan crashes in flames as soon as The Twenty Twos (NYC) dive headlong into their soundcheck - this band is so good that Iím not leaving until theyíre finished. Even then I may have to stick around to see if they change their minds.
The Twenty Twos are Jenny Christmas, Terrah Schroll, Hannah Moorhead, and drummer Jonny Cragg (ex of Spacehog). Trim, trendy, sharp-eyed and sharp-edged, they are pretty much what would walk off the page if you sketched three dimensions of Rockrgrl, applied personality and magic powder, and wished really really hard. Their music is lanky and brimming with urban swagger, and it keeps its own counsel. The lead instruments donít so much trade off as they accommodate one another; the sound isnít so much noised as it is spiked.
Thereís a lot to like here, and uniquely among all the artists Iíve watched this week the Twenty Twos have this rare quality - by the time their set is done, theyíve convinced me that they are just the best band Iíve ever seen. This is not strictly true, if you want to get technical about it. But for tonight, it serves. Tonight, Iím a believer. Tonight, SXSW ends right here, on a high point.
Dressy Bessy - www.dressybessy.com
Exit Clov - www.exitclov.com
Humbert - www.humbert.net
Magneta Lane - www.paperbagrecords.com/magnetalane
The Slip - www.theslip.com
KT Tunstall - www.kttunstall.com
The Twenty Twos - www.thetwentytwos.com
SXSW - http://2006.sxsw.com/music
Picture Roundup - http://www.flickr.com/photos/linus/sets/72057594088224173/
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