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SXSW: Austin Powers the Biz that Shags You
Dateline: Austin Texas, Baby
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
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Dateline: Austin Texas, Baby. South By Southwest is the 2,000-pound gorilla of American music conferences. It's a rambling, randy, meaty, beaty, big and bouncy splash of panels, cell phones, parties and busy late nights, and it plumps its ego-stroking hirsute self down across a Music Guy's calendar with all the subtlety of, say, the Academy Awards. (About which can we simply say this: Boo, hiss, you had Aimee Mann all nominated and everything, and you did not do the right thing. You peasants.) Hold a mirror up to SXSW and it's the Industry that looks back at you out of the glass, a ravishing, impulsive and difficult creature that you joyously want to see naked but maybe don't want to bring home to meet Mom. For these five days of the year, at least, there's the promise of some good dirty dancing.

Mr. Cyrano avec Leprechaun
Mr. Cyrano avec Leprechaun SXSW is truly ineffable, so I won't try to eff it here. Enough give you this man's indie-eye view of the proceedings. We found a St. Patrick's Day leprechaun with his own stick to shake at it all, so we must have been looking for love in some of the right places...

Like a difficult Christmas-morning toy, SXSW comes with lots of parts and sparse instructions, and there's plenty of assembly required. Somehow the panels are supposed to fit together with the trade show and other afternoon events, and of course batteries aren't included. At night the music unfurls in a vast tasty spread. Austin itself looms large as a delightful city that plays hostess with the mostess, beguiling and enticing and offering you just one last artful canape when you're already stuffed beyond stuffing. This may have to do with down-home Texas hospitality, or it may just be the kind of good commerce that our Mayor "Squeaky" Giuliani should be studying instead of busting East Village bars when patrons dance without a permit; one way or the other, it works. A friend of mine once said that Austin is to Texas as New York is to America. I'll buy that for a dollar.

Wednesday starts slow, with Mr. Cyrano and MC Webmaster J staggering through registration after the morning red-eye from New York Municipal. We're just not pretty at 6:15 a.m. under airport lights, especially after closing d.b.a. with a procession of fine pints of Brooklyn Black Chocolate Stout scant hours earlier. Rather more chipper is the crew from Cropduster Records, winging in on our flight for an all-night five-band Friday showcase at Maggie Mae's West on Sixth Street. During the layover in St. Louis we wave at Boston's morning-glazed Temptress ("Sex, Drag & Rock n Roll"), out of costume and looking for all the world like routine citizens of the world. If TWA only knew! Flight attendant on the Austin leg, pleading for civilized use of the overhead compartments: "Uh, there are a lot of guitars on board today..."

First stop of the conference is at the Pecan Street Ale House for a solo acoustic showcase by New York's Robert Burke Warren, and it's an auspicious beginning. Robert plays around the City on his own and with his roots-country band Turpentine, and his new self-released CD " this day" is one of the best records we've heard in a dog's age -- we'll be looking at his music in more depth in a future edition. He hails from Atlanta originally, and frankly and generously explores southern themes as well as standard pop acreage in his dusky songs, writing from a wellsping of Southern Gothic family history. While I'm partial to the rumbly pop tunes on the record, Robert's finest solo numbers are his family delvings ("I Want Her Faith," "Josephus Cries," "Radio Church"), and even though I had just seen him the week before at Mercury Lounge with the band, I'm rapt once again. Tonight as always he steps away from the mike and sings the bulk of his humble, tender "I Want Her Faith," which is written about his grandmother ("I want her faith, I want her strength / I want to believe in a better place / To put my trust in a mystery / I want her faith"), unamplified into the big brick room. When he's finished you can feel the air tremble.

Trish Murphy at Mercury Lounge, 1999
Trish Murphy at Mercury Lounge, 1999

Across town then for Austin's own Trish Murphy at La Zona Rosa. I first saw Trish in singer/songwriter mode four years ago at New York's The Bottom Line in a slobbery grotesque industry showcase, where buzz-talk was all about her figurelegshairandbust and never strayed to her ease on guitar, her full, sandy voice, or her memorable songs. I've followed her ever since, and her annual SXSW shows are a happy tradition. After several long stretches of touring nationally and in Europe, and with her second CD "Rubies on the Lawn" about to be re-released by Doolittle/Mercury Records, Trish has tempered her band show into a winning, driven rock machine, and it is a thrill to see her poised for a plunge into the business end of the pool. The starmaker machinery has worn off some of her charming edges, and she's smoother in a mainstream blending way, but there's enough of her original irrepressible bright girl-at-work allure still there to keep her from being a Sheryl Crow clone. Her songs strike me as more bland this time around; this may have to do with the overpowering pro glide of the backing band, which is set on Rock -> Arena -> Puree. They sound so effortlessly good it's almost hard to listen. I'd like to hear Trish settle into some of her quirks again, but then I'm not the guy who's going to soundscan her album into gold and beyond. And this is definitely in the cards. The Trish Murphy Web site is uncommonly good, full of personal touches (recipes, favorite books and well-written news roundups from Trish as well as the usual promo toys).

