Texas Hold 'Em

Cleveland bands at South by Southwest reveal a music scene worth embracing.

South by Southwest
For the past 96 hours, I've been listening to free music, drinking free booze, and wearing a badge that sports my vitals alongside a grainy digital snapshot of my mug.

From March 14 through 18, this dangling laminate grants me access to a zillion clubs at Austin's annual South by Southwest music festival. But it also allows publicists, label heads, distributors, musicians, and parasitic scenesters of no particular value to know who I am, what I do, and where I rank on the music industry's hip-o-meter -- which, incidentally, isn't very high. Just like at any industry clusterfuck -- where every entertainment company on the planet throws some liquor-soaked party -- you wind up bullshitting with an infinite number of networking tastemakers. And these conversations generally follow one of two paths:

Path No. 1: "So, what do you do in Cleveland?" asks a promoter dude, boozing it up at the Vice party.

"I'm the music editor for Scene, an alt-weekly," I reply, while sweating beer.

"That sucks," the dude explains. "You'll be going to shows at, like, 2:45 p.m."

Or Path No. 2: A publicist chick at the Blender party asks the same question, and I offer the same answer. To which she says: "Isn't the Cleveland music scene, like, always four or five years behind the rest of the country?"

After repeating this conversation three or four billion times, I start to buy into the whole Cleveland-gets-no-respect line. The dude, you see, believes that only cool musicians, like Peter Bjorn and John or El-P, headline shows at peak party hours (around 12 a.m. and later) -- not lame unknowns from Ohio. Which is pure bullshit. Yeah, only Canton's Lovedrug plays at midnight (as part of the Mountain Dew showcase at a Mexican joint called the Rio). But no other area band, including This Moment in Black History and Kent's Six Parts Seven, takes the stage before 8:30. And in Austin, the party starts at lunchtime.

Over at Red 7, a cavernous dive with two stages, the recently reunited Alarm Clocks continue their return from the grave, appearing at the Norton Records showcase. With a wonderfully primitive bed-sheet banner draped behind them, the Clocks plug in just before 10 p.m. on Thursday and proceed to chew the heads off every garage rocker in the place (and there are a lot of heads to chew). On the 1965 chestnut "No Reason to Complain" -- as well as a load of brand-new three-chord jams -- bassist Mike Pierce growls like a 15-year-old hornball, begging his baby for some action. It's a totally surreal experience, considering Pierce is now four decades removed from 15 -- a dapper, suited gentleman resembling a cross between Van Morrison and a retired car salesman.

In addition to the Alarm Clocks, SXSW hosts highly anticipated reunions by the Stooges and the Meat Puppets, as well as a massive free concert on Thursday night by hip-hop pioneers Public Enemy. It's this kind of high-profile stuff that shoots holes straight through the insinuation that Cleveland is years behind the rest of the country. Even if you exclude the old-timers and enduring hipsters, most of the music flooding Austin's streets just ain't new -- which is, uh, supposed to be the whole point of SXSW, right?

There are two primary reasons for the dearth of new sounds: First off, anthemic emo-pop (as defined by Fall Out Boy) has taken over this country and, more immediately, this very festival. It's so everywhere that I can't even point out individual bands; this music simply penetrates the air as you wander past one club to another.

Second: Retro is no longer a rockabilly or punk pastime at clubs like the legendary Emo's, where on Thursday evening, the Blackheart Records showcase keeps punk rock alive with performances by Joan Jett and Cleveland's Vacancies. This post-modern retro fad has sprouted all kinds of microscopic indie scenes, which you can't miss while walking down Austin's main drag: Hey, there go the psych-rockers, the folkies, the dance-rockers, the new-wavers, the classic metalheads, the goth kids, the '60s funk band . . . Apart from the hip-hop crowd, everyone here lives inside some kind of 20-year-old time capsule.

So the next time some New York Blender type -- looking like a Pere Ubu dropout or Joe Walsh, circa '71 -- comes up to you and disses Cleveland, remind that dork that our scene is only, like, four or five years behind the times.

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