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The Setting Sun 

South by Southwest: Forward into the past

Wednesday, Apr 5 2000
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Illustration by Tony Mostrom

Just flew in from Austin, and boy, is that rock & roll tired.

Can’t get away from that shee-it. In Austin on a good/bad night, you cannot avoid it, you cain’t hide from the people who love it like a plague. And I was riding around in a cab and I mentioned to the driver that the Austin cops seem to have a pretty laissez-faire attitude, ’cause the South by Southwest music confab coincided with St. Paddy’s Day, y’know, and there were way-wild crowds of drunk, proud Irish people and music-industry pinheads in the streets at the same time (some of ’em in the same body), and basically happy hellfire reigned right there on the pavement. The cops, though, my cabbie said, any other week of the year “they’d be down here crackin’ heads.”

Huh. Thought so.

Austin is a lovely little place split down the middle by a wide-ish expanse of fairly rapid Colorado River, and it’s relatively unspoiled and quite pretty and peaceful down at the river’s edge — plunk your naked feet into it, feels good. They’ve got docks down there from which the university rowing teams launch their boats, and there are willowy trees, and the chirps and buzzings of obscure birds. Above, on the ridges surrounding the river, expensive-looking cribs on one side, on the other your Holiday Inns and Sheratons, blah blah blah.

It’s hard to pinpoint the essence of this place, since it’s also a college town and the seat of the state government. A friendly breeze kept the air clean — outside. With its benign mix of hippies, rednecks, punks, rastas and yuppies, Austin carries a heavy stink of San Francisco. It’s a pot-and-beer culture, at least part-time (also a white wine and Jim Beam culture). I walked and walked, observing the blend of Disneyfied old frontier town, glass-and-steel corporate power-thrust and the odd Art Deco/ streamline-moderne-flavor bank or laundromat. Throughout Austin, there are patches of green, but it feels squeezed by an impending upscale cityness. Guitar-strumming folkies or solo drummers or violinists busking blithely in the streets. They seemed happy.

At SXSW, something like 900 bands played during the four-day run. From all over the USA, Japan and Europe, hopeful young and old musicians came to hawk their wares, in numerous clubs — so many nightclubs it really is rather awe-inspiring. Yeah, Austin is the Live Music Capital of the World, and you are required by law to listen to music all day here — in Austin, you can actually be levied a fine for listening to an insufficient amount of music.

During this convention, in addition to all that live music in club after smoky beer-smell club, there are panel discussions by music-biz experts of all kinds — promotions people, managers, lawyers, sound engineers, Web producers, booking agents, songwriters, musicians too — who engage themselves in the big financial, technological and supposedly musical issues of the day. These discussions are generally very well attended, and often enjoyable, if only to witness the spectacle of virtual music in action — i.e., to watch the gargantuan talking machine that processes music in our time. If you are a very young, innocent musician or aspiring music-biz type, you can glean valuable insights from these sessions. No kidding.

Anyway, at night I gorged myself on music, in club after shit-kickin’ club. As I popped in and out, or walked the main hot lanes of Fourth through Eighth streets, and down around Red River Road, I tried putting it all together, somehow — I could imagine other writers scratching their heads too, trying to come up with an “angle” on the whole thing that would wrap it all up in a “nutshell.” I collected a few impressions, and, taken altogether, perhaps they add up to something. Now let’s see:

Stoner rock . . . dewd: In Austin, on every corner and in every greasy spoon, lurked hordes of boys and girls who aspired to the visual flair and radical sounds of their parents — long, lanky hair, big ol’ bells, halter tops and blue eye shadow, rifforama, Marshall stax. I have never seen so many Lynyrd Skynyrd roadies in one place. The bands I saw who worked in this image revealed the timeless allure of White Dumbshit culture, and I can’t say I didn’t totally “get off” on Bottom, for example, three girls from NYC who did a Sabbathy power-sludge thing to max effect. I made a note to myself to consider the extremely subtle humor involved in this elephantine music, especially coming from girls born in 1980 or thereabouts. I mean, one assumes that all young people are being ironic all the time now, so it was interesting how Bottom’s utter sincerity (desire) allowed them to kick such major butt.

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