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Back in the Saddle at SXSW 2001
The Good, The Bad and the Sexy: This Year's Music at SXSW
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2001-04-17
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Dateline: Austin, Texas. When we last saw Texas in this space in Part I, the fearful beeves were lowing in panic, stampeding north in futile flight from the hungry barbecue pits of the music industry. The sun was creeping down over a happy crowd at Stubb's, the first beers of evening were pouring, and it was time to walk tall into that good South by Southwest night. Destination: music.

Where There's Smoke There's Barbecue: Mr. Cyrano with the Salt Lick Mobile Barbecue Machine (yum)
Cow is just Barbecue writ short.

Regular visitors to the OK Corral over here know that Mr. Cyrano never takes in a big well-publicized show if there's a scrappy little underdog gig nearby. So if you came for the skinny on David Byrne, Los Super Seven, Matthew Sweet, or any of the other luminary stars in South by Southwest's constellation, well, we had other more obscure plans. Cya. No hard feelings.

Color by Numbers: The ur-trendy head out to tap to 86ed at the Austin Music Awards, VH1 takes over Stubb's for its Bands on the Run showcase scheme, and our first stop is with New York's pastel pop parcel Perforated Head at the spacious Buffalo Billiards, where your drink comes perched on an 8-ball coaster. Perforated Head does a snappy set of punky spiky pop, a happy alloy of hung-down Clashic supple driving rhythms with the melodic sense of Smashing Pumpkins in their most tuneful Mellon Collie moments. Each of the five band members is conveniently color-coded on stage, so you can pick up their CD (or visit their terrific Web site) and play along at home, matching Lois there in the pink, and Tim in the green, and Dre in the orange (not pictured are Mitch in purple and Dawn in blue. Collect 'em all). This is a band in need of Action Figures.

Color Me Perforated: New York's Perforated Head in a Potpourri of Pastels
If you don't see these colors, the trouble may be in your set.

It's an auspicious start. Perforated Head's performance is crisp as a good wrist move on the downstairs pool tables, sharply played with high energy and obvious fun. Whatever they're singing about -- the lyrics are buried deep in the exuberance -- they're treating it with full conviction, squeezing out all the possible sparks. There's not a weak patch in their music, and among the strengths the strongest is drummer Dawn McGrath, pigtails flying and sticks ablur.

Peen and the Ashes: Down the street at Maggie Mae's four affable boys in jeans, loud ties and shirtsleeves are looking collegiate in that "Animal House" glazed kind of way, and they're making a hell of a racket. We squeeze in for part of a set by Austin's own The Peenbeets, an affable squall of a band leaping around in the same musical pagoda that The Dickies and Blotto once called home. Making the most of their hometown advantage, The Peenbeats roll out a series of short, spunky numbers, each one skewed slightly off the main, addressing for the most part the lighter side of the I'm-a-boy wonder of dating, trying to date, and what those girl things are all about anyway ("Welcome to My Bedroom").

Their music is powerful loud and a bit ragged at the sleeves, but the humor is high and good, and there's not much you can do wrong in a two-minute song that comes with a wink and a grin. After a brief commercial break ("Ooooh, we all love INSERT RECORD LABEL NAME HERE / because they signed The Peenbeats") the band rolls out a gleeful tune called "Girl, I Just Wanna Borrow Your Vacuum." We're betting they have other things on their minds, but their rehearsal room probably is kind of messy.

Nature Abhors a Vacuum (But The Peenbeats Don't)
Like the man says, you have to love a good
prop.

A funny thing happens on the way to the morning. Mr. Cyrano's usual SXSW modus is to circle a few catchy moments in the program and then to wander ever further afield into the sweet leas of obscurity, there to unearth treasures. These past few years this has been easy; Austin has been replete with worthy if not always viable music, from the headline clubs down to the tiniest portable stages.

This year, I run smack into bad bands. It's a shock.

There's a tier system for SXSW music. At the top are the big acts and up-and-comers, easy targets the major label folks want you to see. A notch down you have the artists the fans are pushing to catch, the unpredictable L7's who draw hardcore music lovers and the cooler industry folk. Down a notch again are the eager biz showcases by bands with a lot going for them but a lot of hard road still between them and the full picture. Draw your Industry Line in that patch of sand, and on the far side of it are the wild, the woolly, the unkempt, the interesting, the awful but interesting, and all the rest of the Grand Ball. It's been a listener's market.

Which Blind Man is Cyrano?: There are 1,000 bands and more (1,001 and more counting The Cult, which notoriously plays the invite-only Revolver magazine party without sanction from the SXSW doyens) over the five festival days of this conference, and it's hard to credit any single view of the proceedings. So take these comments with a grain of salt, ideally on the rim of a fine margarita (Herradura Añejo, Cointreau, mmmm). Any one vantage leads to the Elephant Problem: you take those three famous blind fellows and set them to describing an elephant by touch. The one feeling the tail says it's like a rope, the one with the flank says it's like a tapestry, the one with the trunk says it's like a hose. Then the elephant gets angry, and next year the blind guys don't get invited back.

