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SXSW 2002: South by Over the Rainbow, or Notes from Down Under(ish)
Day 1
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2002-03-14
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Dateline: Wednesday 3/13, Austin, TX: It's Day Zero at Austin's South by Southwest music conference, and the blinking crowds of music industry wanna-bes and please-don'ts are making inexorable lemming-steps down to the convention center, where the newest in tech and the oldest in hospitality mix in a practiced ratio to produce what is always the music conference event of the year.

It's early to know what SXSW 2002 will be like; last year the big news was new outings and reunions by old favorites, with a minor nod to the song scene in Nashville. The breaking wave of this year's installment hasn't taken shape yet, which may be a reflection on the wavering state of the Business in these wavering times. In the meantime, it's 79 degrees in the shade, or it would be if there were any shade to be had, and the barbecue is every bit as good as remembered.

Signs and Portents: The night before the shebang shebangs, those who are early to the game gather each year at the raunchy-tonk Hole in the Wall near the University of Texas campus for the Swollen Circus, a nightlong homey and tired convocation of musical spirits in 20-minute sets (or less). Last year the Swollen Circus hit transcendence early and easily with a brilliant appearance by Chip Taylor ("Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning") that turned a room of jaded fellow travelers into a stomping gleeful pageant of nostalgia and strut. It was one of the high points of the 2001 conference, and a bravura teaser that made yesteryear feel relevant in surprising ways (see our coverage of SXSW 2001 for more about that).

Last night at the Swollen Circus there was no clear winner, and that smacks of health in an industry that ails so obviously and so publicly. In and among strong performances by a parade of locals and an almost-obligatory (if far too short) setette by The Silos, who host the four-hour gathering, there was much that was pleasant, some that was routine, and some that tickled the appetite.

Charming whimsy in matching dresses: that must be Git, an Australian congeries of girls who poked fun in close harmony at the world and the social oddities of its denizens. Tom Freund wasn't so much whisky-soaked as whisky-friendly in a hip and spare turn that was both charming and subversive, recycling an instrumental vamp in one number until it shimmered with an almost microtonal fascination, working a mesmeric weave on at least one overtired foot-weary music writer in the room. Closing the show at the rough fringe of the blue laws, New York's loss (and Nashville's gain) Amy Rigby gathered a handful of heartstrings, tugged on them insistently, and then handed them back with a wistful tremble ("Let's leave reality out of this, shall we? / No need to mention it. It's always here. / Give the cold hard facts back to the mathematicians. / We're magicians. We make reality disappear" - from "Magicians").

New this year: Ooo, in this post-9/11 SXSW we have little pictures on the conference badges, if "picture" is what you want to call a 300x300 pixel grid with eyes and a mouth. Kind of nifty. For the first time the conference is running a series of Music 101 Crash-Course introductory workshops in a variety of music fields (independent labels, touring, management, distribution, and so forth), with audience participation. That pitter-patter you hear is the sound of an industry patting itself on the back, but it seems an efficient way to introduce newbies to the twist and turns, if not the mysteries, of the profession.

Tomorrow the event begins in earnest. If there's computer time to be had, we'll talk then.


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