SXSW 2004: Austin Translation (Day 4)
Day Four: The Trish is Back
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records [03-23-2004]
Saturday March 20, Austin, Texas: It's coming down to the WiFi here at SXSW, where Austin's 18th annual explosion of music, madness, mystique, moaning, and mastery is racing toward its afternoon finish.
This year as every year there hasn't been anywhere near time enough to go half of anywhere or taste even a fraction of what's here for the tasting. At the same time, this year as every year we're gasping thanks for the end to come, because if this went on much longer, well, let me speak just for myself: my feet would snap off somewhere around the trimalleolar, and my brain would squirt right out of my head. Splot.
There's a palpable and welcome feel of commerce here. If anything, I have the sense that the industry has shed skin to grow, sloughing off its older, stodgier hangers-on and its party-happy wave of younger limpets. Money still flies from hand to hand - Lyor Cohen's outrageous salary at the new Warner Music shows that clearly enough - but the targets are fewer, and the aim is better.
Sorry Seems to be the Easiest Word: The binge-and-repent model of business is alive and well here. It's an easy step from yesterday's fireside chat with Walter Yetnikoff to today's noontime interview with Andrew Loog Oldham, who is best known as the early producer and manager of the Rolling Stones. Yetnikoff and Oldham are both sober these days, and both made their names as conspicuous carousers.
Oldham at least may see irony in proselytizing for sobriety. He couches anti-drug comments in business terms rather than moral ones, noting that the media's intricate involvement in music today means that a star needs "a nutritionist as opposed to a dealer." He says he's glad that the industry has largely moved beyond "managing casualties" (Whitney Houston presumably excepted). Describing ways he hears about new music, he notes that "I like to keep up with my old dealers; I think it's manners."
Oldham is spry and restless, an articulated fidget with a gift for spare assessment and the pithy practical touch. He briefly covers Stones history, explaining that he first went to see them because the rail connection was handy and because "It was a Sunday, and Mother cooked," but veering clear of other less savory events. As one might at a remove of 40 years. Asked about the famous bit of lore that has him locking Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a small room and refusing to let them out until they wrote a song, Oldham sidesteps: "You can't lock people in a room ... but you can sulk. You can be difficult." (Richards has described the room as being "about the size of a kitchen," and says they didn't get their dinner.)
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He describes Keith Richards as "my maitre d' and mentor," though later, in an aside that probably says much about this session and Oldham's two volumes of memoirs, he won't demystify that comment. "I was just pausing for breath then, and those are the two words that came out," he says. Salon has called Oldham "a raconteur and a bullshitter supreme," and I'll buy that for a dollar; we spend an hour spinning history, then, and it's fun. There's no arguing with his wrap-up of the era, though. "We were living in looneyland," Oldham shrugs.
This Year's Mettle: Tonight is a night of moving on, tapping and tasting and heading for the next venue. New York's Electric Turn To Me, which traces its history to Mars Volta via Laddio Bolocko, swirls and sways in evocative ragtag, throwing back to Siouxsie and the Banshees. Singer Silke is a gorgeous waif, but ultimately the songs are slim and not as attractive. Down the way Brooklyn's Jennifer Glass, recast as a brunette since her web site was last done, is even more stunning. She's got a supple voice and an oh-so-sexy stage manner. Her songs leave me cold, but checking her web site I see that she is a disco and dance artist performing an acoustic guitar set, which explains much.
CocoRosie is one of those damn bands. They're either from Brooklyn, or Paris. They're either sisters, or they aren't. It's either spelled Casady, or Cassidy. There's no web site. Well, whatever. They are pleasant enough, doing the twitchy alienated capital-A Art thing with electronic toys, guitar, keyboards, operatic soprano, and attitude. There's nothing here that hasn't been done before, and CocoRosie tend to treat their trappings as destinations rather than as tools, but at its most fragile the music achieves a haunting beauty. By tone, this is music for desperately unhappy people on their nights off. Strip away the gauzy coverings and there might or might not be something strong underneath.
The world was big and wide and gullible enough to encompass Moldy Peaches, so there should be room for Nottingham's Emma Louise "Scout" Niblett, who is much less pleasant and whom I like much more. Scout performs the latter part of her set solo, pounding gruesomely on an innocent drum kit and later shredding an equally-innocent electric guitar, each just an excuse for her to strut her spiky presence under the lights. The comparisons to Cat Power are inevitable, so consider them made; but when she ends her set with contorted, red-faced screaming ("I can't wait til the morning, I gotta know now") Scout is all her own, a raging child, a furious woman, spoiled and angry and urgent and frightened by a world that won't heed.
Here is how you can tell when a venue's between-set music is too loud:
Linus: That was fun!
Linus: ...that too.
There's nothing on Sixth Street to follow Scout Niblett's display of viscera, so we step out of SXSW for a relaxed beer at B-Side, a sidecar club room to the Bitter End, Austin's best brewery-restaurant. They've got music going, of course, and we set a pleasant while in the company of the Dexter Romweber Duo, a psychobilly two-piece cranking out white-shirted frenzy on vintage instruments. There's some discussion that perhaps it's merely neurosis-billy, but after some web checking I think psycho will do.
The crown of the evening comes at midnight, as crowns should, high above Sixth Street in the cushy 18th-floor lounge of the Crowne Plaza hotel. Label consolidation nipped Austin's Trish Murphy in the bud a few years ago, and we the faithful have looked for Trish traces each SXSW since. She's back now, wiser and as perky as ever. Her showcase, featuring brother Darin Murphy on drums and crack locals on lead guitar, bass, and pedal steel, is a pitch through the heart of the mainstream, except smarter and sassier and much more fun.
A night listening to Trish Murphy is a night saying things like, "Well, it's kind of like Lucinda, BUT NOT, and it's kind of like Sheryl Crow, BUT NOT." What it's like, in the end, is Trish Murphy. Trish has a gift for instant hooks, and her voice is iconic. Her clear tangy wit bubbles through simple writing, and her songs are light, airy, and expressive. If there were any music at SXSW this year that I'd like to eat, it would be a meal of this stuff: I imagine it would start like brisket and finish like cake.
On stage, Trish is introducing a new song, explaining that she read a line in Dear Abby that warned that the trouble with trouble is it starts out as fun. "And I thought to myself, 'now that's a country song waiting to happen.'" And happen it did.
SXSW - www.sxsw.com
Andrew Loog Oldham - www.andrewloogoldham.com
CocoRosie - www.pitchforkmedia.com/record-reviews/c/cocorosie/la-maison-de-mon-reve.shtml
Electric Turn To Me - www.electricturntome.com
Jennifer Glass - www.jenniferglass.com
Trish Murphy - www.trishmurphy.com
Scout Niblett - www.toopure.com/scoutniblett
Dexter Romweber Duo - www.flatduojets.com
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