Stew with a Beef: I Thought it was About the Songs
There are an awful lot of Mark Stewarts in
music.

I have the unknown underside floppy part of SXSW, and it feels weird. For one thing, where are the girls? Group after group of earnest loud guys with choppy guitars or grim electronics is doing the Thing in club after club. The attire is post-grunge prol drab, the hair is conservative, the vocals are earnest and often creepy (please don't tell me musicians are listening to Creed too, now), the vibe nondescript. The most exasperating of the acts shoegaze beyond the call of duty, poking listlessly at their instruments. Once in a while someone does something exciting, like sit on the floor.

Maybe it's a movement.

After carefully weighing all of the available options I do what any responsible writer in my place would do, and go to Lovejoy's for a beer. I've hardly dented my pint of Atlas Stout when MC Webmaster Pierre comes in. He's reached the same conclusion via some different clubs. "There's no music," he shrugs, pulling up a stool. "So I figured it was time for beer." There's some half-hearted discussion on the merits of going to see the late Fastball show, but we all know what's paved with good intentions.

Sing No Evil: Opening his entrancing set a few nights later at Speakeasy, Stew has the same problem. Singer and anchor for L.A.'s intricate and ironic pop-rock outfit The Negro Problem (which did a striding rock cover of Kraftwerk's "Autobahn" here at SXSW in 1998 and pulled it off with real aplomb), now embarked on a mostly-solo mission, Stew is truly a man of words. He's got some harsh ones about the flock of soundalike musicians gathered here in Austin, with their gas-station shirt uniforms and their lackadaisical songsmithing. This sounds like the gruntling of reverse schadenfreude with a light nose of sour grapes, but when Stew gets down to singing it's hard not to agree with him. He is, in a word, brilliant.

Who's That Girl: Heather Eatman, Making it Look Easy
But the guitar stays the same,
as well it should.

Flanked by bassist Heidi Rodewald (ex-Wednesday Week), Stew sizes us up with some suspicion, and then begins to sing. "The naked Dutch painter in the kitchen doesn't want to fuck you," he starts off, silencing the room with his very first line. This song escalates, as his canny poignant pieces do, growing into a funny and bent consideration of love in all the wrong graces. For his second song he moves on to a celebration of Ken of the Barbie and Ken couple. "My name's Ken / And I like men," he sings, the very picture of gravitas and poise. In and among the laughter I can't help but think of press dolls Tom and Nicole. But that's just me.

By the time Stew reaches "Rehab," his hilarious disapproving cautionary tale about the culture of dependence and moral poverty so typified by L.A., we're utterly won over. Stew's writing is so facile, his delivery so honest, his spirit so spiky and generous, that much of what we've seen so far turns pale in memory. I'm won over just as finely by Heather Eatman in her set at The Hideout (where, on Sunday afternoon, the nice people behind the counter will try to kill me with a cuppa so caffeinated you can hear it crinkling). With made-over hair and a made-over wardrobe since we last covered her, and with a new album under her belt and working its certain way to release, Heather has lost none of her power and none of her knack for quick incisive observation. She is both awkwardly nervous and easily confident on stage, a charming combo.

Meanwhile, Back at the Convention Center: Keynote speaker Ray Davies is a prognosticator. At the start of the first daytime SXSW session, he's already as tired as the rest of us will be in a few days. Taking a brief spell from his European tour he flew to Austin to address the conference, and in another day or two he'll be back on a plane to pick up playing again.

Hello Kitty: Drama of the Switchblade Kittens, in Splendor
It's her natural hair color.  Honest.

Davies is a warm, jet-lagged and, as it turns out, apt pick for the keynote spot: at first look he seems beyond the twisty reach of Industry politics, but he speaks candidly about the process of recording his next album. How, he wonders, can Ray Davies go and top yesterday's Ray Davies in today's marketplace? Mr. Cyrano is particularly intrigued when he talks about characters in music. In a brief foray as a record exec, Davies tried to sign Vincent Price for an album, and he laments that he couldn't get Jackie Gleason's signature character Ralph Kramden under contract.

In a closed press conference later, Davies shows himself to be a balanced, unruffled and private career professional. He nods at questions about today's hot little issues, and when asked pointedly what he thinks of people who are downloading old Kinks music from Napster he comments that "they must be very boring people with a lot of time on their hands." Bravo, Ray. Asked what the difference might be between Gary Glitter, Britney Spears, and Lola -- a high-five for the most senselessly intriguing question I've possibly ever heard -- he considers for a moment before coming up with "Two of them wear underpants." He reminisces fondly about package tours, which squeezed the emerging hot acts of the time (and the superstars of a few years later) into a few busses and set them off together on the road, mingling talents like the Kinks, Ronnie Spector and The Yardbirds in music and low-budget cavorting. Finally, when asked with grave respect what activities or pursuits apart from his music give him real joy, Davies looks firm. "I've never had joy," he says, and that's that.

