Austin Wowers

Running through the brambles of South by Southwest '99.

Eight hundred miles from Austin, and one dream is dead. The woman seated behind me on the 737 departing Denver had oil-black hair streaked with fuchsia. I went out on a very short limb and asked if she was flying to South by Southwest. "Yes," she said sarcastically, "what gave me away?"

She works in the Seattle offices of EMI. In the weeks leading up to the conference, there was a faint rumor that Paul Westerberg would leave his Minneapolis basement, bolster himself with Prozac, and play a surprise gig at SXSW. I asked if it were true. No dice, she said.

The swampy Austin airport teemed with black clothing, drum heads, briefcases embroidered with insert-label-name-here. The thirteen-year-old South by Southwest Music and Media Conference is the music business's Sundance, but with fewer cell phones and more wallet chains. SXSW is run with the precision of the railways under fascist rule. Over five days, more than eight hundred acts performed at 45 venues. Shows began and ended on time, the literature was unfailingly accurate, streets were swept of debris by the next morning. Midnight Thursday, one SXSW volunteer stood on the street warning about a man who was apparently accosting passersby with a phony hard-luck tale. "Ahead there's a guy with a Superman shirt," he said. "Keep walking!" Not that the laminates swinging from our necks always elicited a cheery "How-dee!" Behind the bar of the Liberty Lunch, a chalkboard read: "No limes. No Coors. No cell phones. No credit cards. No kidding."

The panel I most looked forward to was a seminar on regional music coverage. A SXSW rep called a month ago to invite me. Sounded interesting. Turns out, I learned at the registration desk, he was inviting me to sit on the panel. I took it upon myself to play the role of uninformed jerk; I think I succeeded fabulously. Lizard-like rock critic Dave Marsh led a mostly infuriating symp on the MC5. Classy guitarist Wayne Kramer, who played a show Friday, allowed Marsh and MC5 manager and White Panther Party founder John Sinclair to ramble on about how tough each was in the '60s.

SXSW may be the one conference where it's acceptable to wander into the convention center at noon, pink of eye and thick of tongue. So many bands to watch, so much Lone Star to down. (It's also the one conference where an afternoon screening of a Can documentary could draw a giddy crowd.) Early in the going, you realize you could divide yourself into fourths and not see all that needs to be seen.

SXSW is a microcosm of the music biz in one sure way: There are just too damn many bands out there. The relatively low cost of recording and manufacturing CDs has everyone thinking he's God's gift (or at least Hallmark) to rock music. Can the world ever get its fill of song? No, but the absence of barriers forgives mediocrity. As a panelist discussing the state of alternative country put it, so much new music is not bad enough to throw in the trash but not good enough to turn up the volume. Bearing that in mind, I return with soiled earplugs, callused feet, and this report.

Before Cleveland's own Poplolly (for notes on Northeast Ohio acts, see Soundbites in this week's issue) performed Wednesday night, I tried to check out Jeff Beck. Normally, a SXSW badge lets one cut in front of the riffraff waiting in line. Nothing doing here--an early clue that SXSW is not necessarily about catching rising bands but seeing guitar gods for free. A shift in venues found San Antonio's Bedwetter playing rousing power pop, emphasis on power. Sweep the Leg Johnny, a four-piece from Chicago, set a bar for the rest of the week that was seldom scraped. The saxophone suggested this would be just another crummy ska band, but Johnny was a ferocious blend of Morphine, Madness, and Radiohead. Flecks of fluid jumped from saxman/singer Steve Sootak's small but powerful body; I couldn't tell if it was sweat or saliva. He played the saxophone with his eyes wide open, which was kind of terrifying.

A former colleague suggested Johnny Flamehead. He made the 23-hour drive from Las Vegas with the band and promised there would be fifteen label scouts to watch Thursday's show. I don't know how many came, but Johnny Flamehead did seem to have an inordinate number of groupies grinning at the side of the stage. They didn't see much more than what Faith No More was doing--and doing better--ten years ago. The singer was charismatic in a sloppy, Vince Vaughn kind of way, but the lead guitarist's jock thuggery was a turnoff. A former University of Arizona linebacker, he wore wristbands, sweat pants, and shiny Nike high-tops; his naked pecs bulged as if the hours between sound check and the show were spent bench-pressing Volvos.

