SXSW or no SXSW, my first sign of Texas pride was the Texas-shaped gravestone in the Texas State Cemetery I noticed outside the airport shuttle.
Landed in Austin in drizzling weather; even in a crowded airplane making four stops it's easy to single out the passengers headed here – they're the ones in sweaters and flip flops. While checking in at the swanky Hilton I almost squealed when I spotted Marco Pirroni, guitarist for Adam and the Ants. Could the dandy highwayman be far behind? Then I noticed a dead-ringer for Bea Arthur in the elevator and immediately wanted to yell out, “God'll get you for that, Walter.” So far, so good.
Being a newbie here, I'm still scratching my head trying to figure out how this festival works, and will probably leave with a bald patch. The average, non-press civilian spends $500 (in addition to airfare and hotel) for a music badge that gets you into all the panels and seminars but may or may not get you into the nighttime shows, daytime shows, unannounced shows or parties that also double as shows? My English is no so good. After weeks of half-assed planning, playing email tennis with publicists and repeatedly hearing “you will not get in” from past pundits, I decide to simply arrive early to the gigs, keep fingers crossed and show some leg.
First piece of business was picking up my badge – my lifeline, my high-five to hipsterville – at the Austin Convention Center, a madhouse where you're ushered into a long line that guarantees you'll be standing in even longer lines throughout the week. If you're not sporting skinny jeans, classic Nikes, a beard and a topiary of disheveled hair here, get your square self on the first square seat back to squaresville. All the Hebrew, Portuguese and Japanese whizzing over my head makes me feel like I'm stuck in “It's a Small World” and the song is in constant rotation. One staffer in a green shirt leads me to another, and then another, and, viola, I have my laminated mug. But am I looking at four days of velvet rope burn? Will the line fail me or will I fail it?
Pete Townshend was Wednesday's keynote speaker, and he was genial, funny and surprisingly forthright; sad to hear John Entwistle blew his share from all the Who reunion shows on cocaine. Interviewer Bill Flanagan noted the Who were the only band to play all the major “iconic gathering of the tribes” – Monterey, Woodstock, Live Aid – though Townshend lamented that the Who had never done a definitive show like the Sex Pistols. Speaking of, Townsend has harbored a crush on Siouxsie Sioux and said he'd wished they'd gotten married and had a bunch of little “punkettes.” Aww! Townshend also shared his fondness for current Who drummer and Ringo's boy Zak Starkey, who has to watch his “sagging ahss.” And Britney, he sends his love.
White female reggae sounds about as appealing as white female rap, but the night was young and British spitfire Lily Allen had taken the stage at the legendary Stubb's as part of an NME showcase. The line lead back to L.A. (Note to self: Early is not early enough here). “Smile,” “Everythings Just Wonderful” and “LDN” sounded pretty, melodic and playful. Too bad I was on the other side of the club's gate, kicking gravel and hacking up tar (God help the non-smoker who comes to these things) for 45 minutes. No time to fret. On the other side of town at La Zona Rosa, an even smokier warehouse with beer cans for sculpture, apostles Peter Bjorn and John (wasn't there a Bjorn?) were bringing in a slightly less packed crowd. The Swedish buzz band's set included their current radio hit “Young Folks,” aka “the whistle song,” a funky little romantic ditty reminiscent of '60s power pop. Lennon-sounding singer Peter Moren mentioned catching some good music, “like the Delfonics and Ray Sharles” in his hotel lobby, unlike the hotel lobbies of his native Stockholm, and even managed to get the crowd in a couple of choruses of “bap-bap-bap” to another song. Pretty alert for almost two in the morning.