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South By Shut Up

Photo by Libby MolyneauxDAY 1: WEDNESDAY 11:15 A.M., SOUTHWEST AIRLINES GATE 1

 

Overheard in the boarding tunnel:

"What's the difference between a record personnel and a friend?"

"A record personnel will stab you in the front."

THIS IS MY FIRST TRIP TO THE GIANT MUSIC CONvention known as South By Southwest. It's such a mandatory schmooze-and-be-schmoozed scene for A&R people, publicity people, managers, artists and journalists that over the past 13 years it's grown from 700 people and two days to 6,500 people and five days. Comparing highlights is like trading war stories for veterans of this business we call music.

In the airport's waiting area, it's not hard to tell who's SXSW-bound -- they're the people who are too old for their clothes, as well as their lingo. Women in their 40s wearing multicolored Doc Marten boots with skirts is an example. Gray-haired men saying "awesome" is another.

It doesn't take long to figure out that no matter what your role in the music machine, it's a business just like any other, and we're all just vacuum salesmen gathering to meet other vacuum salesmen of varying power and perhaps learn a thing or two about the next hot wave of hoses and suction devices -- although instead of sloshed businessmen with fake elk horns acting like the hotel is a college dorm, there are no fake elk horns.

 

6 P.M., AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER

After checking into the Hyatt Regency, the first order of business is to register, where I receive "The Badge." It's a big mandatory laminated thing with your name and company affiliate in 36-point Helvetica. Experienced SXSW-ers can do the face-to-badge-glance with utmost subtlety to determine whether they want -- need -- to know you.

 

8:30 P.M., EMO'S

The SXSW contingent is swallowed by people in green-foam funny hats. It's St. Patrick's Day, and Austin is a town known for its rowdy reveling year-round. The first club I hit is Emo's for Austin's the Peen Beats, a punk band that covers commercial jingles like the Dickies used to do. They play the Dr. Pepper theme, and change the words of "La Bamba" to "You should be driving a Mazda." As an observant journalist, I jot down the "Texas Size Shit" graffiti I see in the ladies' room.

The Travoltas from Holland, produced by Marky Ramone, do a raucously fun version of Blondie's "Denis." They play good old speed punk with manly harmonies. If things don't work out for them in Austin, they can always become a Bad Religion cover band.

 

10:30 P.M., LA ZONA ROSA -- ELECTRIC LOUNGE

On my way to catch Daniel Johnston, I hear some riveting blues-rock coming from a club. It sounds like Jeff Beck. It is. So I go inside -- the power of the badge -- to catch the end of his set. He's still wearing the black tank top and Nigel Tufnel's hair.

At the Electric Lounge, it's packed for Daniel Johnston, but he quickly loses people who can't hack his mumbling acoustic drone. When he's joined by his band for some sweet, pure love songs, everybody comes to.

DAY 2: THURSDAY 10:30 A.M., HYATT REGENCY

I sleep through Lucinda Williams' keynote address to officially kick off SXSW. Little do I know that later I will attend her show at the Austin Music Hall and feel compelled to sleep again.

It wouldn't be a convention without panels and workshops. At 1:30 p.m., there are six to choose from, including "Managing in the Red" and "Mind If I Tape This?" Since last night's Shiner Bocks are currently dictating my itinerary, I decide a good first panel is the 3 p.m. "Demo Listening: Rock."

 

3 P.M., AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER

Harry Simmons (a band manager from North Carolina), Jonathan Weiss of Haiku Entertainment and A&R guy Bruce Duff of Triple X Records sit on a dais. We are going to witness professional listeners do what they do for a living: play a couple of minutes of a band's demo tape and decide on the spot if it has commercial potential. But in this case the artists are in the room to hear the feedback.

After Mr. Duff hits the "play" button, he and the panelists put on their most serious listening faces; occasionally they are moved to a rhythmic head-bop or two. Sample feedback: "Sophisticated chord structure" (Simmons); "Listen to 'I Need You' by the Who" (Duff); "I had trouble with the enunciation" (Weiss, who tells another band they should try to sound more like Korn).

 

4:30 P.M.

At the "Writing Online vs. Writing for Print" panel, I learn that writing for the Internet is "like the wild, wild West," according to Jaan Uhelszki, the former Creem writer, now of Rolling Stone Online. Since she switched over from "dead tree media" (what you're reading), "the money has been rolling in." Keith Moerer, senior editor at Amazon.com, is pressed on the issue of not running negative reviews, since his company is in the business of moving product. Like a good vacuum salesman, he cites a negative review of the new Blondie album that was up on the site for one day.

 

9 P.M., COPPER TANK

Irish Night at this blond-wooded, cigar-roomed brewery yields a fun guitar-synth band that's very U2, but, to quote Jonathan Weiss of Haiku Entertainment, the lead singer really needs to sell the lyrics more.

 

9:50 P.M., ELECTRIC LOUNGE

Since this music festival is apparently run by the same regime that made Italy's trains run on time, everything operates like the Swiss watch other Swiss watches aspire to be. Bands start playing on the hour and end at quarter-till, so you have time to scoot over to your next club. I slosh through thunder showers to catch Orange Kandy from Japan, two guys and two gals who seem to be having the time of their lives. Not only are they adorable, they play the happiest hard pop I've heard since early Redd Kross -- a little Go-Go's, a little Aerosmith, a little Blondie.