At the Ritz Lounge, Tim Easton of Columbus begged the question he always does: How can such a wee man have such a big voice? Accompanied by the Haynes Boys, Easton showed Texans that folk rock doesn't have to originate in the dusty South to melt the heart and rattle the soul. The closing "Franklin County Woman" drew half of a standing ovation and cheers of "Encore!" Nicely done.

Dodged the raindrops to see Vancouver's Smugglers. Recommended for pep-squad punk fans who like band members to wear suits and choreograph their hand gestures. Fun stuff. Fronted by seedy-looking North Carolinian Chip Robinson, the Backsliders make roots rock that sounds like "Dead Flowers" as interpreted by Crazy Horse. Joe Henry was a disappointment. Buy his fine new record, Fuse; skip the somnambulant live show. Caught the end of six-foot, Mackenzie Phillips look-alike Beth Orton's acoustic set at Antone's. She has an interesting voice, but the sameness of her material lets her down. "She wouldn't be a big deal if she wasn't British," someone next to me grumbled. Scrappy Jud Newcomb was a perfect nightcap. A former sideman in the great Austin roots band Loose Diamonds, Newcomb's voice is a tribute to the benefits of smoking high-tar cigarettes.

Austin's Guy Forsyth's sexy voice and slinky sound were a refreshing break from blues guitar demagoguery on Friday. The riot amazzzzzons of L7 did not deserve the catcall "Play something good, you goddamn bitch" shouted next to my ear. Easy, fella. I put L7 in the same file folder as Lenny Kravitz and Morrissey: I'm no big fan, but the world's a better place with them in it. You'll be hearing more about the Bellrays, a soul-punk band from L.A. whose singer's wails might straighten her Afro puffs. NYC's Johnny Society played pop rock in the vein of the Kinks, Elvis Costello, and the Ass Ponys to a disinterested crowd of frat boys and mashing couples. Built to Spill, the Boise buzz band that played somewhere about every night, was a last-minute add to the Japanese band showcase. Frontman Doug Martsch complained too much about someone stealing an e-bow, but the band reaffirmed many faiths that the gtr-gtr-drm-bs format still has life. Whatever bird was singing in Pavement's ear seven years ago flew to Idaho to live with a balding married guy.

Saturday evening, kings of the lo-fi, Guided by Voices, played a hi-fi set before thousands at an outdoor stage in the city park. Bob Pollard and friends, including Cleveland's Doug Gillard on guitar, have learned how to translate four-track tchotchkes into arena smashes. Pollard swung his microphone a la Roger Daltrey and frequently affected an unironic Irish accent. Inside the clubs, Houston's two-thirds-female Junior Varsity was like the Saturday Night Live cheerleader sketch. All three band members had matching red vests with a "JV" monogram; the women wore skirts, bobby socks, and saddle shoes. Ultra gimmicky and not very tuneful, but most everyone was smiling.

At a conference lousy with acts warbling about broken hearts and broken-down transmissions, Asian Dub Foundation's political stridency and techno rap were a splash of ice water; the Indo-Anglo band made Aussie Ben Lee, who followed, seem even wussier than usual. Though acts were restrained to 45-minute sets, Lee ordered his band offstage so he could croon two numbers by himself. Precious.

Scalpers were paying $100 a ticket, and one man tried to sneak in through the roof for SXSW '99's big event at the Paramount Theatre. Just after midnight Saturday, Tom Waits played just his fourth concert in twelve years. The line to get in, even though the tix had been rationed out early in the day and seats were assigned, wrapped around the block. "I hear people brought their sleeping bags and Sterno and camping gear," Waits said during a break between songs. "That thrills me." It was Waits who did the thrilling. Backed by a terrific four-piece band, Waits crouched down to the microphone and slapped his left foot with the beat. He was savage, funny, tender, desperate, and wistful--both the junkyard dog and the man trying to break into the lot for a hubcap. "My wife says I write two kinds of songs," he said: "Grand weepers and grim reapers."

Waits played torch-and-scorch favorites like "Downtown Train," "Hang Down Your Head," and "Heart of Saturday Night" and a couple of new songs. Like everyone else at SXSW, he was peddling something, in this case a new record, Mule Variations, which he may support with a small tour. The show was his way of passing a note to critics, radio programmers, and industry types dizzied by MP3 and the Marvelous 3. For nearly two glorious hours, cell phones didn't chirp, the schmoozing silenced, and hope replaced hype. No, Tom, we hadn't forgotten.

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