SXSW 2004: Austin Translation (Day 5)
The Finish: Saturday Night's All Right
Monday March 22, back from Austin, Texas: There's never a single message to the SXSW Music Conference, and there shouldn't be. The operation is sprawling, various, and many things to many people; it doesn't offer unity except perhaps via barbecue and beer. But now that the festival tea has been steeped and drunk, perhaps there is something to read in the leaves after all.
In past years the thrust here was indie-friendly and in the spirit of the Protestant Ethic: Work and Ye Shall Find, more or less, with a vision of the public as a plastic mass into which, with the proper methods, your music could be inserted. By accident or design, this year there's a welcome nod to the role of talent and taste in the process, a tacit agreement that markets can only be manipulated so far, and that the magic in the machine is what the artist does.
The how-to and issues panels are solid, but I am captivated by the daytime interviews this time out. From the keynote kickoff by Little Richard to the cheeky ramble with Walter Yetnikoff to the tart reminiscences of Andrew Loog Oldham, we've had glimpses into fascinating figures. In the final two Saturday sessions the bar stays just as high, with Ani DiFranco and Joan Baez addressing the diamonds and the rust.
Ani DiFranco doesn't speak in quotables. She's a torrent of personality and glee, a mesh of strands that can't be separated, a paragraph that doesn't parse into fragments. As a young artist with a growing fan base she turned away from the major labels (even more detached and faceless at the time than they are now) and founded her own record company, Righteous Babe, to handle her work. Babe has flourished and now releases work by other artists, including the brilliant Hamell on Trial; Ani's dream has long arms and a wholesome - might one say righteous? - notion of how business is done.
Ani on downloading: music may be free, but musicians aren't. "Music is free," she says, waving grandly. "Go play it, go make it. Medicine should be free, how's that for a rallying cry?" A musician fan asks her about social causes, and after a brief and tardy plug for Dennis Kucinich - "He's one of us," and I can't help but picture the Doonesbury version of this - she laughs. "Us musicians are always asked to help whenever there's a problem with society." She makes a panicked face: "Do something! We need a folk singer!"
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The obvious question, and one that comes pretty early, is "How did you do it?" Her answer is direct and honest. "You'd think I would know," she says, nodding sagely. "Yah. Yup." Her advice to the wanna-be Ani? "Maybe you should get a gig. And then another one." Elitism is out of fashion these days, but the answer to the question no one can quite frame is this: Ani DiFranco is just that good. The rest follows.
An hour later on the same stage, graceful Joan Baez draws a smaller and older crowd. She arrives in an orange DANGER t-shirt, poised and feisty and every inch the we-shall-not-be-moved diva from a mythical land of protest politics. I can only stay for part of this session; the press room closes early and I have notes to file. But Baez wastes little time in getting started.
Asked why mainstream music is so politically sterile, she ponders for a moment. "We are coming out of a vacuum," she says. "When you're living in a vacuum, the music reflects that." She talks briefly about circles and cycles, noting that some of the old political hands are coming back into the modern scene, and cites an early reading of "The Diary of Anne Frank" and a meeting at age 15 with Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. as the influences that gave her a faith of the "basic good in people." As I gather up my stuff and sneak to the exit, she is talking about working with a new generation of musicians, sharing experiences back and forth, exposing older audiences to younger writers and players. Music rarely has this kind of class and clear-eyed kindness.
This Year's Chipotle: Utne Reader is presenting a starry showcase at Fox & Hounds, and we stop in for an early airy set by Steve Tannen and Deb Talan, who work together as The Weepies out of Northampton, Mass. There's nothing weepy about the Weepies, and in fact they're a pretty cheery duo, swapping acoutic guitars and banter, and adding the occasional electric to the mix. Tannen has an underlying infectious grin that even solemn songs can't wipe away, and Talan is calm on stage, with a placid and rolling wide voice that contrasts with her piping speaking tones. Collaboration has centered Steve's writing, luring him down from early manic peaks; he has traded in much of his restless exuberance for lyrical focus. I'm not familiar with Talan's solo work, but on stage the pair is most evocative when they move together, in harmony.
Tammy Faye Starlite is a bad joke gone tragically wrong, in the way of the best "does she mean that?" comedy. Tammy touts herself as the love child of Loretta Lynn and Lenny Bruce, and there is no cow so sacred that she won't make bacon from it. Her band essentially plays warped rock and country covers while Tammy, in and out of her slinky red dress, spreads the word of Jesus, among other things. It's the most outrageous display of devout smutty winking you will ever see, and I wish Mel Gibson were here to learn a couple of pointers. "What's your name?" she asks one burly victim, into whose arms she is about to leap whilst cooing "don't make me pregnant" (this is her solution to the abortion issue: ask nicely). "I'm Chris." "Chris!" she bubbles. "Why, that is so close to Christ! You are already so close to Christ, you could give him a rim job!"
If anything, Tammy Faye is even more offensive in Austin than in her home New York gigs; I wouldn't have thought it possible, but the Lord works in mysterious ways. In the City she'll sometimes convert Jews on the spot. Here, she climbs up on the bar, and ... let's just say that she startles even the bartenders of the Coyote Ugly Saloon, a chain known for good-natured debauchery.
Austin's cruiserweight does not have an official SXSW showcase, so we slip off the beaten path for their headline slot at the Flamingo Cantina. The pop-punk four-piece has become a pop-punk five-piece, and their new material is treading closer to rock than punk, but the core of siblings Stella, Urny and Yogi, and friend Dave, is still strumming strong. Pop-punk is increasingly a soundalike "product" genre with a few standouts, and cruiserweight stands far out. The band is tight and consistent, marked by the obvious intelligence and post-cliché teasing of lead singer Stella. Urny's guitar acrobatics are snappy, but on this small stage he nearly clocks Stella with a spin move. For the most part, cruiserweight is in utter control of their very young crowd, moving with the ease of stars through the night sky. I was utterly charmed by this band from my very first listen years ago, and their show is a fitting close to the main session of the conference. My feet are very happy to hear the news.
It's All Over But the Dung: Sunday night, after the SXSW barbecue and softball tourney, we turn out to Emo's for the very last gasp. Everyone who's anyone has already gone home, and all that's left are the stubborn hangers and the local crowd. For our appreciation, then, the Dung Beatles re-imagine pop history this way: what if the Fab Four wrote all their songs about, well, dung? From the results, which are pretty amusing, we can be glad they did not. You can try this at home - pick your favorite Beatles tune, substitute "dung" for "love," and you're off.
There's John and Stall and Dungo, and I didn't catch the name of the fourth. In moptop wigs and Help-era Nehru jackets, the group is equal parts cute and icky. "Here's a new number you can brownload to your iPoo," calls Stall. By now we're all so tired that there's no defense against a line like that; we're also too beat to laugh. "Ho," we muster, weakly. "Ho ho." The Diamond Smugglers, a Neil Diamond roast that follows, doesn't have the same panache, though it shares some of the Dung Beatles' players.
Next year's SXSW Music runs March 16-20, 2005. Mark your calendars; pad your sneakers.
SXSW - www.sxsw.com
Ani DiFranco - www.righteousbabe.com
Joan Baez - www.joanbaez.com
cruiserweight - www.cruiserweight.com
Tammy Faye Starlite - www.tammyfayestarlite.com
The Weepies - www.theweepies.com
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