South by southwest music and media conference 2003 Austin, Texas, March 12-16.
Austin, Texas -- If the planet is teetering on the brink of World War III, you'd never know it in sunny Austin during the annual South By Southwest music festival. On the streets of the Longhorn State capital, the closest people get to political debate is the absurd discussion over the bill to have french fries renamed freedom fries.
There were much more pressing matters than Iraq for the thousands of artists, journalists, record company executives, media moguls, promoters, managers, agents, publicists and fans who came to Austin for the world's biggest five-day beer- and barbecue-fuelled music bonanza.
This used to be a much more serious conference at which creative minds gathered for a passionate exchange of ideas in hopes of saving the music industry from itself. Now South By Southwest has evolved into a sort of music biz spring break where industry desk-jockies get to swap war stories with their compatriots, network with future prospects and schmooze with celebrities.
That's not to suggest that business isn't being done amidst the saucy revelry at SXSW -- important contacts are made and deals are cut all day long. But the value of the festival's panel discussion component has been seriously eroded by the lure of more exciting, albeit unsanctioned, daytime parties.
Sponsored by prestige-seeking corporate concerns with deep enough pockets to hire the top buzz bands and high-profile celebs, the so-called "outlaw" events are fast becoming the place to be at SXSW. As of Saturday, I had yet to encounter a fellow delegate who'd admit to attending a single panel outside of Daniel Lanois's keynote recitation.
Who really wants to hear what some program director from a country radio station in Oklahoma has to say about anything when you could be at Maggie Mae's chatting with N*E*R*D's Pharrel Williams about a new Neptunes remix. And with Marilyn Manson's stripper squeeze Dita Von Teese on hand for Larry Tee's outlaw Electroclash party, the long line at El Matador Saturday was hardly surprising.
For me, the 15 minutes I spent in the backroom of the Saxon Pub with Steve Wynn, Peter Buck and Scott McCaughey listening to Ian McLagan tell delightful tales of a 13-year-old Small Faces fan from Birmingham named Robert Plant was every bit as memorable as hearing Tony Joe White thrash away with his badass whomper-stomper at Antone's while a tipsy Lucinda Williams hilariously flashed grey ponytailed execs doing the dirty boogie with their secretaries.
Was watching Damon Albarn trying to reconcile his love for Malian grooves with his burning desire for pop chart validation while unveiling the new songs from Blur's forthcoming Think Tank disc at a surprise La Zona Rosa gig any better than catching Horseshoe hombres Jeff Cohen and Craig Laskey dancing up a hoser frenzy onstage with the Waco Brothers at the Bloodshot label's Yard Dog Gallery hoedown? Of course not. They're both part of what makes the whole SXSW experience unique and worthwhile. It's high time SXSW organizers stopped trying to ignore the outlaw events and figured out how to better incorporate them in the festival mix.
Along with kick-ass displays by Jimmy Webb's kids in the power-pop-pounding Webb Brothers, the Thin Lizzy-inspired metal mayhem of the Darkness, the garage-rockin' blast of supergroup the Minus Five, the fuzzed-out trash-soul crunch of Austin's Crack Pipes and the Drive-By Trucker's triple-guitar Southern rock onslaught at Yard Dog Gallery, there were also a number of mega-hyped misfires.
Most notable was the Rapture's utter failure to connect with all but three of the hundreds of people jammed into La Zona Rosa, and the sound-system sabotaging of Erase Errata's highly anticipated Emo's Annex gig.
Fast-rising Vancouver rapper Josh Martinez encountered technical difficulties of a different kind at Zero Degrees. The Auditrons, hosting the hiphop showcase, decided that midnight would be a good time to put on an unscheduled 45-minute set of their own, which pushed back Martinez's slot an hour to 1:30 am and cut his stage time to just 15 minutes. Clearly dismayed by the shituation, Martinez channelled his rage into a furiously ripping attack that turned the joint upside down.
Of course, there was no shortage of rumoured shows with possible performances by Roky Erickson and Turbonegro (both no-shows), topped only by the chatter of a Spinal Tap gig.
Since Tap alter egos Harry Shearer, Michael McKean and Christopher Guest were all in Austin for the SXSW Film Festival premiere of their new Guffmanesque folkumentary A Mighty Wind (coming to theatres in April), it wasn't out of the question, but the Stubbs Saturday-night slot listed as "special guests" was actually filled by 20-plus-member pop choral orchestra the Polyphonic Spree.
Earlier in the evening, the massive Polyphonic Spree ensemble -- in their white gown and cross-trainer finery -- put on an awesome spectacle at the Austin Music Hall, led with cult-like zeal by former Tripping Daisy frontman Tim Delaughter.
After a few of the Spree's sappy/sinister hymns of peace, love and hedonistic celebration, a grizzled Austin sage nodded knowingly, "They gotta be from Dallas." And, funnily enough, he was right on the money.