Johnny Got His Guitar: It's possible that Johnny Dowd is the strangest and most mesmerizing man in America. In a good way.

There's a solid crowd to see him at La Zona Rosa, one of Austin's premier venues, and your Mr. Cyrano is happy to see it. Johnny Dowd has been touring and building up a mass of ecstatic if sometimes puzzled press, and yesterday's oddball is rapidly becoming today's iconoclast. He's a reedy, craggy man, with the air of a genteel rebel, a Harry Dean Stanton of dark and murky Americana.

Johnny Dowd: Darkness Under the Lights
In the pink of condition?

Dowd writes labyrinthine, evocative pieces that lie closer to free-verse poetry than they do to standard popular songs, and he delivers them in a voice that teeters always on the edge of untold violence and has all the tokens of a long acquaintance with dread. He is The Cramps distilled with the essence of Gregory Corso; his songs are a soundtrack for a film David Lynch hasn't made yet but dreamed of once on a powerful night when the moon was full but obscured by clouds. He is Sam Shepard in "Homo Faber." He is the last-minute cut-away and the slapback return in "Un Chien Andalou."

Dowd is by nature a man of few words, chosen well. A Texas native living now in upstate New York, he summarizes decades of life on his Web pages with this grand pithy comment: "Army, marriage, divorce -- the usual mixture of stupidity, glory, and bad habits." On stage he is weaving a dark tale full of twisted folk wisdom, pain, and honor lost, rolling and smoking cigarettes as he goes, with the band churning away under the streaming patchwork light show. The song winds and twists, shouts and hoots, and finally touches down to close. It feels like a Pink Floyd album side with the correct medicinal enhancements. It's been, what? Ten minutes? Fifteen? An hour? There's a huge release, the crowd exhaling as one. "And now song 2," Johnny says, or words to that effect: I've been tripping too far down his path to have a pen and paper at hand. It seems incredible that there could be another. But there is.

Shifting Gears: We're at the Iron Cactus seeing the Switchblade Kittens, the colorful L.A. straight-edge power-pop punk band that caught Mr. Cyrano's eyes and ears at the Rockrgrl Music Conference in Seattle last fall. Fronted by rainbow-banged Drama, sporting a safety pin through one nostril this evening, and with Raina and Pep and Soda on bass and bass and drums (they use a signal-processed bass instead of guitar), the Skittens play a melodic pumping stick-to-your-head music that brings early Go-Go's songs to mind. They do a teasing pleasing flat-out show, lightly primped and primed with a sly bland wink in the mix. The Switchblade Kittens moonlight as Web cartoon characters in an animated series for teens, and though this crowd is largely adult (there's some fond high-school-days maneuvering at the door to get a few youngsters past the gauntlet) there's not the least resistance to their charming set.

Drama is not a sitting-still kind of girl, and soon enough she's jumping up and down atop one of the amps. She and Pep, the boy in the band, take turns leaping off it. Then she's out in the crowd, trying to stir up a lame mosh pit before curling to the floor, where she sings part of a song. Sprawled on her back at our feet, gazing upward with her hair fanned out, she composes, by accident or intent, a powerful and disturbing momentary image, crashing together the public and the private, the sexual and the innocent, in a prurient pulpy mash of pushed buttons.

Coast to Coast to Austin: Shawn Amos (left) and Robert Burke Warren
Acoustic doesn't mean it doesn't rock 'em and
roll 'em.

Shifting Gears: We're at Waterloo Brewery for acoustic sets by New York City's Robert Burke Warren (visited last fall in this column) and Angeleño Shawn Amos. As ever, Robert is graceful, gracious and imposing playing solo, singing a poet's songs of life rooted in the South. This does not, sadly, make much of an impression on the noisy mob playing the video game at the corner of the bar -- can't we turn this thing off during SXSW, ferpetesake? -- and whole chunks of his strong set are overwhelmed by evil shrieks and whoops.

Robert's writing is clustered and detailed, like a fan that shows its fine colors only when unfurled, like a bird with a flash of brilliance on the underwing, seen only in flight. He writes stuff that Stew would like, I'm thinking. He has a grasp of Southern down-home vernacular that meshes delicately with expected songwriting diction (he can get away with calling whiskey "brown liquor," for example), and the results are powerful and memorable. Warmed by his supple deep voice, and given ample room in performances both solo and with his band Turpentine, Robert's music is straight heartland Americana: it wears a cowboy hat and favors slide guitar, and sometimes it talks a little like a yokel, but don't let that fool you. If Paul Simon grew up outside Atlanta instead of up here in Queens, he'd sound a lot like this.

