At the risk of souring our chances for a free pass back to Austin next year, it really must be said that the annual South

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Does South by Southwest serve a higher purpose, or is it merely an excuse to go on a weeklong bender?

At the risk of souring our chances for a free pass back to Austin next year, it really must be said that the annual South by Southwest music conference is little more than a paid vacation for its 7,000-plus attendees. Viewed honestly, SXSW is just a four-day rock 'n' roll Club Med for publicists, A&R peopleall manner of music industry flotsam and jetsam. Well, that and a much-deserved respite for those of us among the noble breed of rock 'n' roll scribe.

Sure, there's always plenty of action to report and even more gossip to revel in. The juiciest bits from 2003 included a rumor that the Stooges would reunitethey did not get together in Austin but will re-form for a spate of gigs next month. Or tasty industry morsels like the unconfirmed whispers that Sleater-Kinney may be switching from Oly-indie Kill Rock Stars to Chicago imprint Touch and Go. But for the large majority of folks blazing a trail to Texas, SXSW is merely an excuse to get embarrassingly wrecked on the company dimeat least judging by those lushes over at Sub Pop.

Still, we must grudgingly admit, after this year's festivities, we came away with the sense that there is, perhaps, a greater purpose to the whole SXSW experience. Indeed, there's a strange, re-energizing effect to spending four days baking in the heat and chasing after free beer and barbecue in the hopes of stumbling upon some form of fresh musical manna. Austin in March does have a certain special magicit's a place where even a sneering churl can come away with his or her passion for music renewed and reignited.

But for you, dear readers, those unable to enjoy the fruits of this great business we call show, it's time to present our own tale of SXSW 2003. And like the great Sergio Leone epic, it is a story filled with its fair share of good, bad, and uglythe latter of which can be best summed up in five words: Billy Bob Thornton in concert.

DANNY BOY

Although SXSW officially starts with its Wednesday night showcases, the event's symbolic kickoff has remained the Thursday morning keynote address. Depending on the speaker, it's always a hit (Ray Davies) or miss (Michelle Shocked) affair, often marked by the public unveilings of some of the music industry's biggest egos. For example, Robbie Robertson's self-congratulatory 2002 address should have been titled "And then I . . . ," as the former Band guitarist simply decided to review and enumerate his many exalted rock 'n' roll achievements.

But no onepast, present, or futurecan hope to match the sheer unmitigated cojones and New Age hokum displayed by this year's featured speaker, Daniel Lanois. Ostensibly on hand to plug his new solo al-bum, Shine (Anti-), superproducer (U2, Bob Dylan) Lanois charged through a rambling, beat-poet-inspired diatribe where he referred to himself in the third person at least 47 times, and usually as "Lil' Danny Lanois, who started out making records in his mother's basement." Lil' Danny, reading from what appeared to be a giant sketchbook, talked about making music as a form of "soul mining" and went on to bizarrely describe how he'd gone down the "shaft" and run into Chris Blackwell, Bob Marley, Jimmy Iovine, and others along the way.

When Lanois finally paused to open up questions to the audience, things improved temporarily, but by the time he took the stage to perform several sleep-inducing steel guitar instrumentals, it had many hoping he would start speaking again. In all, a keynote that most in attendance will not likely be able to forget . . . no matter how hard they try.

(In fairness, Lanois did redeem himself somewhat during his Thursday night set, as Woodstock vet Richie Havens joined him for a blistering, nearly punked-up version of the hippie anthem "Freedom." Even the most hard-hearted cynic would have to concede it was one of the week's more inspired performances.)

Jizz, er, Liz Phair: expounding on the virtues of "Hot White Cum."

photo: Gary Miller

POTTYMOUTH GIRL

It's odd that hip-hop divas can traipse around wearing nothing save a couple Band-Aids covering their nipples and a bit of floss draped across their ass, and yet barely raise an eyebrow. But if a white girl with a guitar flashes the tiniest bit of thigh, the rock world falls worshipfully at her feet. To wit, Liz Phair, mid-'90s alterna-sexpot, making her "triumphant" return to SXSW. Phair's interview/performance session drew a healthy crowdincluding plenty of salivating geekscurious to see what's become of music's most hyped female talent since she fell off the radar a half-decade ago.

Little has changed, however, as Phair appears intent on milking her reputation as an indie-rock vixenwith her Kewpie doll lips, turned-up nose, and revealing hemlines, Phair has always come off like a sexier version of Meg Ryanwith a batch of new songs that play up that very angle. Phair's forthcoming self-titled effort is, as she puts it, a greatest-hits album of sorts, compiling the best songs she's collected in the period since her last album, 1998's whitechocolatespacegg. Early wordand Capitol's tight guard over album advances is an indication that Phair's sitting on a real stinker and may be a sign that she needs to update her image and tunes for the new millennium.

Oh, one important side note: Phair's painfully embarrassing explanation of a new song she's written called "White Hot Cum" ("It's about the joyful love of [hot white cum]," she observed before going on to extol the virtues of said spooge as "the fountain of youth, the meaning of life") will go down as one of the lowest points in recorded human history.