Thursday dawns, if you can call it that, with a keynote speech by alternative country rocker Steve Earle. It blends easily into Friday, so you get them both as a single Gordian knot. Earle's tasteful and short remarks (way to go, Steve!) take a skeptical look at the music business, as is fashionable, acknowledging that for better or worse the biz pays his rent and more. Was it really 20 years ago already that Elvis Costello wrote "I wanna bite the hand that feeds me / I wanna bite that hand so badly"? Earle moves smoothly from music to politics, noting that not far from where we sit a prisoner is being prepped for execution by George W. Bush's government with our tacit consent. There's some gruntling at that, the Death Penalty not being part of the SXSW brief, but your Mr. Cyrano is heartened to hear mature, earnest views aired outside our so-narrow purview. There's no hint of harangue, but rather a brief overview of a serious issue in -- dare I say it? -- a post-60's consciousness-raising sense. I'm reminded of Moby's keynote address at the pandering CMJ conference a few years ago, a longer rumination on personal liberty that made me a fan of his forever. How novel and fine to be reminded that there's more to talk about than Jennifer Lopez's Grammy wear.

Reinforcements are not far behind. Patti Smith speaks thoughtfully if belatedly about her support of Senator Bill Bradley for President in an on-stage interview, and makes a quiet room fidget by asking how many of us are registered to vote (I am, and I voted for Bradley as part of my ongoing campaign to never vote for anyone who actually wins). Now, let me say this about that. Patti Smith righteously pissed me off a few years ago at a Barnes & Noble book signing for her "Early Work" collection by blessing us with extemporaneous morality tales about AIDS and sex and what we should and should not be doing with our lives. I stood there stunned, book in my sweaty mitts, thinking how far we'd all fallen -- Patti Smith is telling me how I should behave? Puh-leeze! By just lights I should have been stealing the damn book and mooning customers into the bargain on the way out, and telling the astonished clerks just why I was doing it. In a loud voice. The people have the power! Down with corporate commerce! I know she's a Mom and all -- it was hard to miss, what with Number One Son Jason coming out to play "Smoke on the Water" in front of a bemused Irving Plaza audience at her next shows, and the observant might have noticed Tom Verlaine sneaking off the stage for that number. But this Patti Smith Ethical Index rankled deep down.

Smith is mercurial at best, and at SXSW she makes a far better presentation. She speaks with respect, understanding and admiration of Arista's Clive Davis, giving him props for taking her under contract warts and all, and for letting her make music on her own terms. More of that, please. She skirts her detached years and her emergence back into the political (voting) fold, touching briefly on drugs and what they've done to her peers -- careful, this time, not to preach and instead to couch her remarks in terms of her personal experiences. She gives solid consideration to the presidential election of this year, warning of the jingoistic polarization that makes rational debate impossible and urging us to consider the ramifications of electing a Republican to the White House with a Republican Senate under him in these knee-jerking conservative days. As an unlikely elder statesman who has, like it or not, been more an Artist than a Recording Artist lo these many years, Smith is a plain-spoken, fumferring iconoclast, lacking eloquence but pinning the indicators over into the red with her force of personality and her honest refusal to fit into any boxes, no matter how roomy. This isn't entertainment, it's reality.

Out to the trade show, and so much for the real. It's a whole nother (nether?) world in there. The magic noumenon crumbles easily under the smart blows of commerce: in Dotcom City art is demoted to "content," and everyone and his sister wants to promote and feature and market and sell that content. On your tab, of course. As we navigate the maze of giveaway swag and environmental stalls (couches, monitors, DJ's, glossy palm cards, statuesque babes and raggedy boys with bright come-hither smiles alike, and amidst all this noise and waste I don't manage to score a Napster t-shirt) I feel little bits of my soul wailing in sorrow, so after catching New York Times rock critic Ann Powers reading from her new book, "Weird Like Us: My Bohemian America," it's out into the cold blustery day with MC J to find some nourishment: food, and music. And beer.

SXSW: Austin Powers the Biz that Shags You - Part 2


Bowling for Soup
Cropduster Records (The Other 99, Julia Greenberg, etc.)
Johnny Dowd
Steve Earle
Hamell on Trial
Trish Murphy
Patti Smith
Stargazer Lily
Mike Viola & The Candy Butchers
Robert Burke Warren

Photos by Pierre Jelenc. South by Southwest is held annually during spring break.

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