SXSW 2004: Austin Translation (Day 1)
Day One: Running Before the Storm
Tuesday March 16, Austin, Texas: The good news is that there isn't really any new bad news, which makes 2004 about as relaxed as the music industry can get these days. Austin is amiable as it brushes and preps for a week in the musical trenches with South by Southwest, America's largest and splashiest music conference. The venues are fiddling with their sound, the extra staff has been put in place, the barbecue pits are churning out vittles, and there is WiFi wherever you turn.
Our travel theme this year is running before the storm, which seems an apt way to consider the Industry as SXSW begins. Our painfully early flight from EWR got off the ground before New York's snow fell, and the March gotcha weather back home has the detached quality of a headline story on the cable news. Similarly, after a few good records (can you say "Norah"? I knew you could) and another spatter of mergers and firings, it s looking like business as usual in the usual business circles.
Last year I used this Day-Zero space for a few standard steps in the doom-and-gloom gavotte. That dance is getting a little old. After a couple of years of depressed attendance here at SXSW, we're told that numbers are back up and spirits are good. Certainly toys abound: the conference badges are equipped with RFID anti-counterfeiting tech, there are gizmos of every sort in use out on the streets, and here in the spiffy press room there are sleek iMac pods and flatscreens and speakers and, well, what is that thing? I don't know, and it s certainly sleek and attractive, but I'm not going to touch it.
This Year's Model: It's early to read leaves before the tea is made, but the mix looks good going into the pot. We are regular earlybirds at the Swollen Circus, a yearly day-before kickoff showcase put together by Walter Salas-Humara of New York's guitar rock band The Silos. Last year the Circus pitched tent at Stubbs, and for this 9th annual splash the show is back at the re-opened Hole in the Wall, where a full and devoted crowd is out in force.
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Mary McBride lifts the evening off with a rousing trio of spunky tunes, a perfect fit for the beer-in-buckets feel of the venue. We were pleased to see Austin's own Trish Murphy back in the lights after a few years away; Trish and her brother Darrin do a frisky pair of songs, including a Thelma and Louise number that leaves me sure that Trish must have been a real handful in high school. The Silos lay down rock and roll basics with joyous simplicity, and build their catchy songs in front of your eyes as if they're teaching you something wonderful. As it turns out, they are. Walter s road-beaten Gibson acoustic is stripped of finish in his favorite playing zone by the instrument's bridge, sanded down to the wood and then some by unfettered glee.
California's Tom Freund does the same, but with dreamy and decorated intensity rather than sprint-for-the-border spirit. Imagine John Mayer for grownups and you won't be far off the mark. Boston busker Mary Lou Lord plays acoustic and electric, with backing by tour partners Gingersol from New York; she is charming, seasoned, and twitchy, and she brings to mind the wonderful Amy Rigby, who is not here this time out.
Speaking of time out: this is it. The show is winding down, and we are winding up, and tomorrow the masses arrive. Between now and then there are ribs to eat, margaritas to drink. It's a tough job, but ... well, you know the drill.
SXSW - www.sxsw.com
Tom Freund - www.TomFreund.com
Gingersol - www.gingersol.com
Mary Lou Lord - www.rubricrecords.com
Mary McBride - www.marymcbride.com
Trish Murphy - www.trishmurphy.com
The Silos - www.thesilos.net
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