BLATANT LOCALISM

Toughened airport security has its downside, too. Just ask Visqueen bassist Kim Warnick. The former Fastback suffered every musician's nightmare, as Warnick discovered just seconds before showtime that her guitar tuner had been royally screwed by Sea-Tac's X-ray machines. The technical difficulties delayed a panicked Visqueen's Wednesday night set, before the local three-piece settled down for a workmanlike performance in front of a gaggle of record company types. Fortunately, Visqueen got a chance to redeem themselves fully, storming through a Thursday afternoon set at the Northwest Music Roundup that had many out-of-towners admiring the trio's lacerating punk-pop stylings.

Fellow Seattleites, the Minus 5playing a string of SXSW gigswere also on hand for the daytime event and followed with an inspired 40 minutes of Scott McCaughey-led mayhem that had the very boozy crowdincluding a fully soused contingent of local notablesbobbing to the good-time grooves of the M5.

Seattle talent got plenty of national attention overall. In particular, hometown girl Laura Veirs proved a favorite of many, including New York Times music critic Jon Pareles, who singled out the local avant-folk singer for her Friday night set at Friends.

The always entertaining Carissa's Wierd also earned raves in Austin. The bandplaying a showcase jointly sponsored by Seattle mover-and-shaker Mike McGonigal's Sad Robot labeltore the roof off the Club Deville (metaphorically speaking, as the Deville stage was outdoors) with an oh-so-contemporary cover of Avril Lavigne's "Complicated."

Blur, onstage in Austin: Frontman Damon Albarn surveys the pop scene.

photo: Gary Miller

THE VOICE THAT WASN'T THERE

Real celebrities (i.e., movie stars) have long had their musical aspirations indulged by the organizers of SXSW. After all, a little big-screen muscle goes a long way in bringing out curious crowds. At least that's the only reason we can offer for Billy Bob Thornton performing in a headlining slot at the Austin Music Hall on Thursday. For his part, Thornton has released one bona fide recording, 2001's Private Radio on Lost Highway. And in fairness, the albumfeaturing Thornton's brooding country narrativeswas not entirely without merit. Its chief problem, it seemed, was that it was originally intended as a spoken-word affairand upon hearing the man's voice it became painfully clear why. Thornton, in Texas to film a remake of The Alamoco-star Jason Patric was in attendancetreated a fairly thin but expectant crowd to some of the most, shall we say, "unique" notions of pitch and meter since Carl Lewis' infamous attempt at the national anthem.

Following up Daniel Lanois' blazing finale with Richie Havens, the crowd proceeded to wait nearly an hour before the lights finally dimmed. Then another 10-minute delay until, finally, Thornton's band took the stage. A slick crew of L.A. session cowboysleather trousers, flame emblazoned Wrangler shirts with the sleeves cut offbegan vamping. As a black-clad, knit-capped Thornton made a grand entrancesidling up to the microphone, cigarette in handhe released a lupine howl of such unnerving tunelessness that it seemed to confuse and disorient many in the audience. Waging a one-man campaign of vocal "shock and awe," Thornton proceeded to swagger through a bad rockabilly pasticheits chorus went something like: "She makes me shiver and a-shake-ah!" Suffice to say, the stampede to get out of the venue was perhaps only slightly less intense than the exodus from a Great White gig. At least we can rule Thornton out of contention for a role in the sequel to Chicago.

COVER ME

Tucson, Ariz., desert noir/alt-mariachi exponents Calexico were among this year's most ubiquitous outfits. In addition to their official Antone's set, they performed at multiple SXSW satellite parties, as well as backing numerous others (including Neko Case, Tortoise's Doug McCombs, and steel guitar ace Jon Rauhouse). Still, when it came to capping their own sets with a flourish, the band did not disappoint, as Calexico pulled off two of the most memorable covers of the weekif not recent memory. Closing their Devil in the Woods/Tag Team Media party turn, Calexico ended with a chaotic version of Joy Division's "Love Will Tear Us Apart." (Factory Records honcho Tony Wilson, in town as a panelist, would've no doubt appreciated the homage to his most famous charges.) As if that weren't enough cover-song cheek, Calexico topped off their outdoor set at Saturday's Metro/Hideout bash with a jaw-dropping redux of Love's "Along Again Or" that would've had even the notoriously hard-to-please Arthur Lee nodding in approval.

WOO-HOO!

As it turned out, SXSW's hotly tipped "surprise" set from Britpop veterans Blur featured only one band member anyone could actually name. With the recent departure of guitarist Graham Coxon and the last-minute absence of bassist Alex James, it was left to frontman Damon Albarn to try and convince the packed house at La Zona Rosa that the songs from the group's forthcoming album (Think Tank, May 6) could compete with mid-'90s faves like "Chemical World" and "Song 2." What the clutch of fresh tunes revealed most is that Blur is well in the throes of its Sandinista! phaseAlbarn even alluded to the debt, introducing one of the new songs as being Clash-inspired. No doubt, Albarn's recent flirtation with the music of Mali also played a role in the Strummer-styled world-music motifs of the newer material. Still, it's heartening to see one of the U.K.'s bigger names not merely content to tread water creatively. Although the group really should consider excising 1994's new-wave electro popper "Girls & Boys" from its set forever, as the song has not aged well; in the cold light of the new millennium, it sounds eerily like something Dead or Alive might've recorded in 1984.

