SXSW 2003: Deck Chairs on the Titanic?
Day Two: The Natives are Restless
Thursday 3/13, Austin, Texas: Maybe it's the overcast, or maybe it's the time of year; or maybe it's the time of man. This is the grumpiest SXSW I've seen in years, and that's a good thing.
Yesterday's late panel on DIY doings started off as a rambly and vaguely relevant rumination on this and that and the other, shot through with the usual good-time platitudes: be true to your art, power to the people, that sort of thing. By the time the final bell rang, though, Aware Records honcho Greg Latterman and ur-critic Dave Marsh were squared off on separate sides of nonplussed moderator Vivek Tiwary of Starpolish.com, each snorting and immovable (argument irrelevant, Latterman wins in an easy decision). It was a small moment, but an interesting one; overall, decorum rules the day at music conferences everywhere, and at SXSW in particular there are plenty of easy cushions to keep tempers in check. It's nice to see personalities emerge, complete with prickly edges.
This morning a crowd a few steps shy of openly hostile sparred at the open-questions mic at the "Label Heads Sound Off" panel, gruntling hard at the State Of Things (happily, The Strokes did not come up). The panel comprised labels that pass for "independent" in this crazy world: places like V2 and The Beggars Group. If you're keeping score, those would be "independent" labels with massive national and internation distribution, in-house promotion departments, and long hard ties to the bigger hats in the business (anyone who wants to try to tell your Mr. Cyrano that panelist Jay Boberg is an indie guy will find my attention wandering; until recently Boberg was the head of MCA Records). The frustrated audience asked pointedly about radio, payola, open licenses, "farm team" indies, p2p networks, Napster (ah Napster, we hardly knew ye), and more. And had few answers. The panel shrugged a lot, and ended up stripped a bit bare and honest.
Soul Mining: But a gracious and softspoken presentation by artist and producer Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, U2, Peter Gabriel) punctuated the run-on SXSW sentence this morning. The keynote spot at this conference brings unexpected pots to unexpected boils - in recent years we've heard Steve Earl address politics, Ray Davies ruminate on personal mystique, Robbie Robertson read a fairy-tale career in the pure terms of a vagrant soul, and more. Lanois is present at the podium like sound baffling is present in a studio. He doesn't seem to resonate, at first hearing, but the shape of his thinking defines the taste of the time he spends. Chatting amiably, like a gentle Phil Donohue, he walks down the crowded aisles taking questions. As he passes his microphone to tremulous fans, he looks at them carefully and with relish, and the effect is of eavesdropping at a pleasant private moment, shared large.
Lanois mounts the stage with a poster-sized coloring pad, on which he's written the bulk of his thoughts for the morning. He is charming and genuine in a billed khaki hat and happy grin as he delivers a "Weird Scenes Inside the Goldmine" address, recounting in third person the adventures of Little Danny Lanois (who must know something) and his various adventures as he moves down the shaft. Johnny Cash is in there, among others. It's a facile, artless device that would be pretentious in a more practiced speaker, but here it is a device that propels Lanois' easy story with a minimum of decoration. He tells us that the favorite of his records is Bob Dylan's "Time Out of Mind," and imparts his philosphy on preproduction: "Press the record button, because that might be your master take." He notes that "We all come into the music world as fans," and urges the deliriously respectful audience to mind - and mine - the soul: "That never-ending commodity is in your heart, it's called passion." Kind words, on a gruff day.
Now Hear This: Official SXSW showcase music begins. Ah, this is what makes it all go. The sharpest points on Mr. Cyrano's Wednesday-night cactus are at the Fueled by Ramen label showcase at Emo's annex, a tented open-air spot across the street from all the other Emo'seses. Bouncy Chicago kids Fall Out Boy are fresh and perky, full of eager late-teens energy and the easy high that comes when you know you're just where you ought to be - in this case, at a Fueled by Ramen showcase in Austin, with yrs. truly down front. They leap and spin and cavort without missing a beat. Oh to be born in the cordless generation. FOB's first full-length is in progress, and if it's anywhere near as grinny as their set it should put new little tattoo marks on pop-punk kids coast to coast.
Later that night, same bat-venue and same bat-vibe, it's all about Austin's cruiserweight. Last year, there was no getting enough of this four-piece explosion. This year the newbie charm is worn off, but there's no less love. There doesn't seem to be a lot of new material in cruiserweight's hi-test romp, but in the year gone by lead singer Stella - the band is made up of three siblings and a guy named Dave - has gone from local-girl-making-good to starpower hellion. Tonight it's like watching a tiger stretch her claws, deciding whether or not it's time to pounce. Not quite; some sophomore material and edge-of-range vox are asking for a quick fix. But the band is an unpolished pleasure, and an adoring pack of screaming fans brings Stella to the edge of the stage and then, for a final fling, off it for a thumpy pass-the-girl crowdsurf.
More staid are Milwaukee transplants The Lovelies, some of whom used to be from hereabouts, in their shimmery pop set at Iron Cactus; the entire extended family and friend network is out for the fun, and this peroxide-white trio is up to spiffy fashionplate form with a set that brings Marcella Detroit and Shakespeare's Sister to mind. New Yorkers The Rosenbergs are regulars on the conference circuit, and it's always a pleasure to see them - though head Rosenberg David Fagin's fascinating and tortuous extended spar with The Business ultimately makes for a more interesting afternoon at the panels than the band's meaty but staid pop does on a Sixth Street awash with dreams, tunes, and endless possibilities.
And we're off. More as we have it. Pass the beef ribs.
Fall Out Boy - www.fueledbyramen.com/
cruiserweight - www.cruiserweight.com/
The Lovelies - www.loveliesonline.com/
The Rosenbergs - www.therosenbergs.com/
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