Rick from the Ex-Cretins and I were thinking the same thing: "I packed way too many pairs of shorts for this trip," he groused, as we stood outside the Buffalo Club on East Seventh Street and grimaced at the maliciously cold gust of Austin evening air attacking our tender South Floridian sensibilities.
A few hours after a harrowing flight had brought me to this remarkable college town last Wednesday night just in time for the beginning of the nigh-legendary South by Southwest music festival, I was powerful glad to run into some friendly faces. Rick and scenester-promoter Steve Rullman of Respectable Street/theHoneyComb.com up in West Palm Beach were part of the entourage that had followed the Boca Raton band Baby Robotsto town. Rullman and I spent the beginning of the night catching Primordial Undermind, a wildly psychedelic project from Austin with two drummers, a clarinet/saxophone player, and a young woman who just held a delay pedal in her hand and manipulated it slowly.
Baby Robots were up next and wowed the small crowd with their distorto-beauty. Leader Bobby Baker introduced the band by describing South Florida as a place where "you stick to yourself twice a day." Baker likes to tweak his effects pedals; he actually fares better with them than he does with his rather thin vocals. That said, the Robots' music soared in Austin, with bassist Steve Johnson providing a thick-and-luscious anchor throughout, as Rullman and I cheered like college hoops boosters at an away game. Following the Robots was another Austin band, ST37, populated by a bunch of big, flannel-shirted lugs with an obvious hankering for old Sonic Youth via the Verve.
Rullman and I then ventured outside on a kamikaze mission to track down additional worthy offerings, and it wasn't hard to find 'em. On the patio at Emo's, the town's most legendary live venue, we caught a few of the Locust's 30-second songs, which the San Diego band delivered with a suicidal gusto. The hardcore thrash quartet raged at the speed of a white-hot space station fragment screaming through the ionosphere. Every song seemed to have the same lyrics: "Kill! Kill! KILL!!!!!"
Killing me much more softly inside Emo's were Japancakes, the Athens, Georgia, instrumental act whose recent album, The Sleepy Strange, is making my world a better place to live -- thanks to such C&W-on-Valium travelogues as "Soft N' EZ." Loving the band made standing in the cramped, sweltering room slightly more bearable, but I'd rather listen to the dreamy, creamy, pedal-steel-guitar candyland of Japancakes on an autumnal road trip, watching the leaves change.
Next we went back to the Buffalo Club, where Baker, beer whore that he is, was getting all touchy-feely. Or was it me with the wandering hands? I didn't know anymore, but I had been drinking enough that Baker was starting to look pretty good. So was the last Austin band on the bill, Wave Station, who had an interesting approach: The two-piece consists of a drummer banging out some funkified beats while the singer-guitarist adds bass tones courtesy of the organ pedals at his feet.
Thursday evening, instead of navigating the maddening maze of bands playing downtown, I picked one venue -- Buffalo Billiards -- and parked it there the entire night. Unfortunately John Roderick was pretty sleepy singer-songwriter stuff, This Busy Monster was rather bland power-trio fluff, and Little Champions' femme-friendly brand of peppy fun was nowhere near as grand as the epic CinemaScope appeal of Death Cab for Cutie, who kicked up a fine cloud of dust. However, four hours of sitting around drinking beer may not have been the best preparation for the sleepier-than-thou prettiness of the American Analog Set. Though a personal favorite of mine, the Austin outfit's low-volume, snooze-button tunes all but put us to bed and tucked us in.
I had resolved to boycott the generally useless conferences that took place during the day at SXSW, but a finger-wagging coworker cajoled me into attending one Friday blabfest. The session to which I was dragged, "How Do You Publicize a Mike Watt in a Britney Spears World?" required nothing more than a quip to answer ("very carefully") but took 75 minutes. Disappointed that neither Spears nor Watt was in attendance, I did appreciate Wall of Sound writer Daniel Durchholz' suggestions for ways in which Watt could garner some pub, such as getting breast implants and changing his name to "Even Puffier."
That night we moseyed back downtown to La Zona Rosa in time for the last few notes produced by Vancouver's New Pornographers, who were joined on-stage by Ray Davies (of the Kinks) and Neko Case. We had high hopes for Preston School of Industry, because the Berkeley, California, group is led by ex-Pavement guy Scott "Spiral Stairs" Kannenberg. I spotted Stephen Malkmus, former singer for Pavement, checking out his old bandmate's new project. Maybe he liked it better than I did. One of the highlights of the event, for me, was Brassy, the Manchester, England, quartet led by Muffin Spencer, sister of exploding bluesman Jon Spencer. Bratty, catty Brassy packed Spencer's cheerleader¯riot grrrl raps; the gum-chewing, ponytail-bobbing bass and backup vocals of Karen Frost; Jonny Barrington's drums and decks; and Stefan Gordon's firecracker fretwork into a tight, frenetic package of bubblicious boasts and beats. Spencer thanked the laminate-wearing attendees who chose Brassy over the evening's biggest draw, the Ike Turner Revue.
From there we squeezed into the massive Matador Records showcase in the cavernous airplane hangar called the Austin Music Hall. The last time I saw former American Music Club singer Mark Eitzel, the show was so excruciatingly terrible he ended up writing a song about it ("Helium"). This time Eitzel's manic depression didn't drag him into a frustrating mess but instead guided him to a tender, disarming, clumsily beautiful set of sad songs. Eitzel was charmingly self-effacing, telling the crowd that he recently visited a bathroom stall in a bar in his hometown of San Francisco to write "Mark Eitzel sucks." The next time he went back, he said, the phrase had been scratched out and replaced with the statement, "No, still alive." Eitzel laughed as he said, "I couldn't tell if it was a putdown or not."
Matador's second act was one of the most talked about and anticipated at SXSW -- the reformed Soft Boys, the group Robyn Hitchcock fronted from 1976 until 1981. The label has just rereleased Underwater Moonlight, the band's underrated magnum opus, and Hitchcock recently got chummy with his old mates: guitarist Kimberly Rew (who originally resurfaced in Katrina and the Waves), bassist Matthew Seligman (last spotted in the '80s on some Thomas Dolby records) and drummer Morris Windsor, who also played in Hitchcock's latter-day band, the Egyptians. The SXSW appearance was the first Soft Boys show in front of an audience in 20 years. A great deal more gray hair was to be found this time around -- Rew and Hitchcock both wore distinguished silver shocks -- but the band demonstrated why R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck always insisted it was the Soft Boys, not the Byrds, from whom he copped his signature chiming tone.
The Soft Boys were superb, but the guitar gods of Glasgow, Scotland, Mogwai, came on shortly thereafter and laid waste to the packed house with a sweeping succession of sucker punches, narcotizing us with sweet, painterly soft passages only to drop anvils of tinnitis-inducing volume on our heads.
I've always been hesitant to attend SXSW because I'm no fan of out-of-control crowds, and I've always been too cheap (read: poor) to fork over the ducats. But I won't miss it again, especially since 99 percent of the bands at the event wouldn't come down to South Florida to piss on us if we were on fire. So an annual pilgrimage is in order. Let me know, and I'll bring you back some green chiles next year.
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