The Minus 5's Pete Buck and Scott McCaughey (from left) with Roky Erickson and ice-cream social organizer Peyton Wimmer.

photo: Todd V. Wolfson

ROKY, TOO

SXSW's biggest and most pleasant surprise came with Friday's Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social. Former 13th Floor Elevator leader and psychedelic pioneer Erickson has, for folks outside of Austin, remained a reclusive legend. Plagued for decades with a variety of drug- and mental-health-related issues, Erickson looked amazingly fit, happy, and normalalbeit with a mulletas he posed for pictures, signed autographs, and took in a outdoor concert held in his honor. Local confectioner Amy's Ice Cream renamed its "Roky" Road flavor after Erickson, and the ever-present Minus 5 headlined the musical bill; in a nice little moment, M5 leader Scott McCaughey could be seen beaming as Erickson signed his Les Paul. In all, a genuinely touching event in a week usually leadened with music biz cynicism.

BABS' BIG NIGHT

Local publicist/personality and all- around muso Barbra Mitchell held Seattle's most noteworthy coming-out party in Austin, with a showcase kicking off her Rosalyn Records label. The imprint's first release is slated to be the solo debut of Mudhoney guitarist Steve Turner, followed by potential platters from ex-Screaming Trees trapsman Mark Pickerel, and guitar god Ian Moore, among others.

All of the aforementioned performed at Rosalyn's Friday night Lounge eventwhich opened with a blinding solo set from Model Rockets main man John Ramberg (joined onstage by the tireless Scott McCaughey for a spirited stab at Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone"). Midway through the evening's proceedings, however, a plague of peroxide blondes descended on the venue, anticipating a surprise set from sorority girl fave Ben Harper, who obliged them with a batch of tunes from his brand-new Diamonds on the Inside.

After Harper's departure, it was time for Mudhoney's Turner to unveil his hippie-folk alter ego. The man often championed as "the Eric Clapton of grunge" certainly looked the part, as his growth of chin whiskers has exceeded even that of '70s Slowhand proportions (on the flight home, Turner's Mudhoney bandmates, Guy Maddison and Dan Peters, threatened to stage a "beard intervention" in the near future and shear the offending facial hair). Still, Turner's tasteful folk implosion proved a spot-on finale, closing out what was for all involved an auspicious start for the fledgling label.

BRUUUUUCE!

God bless Bruce Brodeen, for his is not an easy task. The head honcho of the Not Lame record label is among the foremost champions of that much-maligned musical style, power pop. Brodeen's Colorado-based imprint has specialized in releasing records by some of the subgenre's more unsung exponentsMartin Luther Lennon, Doug Powell, and locals the Model Rockets are all on the rosteras well as putting out multi-CD retrospective box sets from '90s' icons like Jellyfish and the Posies.

But Brodeenwho's sometimes been almost apologetic for his abiding passionmay finally hit much-deserved pay dirt with the Shazam. Although the Tennessee quarteta brilliant Who-meets-Cheap-Trick hybridhas recorded four previous full-lengths, their recently released Tomorrow the World should vault them into the pantheon of power-pop greats; the group proved as much in Austin, holding their own on an outdoor bill that included legends like Dwight Twilley and the 20/20.

The Shazam also earn points for the best song title of SXSW, with their hilariously monikered mega-anthem, "Rockin' and Rollin' (With My) Rock 'n' Roll Rock 'n' Roller."

DAZZLING DISPLAY

SXSW is always trumpeted as an event showcasing new bands and rising stars, but inevitably it's the well-worn vets that seem to provide most of the thrills (Christ, the downright ancient Richie Havens was one of 2003's standouts). So leave it to 43-year-old Steve Wynn to bring the proverbial heat, with two of the loudest, hardest, and most passionate sets of music in Austin all week. In town since before the festival, the former Dream Syndicate leader made a parade of appearances, but two of his final SXSW slotshis official conference bow at the Cactus Caf頯n Friday and a Saturday evening set at Alejandro Escovedo's Taco X-Press galawere nothing short of incendiary.

Launching the stateside push for his latest album, Static Transmissions (Innerstate, May 13), Wynn ripped though a perfect mix of solo and Syndicate songs with a power and volume that threatened to come gleefully unhinged throughout (the performance should further whet the appetite for those anticipating the singer's Northwest dates in late April). Wynn's outfit, the Miracle 3by far his best solo- backing troupewas in feverish form as well. Especially Linda Pitmonlate of Minneapolis post-punks ZuZu's Petalswho confirmed her growing rep as one of rock's premier female drummers, a worthy East Coast counterpart to Sleater-Kinney/Quasi hard hitter Janet Weiss.

Wynn's performance once again proved the ultimate point and purpose of SXSW as a place where peopleno matter how old or jadedcan go to renew their passion for all things musical. And even if that's the only tangible result of the entire week, it's surely worth going back next year.

bmehr@seattleweekly.com

 
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