 

11 P.M., BUFFALO CLUB

Diane Izzo's debut album had blown me away with gutsy songs and passionate singing that recalled PJ Harvey and Patti Smith. Maybe it's the weather or the fact that this cold and uncomfortable artsy space is trying way too hard to look like it's in Soho, but her set clears half the room and virtually halts all bar service.

 

MIDNIGHT, BOB POPULAR

What a great name for a nightclub. Music writers I know, whom I formerly trusted, made Arling & Cameron sound like DJs who might actually make original sounds. Okay, so they throw in some kooky theme songs. Thinking up reasons why this isn't really music is making me feel old, so I head out.

 

12:30 A.M., BABE'S

Michael Quercio's third in a series of bands with bad names, Jupiter Affect, sounds amazing -- stirring pop that should have drawn a lot more people. â

1 A.M., SOHO LOUNGE

There are so many Wanda Jackson fans packed into the upstairs of this brand-new club that when I go downstairs to the ladies' room during the fourth song, they're not letting people back up. But Wanda sounds pretty good from down here. "It took y'all long enough to invite me to your hootenanny!" she hollers.

DAY 3: FRIDAY 2 P.M., AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER

How could I possibly pass up this panel discussion called "Artists: How We Make Records" with -- yes, really -- Kinky Friedman, Beth Orton, Exene Cervenkova and Richard Fairbrass (the guy from Right Said Fred)? While Exene doodles and Beth Orton spills water on Kinky Friedman, the I'm-Too-Sexy guy rambles on about what a thrill it was when he first heard his hit on the radio. Shut up Fred. (I got his autograph later.)

 

4 P.M., STUBB'S

L7 finish their soundcheck for a later show just in time for a party thrown by Stern Publishing (The Village Voice, OC Weekly, Seattle Weekly, City Pages, Long Island Voice, Free Times and this dead-tree paper). Some genius from the Seattle Weekly got the idea to give away cowboy hats, which has the effect of making everyone happy, but not as happy as the cute kids from Orange Kandy, who are expertly adapting to SXSW behavior -- simultaneously drinking, cavorting and stuffing down chicken wings. "The world needs more Japanese people," astutely observes party-thrower Diane Mooney. I spill beer on Exene. Robert Christgau doesn't.

The King, a lovably nutty Elvis impersonator from Belfast, Ireland, who covers other dead people's songs -- Nirvana, Bob Marley -- caps a most excellent SXSW bash.

 

6:30 P.M., WATERLOO PARK -- ANTONE'S

After a stop by Waterloo Park for Fastball, it's over to Antone's for the coveted Antone's Records' BBQ with blues artists Toni Price, Barbara Lynn and Guy Forsyth. The label's publicist is Cary Baker of Baker/Northrop Media Group, a veteran of 12 South By Southwests making his second appearance in these pages in as many weeks (and he's married to my boss). Baker is so skilled at his party/schmooze management that on an average convention day he will attend five receptions, shake 75 hands, hand out 50 business cards and hear 20 different acts. Next year he should head a panel on networking time management.

The 'cue and blues rule, and the chiles hurt like Texas promised.

 

10 P.M., LA ZONA ROSA

Granddaddy gets almost a quarter of the packed crowd to shut up. The great Mercury Rev doubles that. KCRW's Nic Harcourt is very nice and looks shorter in person than he does on the radio.

 

MIDNIGHT, AUSTIN MUSIC HALL

Rosie Flores wears Wanda Jackson's badge. The King is here. David Byrne looks even more bored than I feel. Lucinda Williams does another song.

DAY 4: SATURDAY 1:30 P.M., AUSTIN CONVENTION CENTER

"How Has the Internet Changed the World of Publicity?" is the question posed to a panel of six top PR people. Everyone seems to agree that e-mail has eliminated the time-consuming task of small talk and good manners.

 

3 P.M., ELECTRIC LOUNGE

Triple X Records and Popsmear magazine throw a sleazy blowout. Austin's Brown Whörnet -- best name of the week -- does the comic art-rock thing in the parking lot. Inside, the Streetwalkin' Cheetahs make me forget that there's no food and no free alcohol (assholes) by making rock clichés fun again.

 

4:30 P.M., LUCKY LOUNGE

Raygun magazine and Luaka Bop's party on a Brazilian theme. Label honcho David Byrne spins background music for networkers who know that their contact-making hours are dwindling.

 

9 P.M., STUBB'S

Could the explicit Brit-politics of London's Asian Dub Foundation be lost on the crowd? I don't wait to find out.

9:30 P.M., SCHOTZ BEER GARTEN

The patio is full of Latino kids, and nary a laminated orange badge in sight. Mexico City's Guillotina thrill with their Black Sabbath en español, but my magic SXSW moment comes when El Gran Silencio burst into a jaw-dropping, stupid-grin-inducing punk/rock/hip-hop/folk/ska/polka barrage. How did David Byrne miss these guys? Amazing. Robert Christgau does the goony famous-writer bop.

 

12:55 A.M., 522 CONGRESS AVE.

After fairly thrilling sets by country singer Neko Case and Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas, I join the line down the block outside an anonymous office building for the much coveted Spin party, the SXSW swan song. It's a tough ticket even for professional scammers. With no invite in hand, I have major doubts about getting in, but show up to see if the Weekly pulls any weight with the doorman. Even Cary Baker gives up. But leave it to Fred Kane, my wily Weekly colleague from the parallel universe of advertising, to adroitly communicate to the doorjerks that we're doing them a favor by showing up, and, like magic, the ropes are opened. I immediately buy Fred a free drink.

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As for next year, how about fezzes instead of badges?