Trackside at the meet ‘n’ greet marathon

At Austin's SXSW music conference, everybody's got their ears to the ground.

The 12th annual South by Southwest Music Conference, a magnet for music-biz types from all over the country, began in Austin on Thursday, March 19, with Nick Lowe‘s unorthodox keynote address. Instead of delivering a speech, the revered songwriter just stood on stage and played four songs, including his classic, “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love, and Understanding.”

Lowe’s gesture was a fitting opening for SXSW, which, despite its evolution from regional showcase to massive industry event, remains focused on discovering, developing, and celebrating quality music. Every March, thousands of record-company A&R scouts, publicists, music journalists, concert promoters, radio programmers, and promotion managers spend four nights scurrying, ear plugs in hand, to nearly 40 venues in the Texas capital. Austin’s compact downtown allows people to move quickly from place to place, and with a little hustle, you can catch at least five bands a night.

Or so the theory goes. The reality, I discovered in my first year of attendance, is that your movement is often impeded by chance encounters with acquaintances on their way to see the hot new band from A) San Francisco, B) Chicago, or C) Reykjavík. They’ll invite you along, but first you have to accompany them as they A) pick up so-and-so at the Hyatt, B) stop by the X magazine party, or C) meet their boss for dinner. Aside from listening to music, meetings—in both senses of the word—are the main activity at SXSW.

There’s a trade show and music biz panels, but if you’re a band that already has a label deal, SXSW can get pretty monotonous pretty fast. As a member of the Philadelphia band Bardo Pond observed at the High Times party: “Drinking is only good for about three hours of the day, so what do you do for the rest of the conference?”

For starters, you try to avoid bleak moments like the one I had on Wednesday night, listening to a Houston band called Chlorine imitate Alice In Chains. A turgid cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”—which, as Godheadsilo has already proven, is well enough left alone—drove me out the door before Citizens’ Utilities, the band I’d come to see, even started. The Seattle foursome reportedly played a confident set that had A&R types buzzing, girls (and a few boys) checking out cutie guitarist Josh Medaris, and a couple of people even dancing.

My consolation for missing the Medaris gaze-a-thon was the chance to catch Spoon, an Austin trio whose charm was summed up by its former publicist: “People love them or despise them.” I’ve always been in the first camp, so I was thrilled by their show at the circus-tent-like venue Liberty Lunch. Longtime popsters Liquor Giants followed with a set of light-as-air sing-alongs as the guitarist showed off his Young Fresh Fellows T-shirt. Wednesday night ended with the stand-up comedy of Royal Trux, who played the Austin punk institution Emo’s. After trotting out uninspired material from its new album, Accelerator, the band launched into some older songs, heating things up enough that singer Jennifer Herema had to take off her goose-down North Face jacket.

SXSW’s hottest ticket this year was a last-minute show by Sonic Youth. People began lining up in Austin’s 40-degree twilight two hours before the 7pm start. Inside the claustrophobic La Zona Rosa, the band previewed material from its upcoming record, A Thousand Leaves. Some of the songs were so new that when the band played “Hits of Sunshine,” written for Allen Ginsberg, Thurston Moore left out some words because he couldn’t make out the cheat sheet at his feet. “And you thought we were professionals,” he said wryly.

The Sonic Youth show coincided with the appearance of another musical éminence grise, Robyn Hitchcock, along with director Jonathan Demme, for a screening of the film Storefront Hitchcock. In the choice between rocking out and watching a movie about rocking out, I’m afraid Demme lost, but an objective spectator gave me a one-line synopsis: “Storefront Hitchcock documents an unvarnished performance of Hitchcock’s newest (and best) stuff, spiked with typically surreal Hitchcockian ramblings about smashing the state—for a guy with a headful of gray hair, he’s still pissed as hell.”

This year’s winnersof the Omnipresence Award were former Mekons Jon Langford and Sally Timms, who played inspired shows at multitude of venues including Lang- ford’s raucous, tequila-soaked set on Saturday with his country band, the Waco Brothers. On Friday afternoon at the trade show’s acoustic stage, Langford and Timms followed a sweet rendition of “Tennessee Waltz” with a lo-fi electronica number, during which they charmed the undercaffeinated crowd with some synchronized dance moves.

Friday afternoon’s other notable event was a one-on-one between Rolling Stone writer David Fricke and Capitol Records president Gary Gersh, a.k.a. the Man Who Signed Nirvana. Gersh admitted that he was having less fun in his bean-counting job than he’d had scouting talent for Geffen in the ’80s. When Fricke asked about Capitol’s decision to drop one of its best-selling performers, MC Hammer, Gersh’s reply was diplomatic. “Hammer,” he said thoughtfully, “now that was a man with some great pants.”

Just before sunset, ham-glammers Spacehog turned most of the guests at Interview magazine’s party into cranky rock critics. Aside from several glassy-eyed women in tight pants, a transvestite in a teased blond wig, and a couple of bald men, I was the only attendee who seemed to be enjoying the band’s brief set. Among the unimpressed were Arlie Carstens of Seattle’s own Juno (who got stuck with a gig at one of the festival’s worst venues, a frat bar called Bob Popular), who voiced the prevailing attitude: “Spacehog are rock stars—in their own mind.” Plying the crowd with free margaritas will only get you so far.

All paneled out and on the verge of a massive head cold, I spent Saturday afternoon in the sun, walking around Austin’s university district, where I discovered subway songstress Mary Lou Lord, who had turned down a festival spot, playing at Urban Outfitters. Go figure.

Very early Sunday morning, the drunken multitudes and I converged on Spin magazine’s after-hours party at a mahogany-paneled gay bar called the Naked Grape. A sweaty, inspired set from the Old 97’s got even better with a surprise visit from John Doe, whom Old 97’s guitarist Ken Bethea cited as a musical and sartorial influence. Around 4am, when Q-Burns Abstract Message started to spin and more beer was being spilled than drunk, I caught a cab back to the hotel, where it was eerily quiet except for the ringing in my ears.