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Back in the Saddle at SXSW 2001
Freedom's Just Another Word for No Bats Under the Bridge
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2001-04-05
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Dateline: Spring Break, Austin, Texas. The city's preening brochures tell us that the Congress Avenue bridge downtown is one-man's-ceiling home to the largest urban population of bats in America. Some trendsetter Mexican tailless bat woke up under there twenty years back with a big smile on his muzzle, and since then 1,499,999 or so of his buddies have joined in for the hang. Still, last time your Mr. Cyrano stationed himself to watch the gang wake at sunset and flit out for their evening constitutional (lucky bats!), there must have been, oh jeepers, nearly a dozen of them. If not more.

In some ways, the grand unfolding of the South by Southwest music conference this year was a little like that.

Urbs Aeterna: The Austin Motel Keeps it Real
So near, yet so far out.

There are a million reasons to love SXSW, and they're all good. The conference is the undisputed honcho of stateside industry gatherings, and it casts a long shadow across the calendars of musicians, label suits, independents, fans, hangers-on, and, we're told, hookers from far and wide. Business is done here, bands are heard, buzz is hummed, parties are thrown. The fatted steer is devoured in every nook and cranny of every eatery and venue in town. Austin itself is simply a gem of a city, chock full of character and catering to every whim and taste.

Turn and Face the Strange Ch-Ch-Changes: But this is a gnarled transition time for the music business, and the SXSW conference follows suit, as it must. There doesn't seem to be much clear direction here this year. The country contingent is at a higher profile, sneaking out of its ghetto at the Continental Club on South Congress and into some regular downtown venues; this fits easily with the splash launch of Universal's Lost Highway Records (no apparent relation to the indie Lost Highway Records out of Nashville), promoting Lucinda Williams, Kim Richey, Ryan Adams and Robert Earl Keen, among others.

The far east pocket of 6th Street is still jam-packed with thrashier punkier stylists, the coffeehouses are still wall-to-wall with acoustic guitars. There's a welcome nod this year to college-circuit bands like Mogwai, Death Cab for Cutie, and 764-HERO, which do indeed pack their shows despite some early skepticism about whether they'll fill rooms absent the all-ages kid crowd. Hip-hop is never a SXSW favorite, but a few groups, including Jurassic 5, are here to give some cred to the proceedings. But still, but still, but still, there's no there here.

Working out the Kinks: Keynote Speaker Ray Davies Poses with his Guitar
He gave a
speech, too, but they wouldn't let us take pictures of that part.

Or perhaps that's the message in short: music in the early Noughties is a fractured mirror, reflecting this and that, all willy-nilly. With the major players obviously far more concerned with stomping Napster and quashing any tremble of creative commerce on the Internet than they are with actually producing any good music, it's no wonder. Even in the corridors of power, can the shadowy execs who suck life out of the public purse really feel good about all the bare-chested boy bellowings and girlsqueak squawks filling the airwaves and mass-market charts? If we're at a point where fans and critics can seriously discuss whether Christina is better than Britney -- and I admit that I've done this myself, after a few beers -- then we've lost a whole war with hardly a skirmish to our credit.

Yesterday Once More: So it comes as no surprise that kinder, gentler yesteryear music is dished up hot for the captains, stewards and footfolk of industry. High on the must-see lists are the reuned Soft Boys, with Robyn Hitchcock in pole position as always. Keynote speaker Ray Davies has no scheduled show in Austin, but he tells his quiet adoring throng not to rule out a latter-day emergence by The Kinks (and he makes a surprise appearance with Neko Case's current project, The New Pornographers). Man-of-many-big-hats David Byrne is in attendance, prepping the masses for his newest release. The Blake Babies are back, and a punked-down Amy Ray is stepping out with her backing band The Butchies. Give us Joe Strummer, Debby Harry, Elvis Costello and a decountrified Nick Lowe and we could almost stroll back down through 1981 with nothing but a few extra pounds to show for it.

Still Crazy After All These Years: Robyn Hitchcock, Performing at the Trade Show
Nothing I could say about Robyn Hitchcock
performing at the trade show would fit in an Alt tag.

The last time Mr. Cyrano really hung one on -- a long story, involving 14 pounds of buffalo meat, the Upper Montclair Country Club, too much mediocre Calvados, and a masseuse -- it took a full day before the poisons leached out and reality quit hurting so bad. I'm thinking about this at the Convention Center, watching an awful lot of subdued sobriety and half-assed promotion, pale smiles.

At the back of the trade show there are unaccustomed empty booths, and not a few business reps are unhappy campers, their wares and interactive displays spread sumptuously out for a very thin crowd -- the Austin equivalent of rain on a beach day. The giddy flamboyance of years past is missing. We've got an Elvis impersonator at one booth, true, and a live chef complete with high toque cooking crepes at another; the Soft Boys play through teeny-tiny amps at the Yahoo! stall for a webcast feature, which is just plain weird. But overall, with the dotcom money bled suddenly out of this picture and the free-ride fellow travelers off snatching after other more lucrative coattails, there's a hangover air in this corner of the ring.

No matter. I didn't come here for the trade show. There's music in them thar clubs.

Music by Day: Ryan Miller of Guster on Karen Glauber's Excellent Radio Promo Panel (that's Karen, from Hits Magazine, in soft focus at left)
Guster Rawks!

