Back in the Saddle at SXSW 2001
The Good, The Bad and the Sexy: This Year's Music at SXSW
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)
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
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
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)
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Repeat as Necessary?: Yes.
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
Switchblade Kittens: www.switchbladekittens.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.
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