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SXSW 2003: Deck Chairs on the Titanic?
Day One: Watch This Space, a Conference is Coming
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2003-03-13
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Austin, Texas: Next time you wonder why that important letter didn't get there intact (rain, snow, gloom of night, and all the rest), consider this. Tuesday morning there was Mr. Cyrano, Your Loyal Correspondent, plane right and forward at EWR Newark airport, watching loaders fling postal boxes willy-nilly onto the conveyor belt. Only a few letters ended up on the tarmac. And only one got stepped on. But sometimes one is all it takes.

The message has been fluttering on the runway for a while, and this is the year the mail got delivered. By now you know the story. Sales down, stores closing, execs ducking and covering to the tune of untold millions a year. Avril, empty-handed, is unseated by Norah; Sony will drop perhaps 1,000 jobs this year, and RCA (Avril Lavigne's label) has midweek layoffs right after the Grammys. Mariah sells nothing, more or less, matching Whitney in the who-cares bin. Eminem, 50 Cent, and It-girl Norah all move bundles. Radio still sucks (film at 11). Labels wring their hands and just don't get it. CD Baby, the premier indie online retailer, pays out over a million dollars to the sorts of artists whose names you mostly don't know in just the last five months. Surely, these are interesting times.

So down here in Austin, this looks to be the belt-tightened version of South by Southwest, following a fest last spring that didn't have a single particular face, after in turn a few splashy dotcom boom years prior. SXSW is the biggest, baddest and beefiest music conference in the industry, equal parts shindig and shinola, an annual proving ground where bands break and get broken, and deals get made or don't. The sun is packed up behind fog and drizzle in Music City today, and crowds are rolling in. We don't know what this year looks like yet, but here's Mr. Cyrano's guess: the Old Guard is trying to scare up a New Guard, at long last. It's about time, and there's a stunning lot of talent here for 2003.

Now Hear This: The 8th annual Tuesday night Swollen Circus pre-event is comfy in new digs at Stubb's Barbecue this year, closer to home than the departed raunchy-tonk Hole In The Wall. Sound's better, too. As always The Silos (New York), who arrange this swift four-hour three-songs-for-everyone showcase year by year, shine powerfully bright when their turn comes to shine powerfully bright. Frontman Walter Salas-Humara is a star, every long rangy inch of him, and the music is easy to love, honest, catchy, and full of professional punch. Tastes great, less filling. Be there.

The Silos are supported by some of the highlights and some of the lowlights from the upcoming week's menu. The fare leans to country-laced Americana, but there's a bit of everything in this friendly pot: crude eye-rolling punk of the "yeah but the kids kinda dig it" variety from stumblebum locals The Crack Pipes; warm folk-gospel from College Station's Ruthie Foster, whose sharp guitar and bubble-bath voice still the room and long for a later slot on a different bill; an evocative if badly-paced turn by Steve Wynn and the Miracle 3, which peaks gloriously when exuberant ace drummer Linda Pitmon not only breaks her kickdrum pedal but also energetically upsets the floor tom with her closing burst. All in time, too. Pamela Miller does an offbeat and off-kilter theatrical turn in throaty territory that falls between Cat Power and Diamanda Galas in shape and sound; she is entrancing and full of range and power, undermined by songs that scatter. Like tears, in rain.

And we're off. More as we have it. Pass the brisket.

www.sxsw.com
The Silos - www.thesilos.net/
The Crack Pipes - www.thecrackpipes.com/
Ruthie Foster - www.ruthiefoster.com/
Steve Wynn - www.stevewynn.net/
Pamela Miller - www.pamelamiller.com


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