Peaking too Soon?: It's the night before the shebang shebangs, and we're tucked down stagefront at the Hole in the Wall for the traditional Swollen Circus pre-showcase antipasto showcase, a sort of tasting platter dished high in 20-minute dollops to make sure the early birds in town show up at tomorrow's registration just as tired and red-eyed as everyone else. We're seeing Mary Lorson tonight, and The Willard Grant Conspiracy, and The Silos and Laura Cantrell, and many more. A misspent year in Dallas long ago left Mr. Cyrano with certain useful quirks, among them an occasional stomach for Tecate in cans when there's no real beer around. It's a Tecate kind of evening in what used to be Celis town. Feels good.

SXSW fixture Beatle Bob, the Fab Fan, is present and accounted for, and warming into his annual blur of kung fu dancing down front. So this must be the place to be. Midway through the moil of music a graceful, proud Chip Taylor steps up to his place at the mike, guitar in hand and a beaming smile on his face. Taylor is a vintage songster, author of the timelessly-sweet "Angel of the Morning," among others (I grew up with the Anne Murray version, and love the brilliantly-current Shaggy rewrite plenty well), and he's got reason to caper. He's back up high on the Billboard charts with a song that seems to have spent more time on the airwaves than off them, lo these 30 years.

Chip off the old Wild Thing: Chip Taylor at the Hole in the Wall
Closer than his peeps he is to Shaggy, right now.

Taylor makes an inevitable wisecrack about the "closer than my peeps" bit, and then eases into the song done as he wrote it. The smoky air is still, and eyes get misty; it's hard not to indulge in a brief sward of philosophical grazing with the thought that yet another generation of kids and lovers and nostalgic dreamers is swaying with these same sweet strains in their hearts. In the din of applause at the song's end Taylor, knowing we're all gladly in his tender grip, calls out that this next tune is a little number he wrote in 1966, and crashes gleefully into "Wild Thing."

If you've ever been startled to hear one of your favorite tunes surface on an oldies station, you'll know something about the ruthless edge of time. If you haven't had this experience yet, you will, and plenty soon -- rock & roll is vicious that way, and takes no prisoners. The part of our brains that handles passing years is small, scrunched up, and lazy, more inclined to toss paper airplanes out the window than to keep proper track of days. "Star Wars" came out nearly 25 years ago; Elvis Costello's "My Aim Is True" was released, on vinyl of course, the same year.

Given, then, that "just the other day" covers nearly all the ground between when I last saw Rebecca at the Irreversible Slacks show on Sunday and when Nixon resigned, the exuberant rush is immediate, cathartic, apostatic, sensifacient, lucubratory, and otherwise polysyllabic. By which I mean that you had to be there, and you should have been. Winding down Q1 of 2001 we're all wrapped up for a moment in our gamboling green younger days, and whacked smack in the heart with the giddy leafing of joy. Of course anyone can sing "Wild Thing," and most do sooner or later. But this is the guy who wrote it. "Sing along if you know the words," Chip grins, and we realize we're already singing, have been since the first stepped crash of the guitar. We bellow, we roar, we fan out in a consternation of harmony. For the length of a song, at least, rock is a bucking rakish beast, and we're all on a ride to last a lifetime. When Taylor finishes and waves goodnight we are wide-eyed, bright, moist. Beatle Bob wipes away a tear, and a moment passes away into legend.

MC Webmaster Pierre turns, practically aglow. "I saw the Troggs in 1967," he crows, and then pauses. "This is the high point of the conference -- and it hasn't even started yet." He's right, more or less. There's a lot of happy trailing in the following nights, but nothing touches that soft deep spot so easily again.

If You Paint it, They Will Come: Mural on the Wall at Emo's
Why, Betty!  I had no idea!

Day dawns, as day will, and it's out to Jo's for counter-culture coffee. A crowd of 6,000 or more is descending on the convention center to pick up laminates and luggy tote sacks packed with papers, booklets, and promo tchochkerai, so we divert to Stubb's barbecue joint for the first of many meats and the first of many meets, organized by Derek Sivers of the Internet indie retailer CD Baby. Buckets dangling from the aging rafters don't do much of a job collecting the visiting rain, but the mood is eager as a few dozen of CD Baby's talents mingle and chat, sharing stories and dreams and trying to make sense of life in independent music. It's a personable way to slip into Conference Mode, in an easy setting for putting faces to names and tunes on a human scale, without the din of the bands that feature loudly at most daytime events. SXSW is gathering on the horizon, building up behind the stormy sky, with all its themes and counterpoints, but we're not quite there yet.

Next week: music in the clubs, music in the streets, music for the soul and music for the tired feets. A Cyrano's-eye-sketch of the bands, parties, people, and panels, with a few side trips for food and fine beer.

About those bats: as it happens, bat-watching season starts a few weeks after SXSW ends. It's said to be a wonderful sight when they all boil out from under the bridge, but we'll have to take it on faith, at least for now.

See you in one.

Number of songs currently filtered on Mr. Cyrano's Napster account: 648
Number of authorized and approved songs on that account blocked by the filtering software: 26
Number of songs with "Elvis" in the file name that can currently be found on Napster: 0
Song that got Mr. Cyrano's Napster account shut down for two weeks by the Orbison publishing company: Rockapella's cover of "Pretty Woman"
Number of times Mr. Cyrano listened to Rockapella's cover of "Pretty Woman": 0

Linkography

SXSW Conference: www.sxsw.com
Austin's bats in brief: austin.citysearch.com/feature/18915/
CD Baby: www.cdbaby.com
Chip Taylor: www.trainwreckrecords.com

Photos of the Austin Motel and Chip Taylor by Pierre Jelenc. The rest by Linus Gelber. Check back Real Soon Now for our full SXSW Photo Gallery.

Home Office Records, home of
Mr. Cyrano.


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