Each year at SXSW there's an artist who springs out with a set of moving stuff too late after too much, when Mr. Cyrano's buffers are full and his eyes are glassed over, when his feet are tender and ouchy and his back is fusing into something that looks like the letter "K" (creak, creak), after his brain has been rubbed smooth with the mental equivalent of steel wool. Last year it was Johnny Dowd, who was so good that I had to leave immediately. This year's honors go to Shawn, who sings with driven feeling and complexity and intensity and confuses me awfully when all my head can handle is, say "Mmm-bop." (Did you know that song actually has words? I was shocked to find this out. Anyway, even "Mmm-bop" might be a stretch at this point.)

Spooning the Night Away: Britt Daniel of Austin's Spoon
Floats like a butterdish, cuts like a knife.

Shifting Gears: We're at Mercury for Spoon, hard-luck Austin heroes playing out to a packed floor. There's not that much hard luck in the tale, but after a major-label album that didn't sell to major-label expectations this terrific group was dropped by Elektra and floated a bit before landing a deal with Merge Records. TANJ and TANSTAAFL confounded. There's a palpable sense in town that Spoon should be the Next Big Thing by now, and maybe the town knows best: singer and guitar guy Britt Daniel just about oozes star quality, the music is tight, and this room is a muggy happy surging box of goodwill and good feeling.

Spoon is a lanky band, coiled and springy. With a sound somewhere between Eels and The Kinks, they have a scrumpy air, a bit rumpled and a bit reserved. Their guitar-driven pop has been out and about since '94. When, wondered one of the local papers this morning, when is someone going to make this band really famous? It's a good question.

Where Are They Now: Another good question is this -- where are the rest of Austin's heroes? The city is well-represented in the SXSW lineup, as it should be. But looming large in absentia are Cotton Mather, twangy popsters currently working an overseas record deal; 8-1/2 Souvenirs, the quirky rockabilly-and-swing group with a French café flavor; and most of all perky irrepressible Trish Murphy, who stuck in her thumb last year and pulled out a plum of a slot at La Zona Rosa when she was still signed to Mercury Records and touring nationally. Now that Mercury isn't quite what it once was and Trish has been merged out of her contract, she's nowhere to be found on the program. Her only conference-time gig is a non-SXSW event down south of town, a tricky commute for those of us without wheels. What's that about? Trish, if you're out there, Mr. Cyrano misses you.

SXSW Makes Strange Bedfellows: Temptress (left) and Sean Eiferman of Epstein's Mother
OK, you probably knew which one was Temptress without me having to
say Left.

Coming Next Week: It wouldn't be SXSW without the risqué rowdiness of Temptress, Boston's bawdy tranny-rock band. Pictured above, Temptress introduces Epstein's Mother singer Sean Eiferman at the annual afternoon Green Brothers showcase. Mr. Cyrano's SXSW trilogy concludes next week with an annotated photo gallery, including mandatory whip-and-handcuff pix with the Temptress stage show girls, The Nasty Habits. Who did their very best not to get naked.

See you in one.

Mr. Cyrano's Austin restaurant & brewery pick: The Bitter End
Mr. Cyrano's Austin bar & brewery pick: Lovejoy's
Mr. Cyrano's favorite place to get gumbo in Austin: Jazz
Austin place Mr. Cyrano might actually fly to for dinner if he had travel vouchers: The Bitter End
Bar Mr. Cyrano would go to after flying in for dinner at The Bitter End: Lovejoy's
Repeat as Necessary?: Yes.

Linkography

SXSW Music Conference: www.sxsw.com
Shawn Amos: www.shawnamos.com
Johnny Dowd: www.johnnydowd.com
Epstein's Mother: www.epsteinsmother.com
Heather Eatman: www.heathereatman.com
Trish Murphy: www.trishmurphy.com
The Peenbeets: www.peenbeets.com
Perforated Head: www.perforatedhead.com
Spoon: www.spoontheband.com
Stew: www.stewmusic.com
Switchblade Kittens: www.switchbladekittens.com
Temptress: www.temptressrocks.com
Robert Burke Warren: www.robertbwarren.com

In rockrockrockaway memory of Joey Ramone, who succumbed to lymphoma while this column was being written. And with quiet sympathy to his hundreds of friends and thousands of fans, who are left with a large strong space suddenly empty. You were right, Joey, she was a punk rocker. And ever will be. RIP April 15, 2001.

Photos of Mr. Cyrano, Shawn Amos/Robert Burke Warren, and Spoon by Pierre Jelenc. The rest of the dogies by Linus Gelber.

Home Office Records, home of
Mr. Cyrano.


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