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SXSW 2003: Deck Chairs on the Titanic?
Day Four: It's Full of Stars
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2003-03-15
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Saturday 3/15, Austin, Texas: The swanky press suites here at SXSW close early on this last full day of the conference. No more Beluga on the paper plates, no more Blue Mountain in the fragile plastic cups. OK, I'm hallucinating. On the Saturday, which is a bit of a rough fit after the Friday, that's the way of things down here.

Not long ago the editors of this magazine and sister newswire Mi2n noted that contrary to popular belief, music is doing very well in the early Noughties. The music business, by which we mean the wing that sells those spinny shiny bits, is having something of a rough patch (in the way that 1929 was something of a rough patch for the stock market). Reasons for that are many and manifold, and only partly at best to do with the Demon Children of Napster. Rather, the industry's earth is moving, and when the earth moves things come of it. (Was it good for you too?)

The music part, though, is doing quite well, and that - at least in the fevered world of your Mr. Cyrano - makes for a good prognosis. I say the problem is lack of love, and if there's a message Yr. Obdt. Correspondent is taking from SXSW 2003 it's that the talent is back. Without further ado, then, the music. There's a lot of it. And this year, a lot of it is great.

Now Hear This: The sloping backyard wabe at Stubb's is shoulder-to-shoulder for the Friday night see-and-be-seen star show, which glides from Cat Power to Spoon to Yo La Tengo. When Chan "Ms. Power" Marshall steps out into the dim, moody lights, she's an angular stem behind a curtain of bangs and hair, an impatient fidget in jeans and a shapeless shirt. Down at the stage's lip the crowd is overwhelmingly young, eager at the shiver of music that hints and doesn't give up its secrets easily.

Marshall delivers, and doesn't, with a rambling mind-wandering set that finds beauty in moment, portent in small details, and, as the Sage said, "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks, sermons in stones, and good in every thing." I'm entranced watching her weave in and out of the microphone hot spot, like a lover teasing, like a snake taking aim, like a tree limb waving in the wind. You won't be dancing to this, but if you thought you were going to be dancing to Cat Power, well, you'll need to check your listings a bit more closely in future.

No point in trying to tackle the BMI/Lost Highway showcase: penetrating the Austin Music Hall for Tift Merritt, Lucinda Williams, The Jayhawks and Willie Nelson is going to be the work of a whole evening. At Mercury on Sixth Street kitsch is "happy happy" king for the packed-house outing by Petty Booka, a pair of Japanese girls (Petty and Booka) who sing a variety of hits in phonetic sing-song English, and accompany themselves on ukelele. With big hibiscus flowers perched at their ears, shiny red tinsel "grass" skirts, and a backing combo sporting florid Hawaiian shirts, Petty and Booka ultimately look a bit like they should be popping out of a miniature chest and summoning Mothra; a wing of my heart is muttering that surely there is something else I should be doing in the grand city of Austin, rather than listening to "Girls Just Wanna Have Fun" and "Tide is High" (in "Japanese reggae style") on ukelele. But a good time is a good time, and this was one, and I stay to the end.

At La Zona Rosa, New Zealand's The Datsuns pull out the stops, kick out the jams, rock the house, turn up to 11, and generally beat the living bejeezus out of every possible rock cliché. In a very, very, very good way. One of the bright hot lights of the new garage revolution, this long-haired slim-hipped quattro does the guitar-hero bit, and the Jagger lead-singer bit, the jumping-off-the-drum-kit bit, the water-bottle bit, and more, and makes it all real; there's no visible choreography here, just a pure love of the show and the driving excessive dirty happy jump-in-the-air music to back it up. The noise is din and tune and flash, and maybe, just maybe, this is what we have in store for us in these years to come.

Over There: There's a pattern forming here. Rock and roll is alive and well, and living abroad. There are American bands carrying the torch - the Riverboat Gamblers and Dillinger Four shows are said to be great ones - but these bands romp in the punk sandbox, and other rockers shine their lights into similarly fractured genre mirrors. The bands putting faith back into Mr. Cyrano's heart this time out are The Raveonettes (Denmark), Sahara Hotnights (Sweden), The Datsuns, and others like Idlewild from Edinburgh, closing the night at Antone's. This band is a mishmosh of 80's influences, with compressed vocals and repetitive guitar cutting texture into songs that are energetic and, as we near last call, not perhaps as lean and clear as some of the rest we've seen. But the groove is there, the feet are moving, the legs pumping, the eyes wide. It's only rock and roll, and I love it. We've forgotten how to do it over here, but the world's been watching, and they remember. Passports ready, it's time to party.

Best SXSW quote so far goes to Fall Out Boy on Wednesday night: "Sound man, could we have a little more awesome in the monitor, and a little less suck?"

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

SXSW - www.sxsw.com
Cat Power - www.matadorrecords.com/cat_power/
Petty Booka - www.sister.co.jp
The Datsuns - www.thedatsuns.com
Idlewild - www.idlewild.co.uk


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