Even as our country hurtled headlong into its first preemptive war without even the appearance of a threat, most things were happening as usual. People went to work if they could get it, got drunk at Mardi Gras and on St. Patrick's Day, "went wild" over spring break, watched the movie industry contort to kiss its own arse at the Oscars, and might've been dimly aware of the music industry people descending upon Austin, Texas over the Ides of March to sniff each other's butts and bemoan the sad state of it all.
South by Southwest is hard not to notice, especially when more than a thousand bands come to play, including 157 from countries other than the US of A and a healthy contingent from our particular neck of the woods: Film School, the Aislers Set, Jack West and Curvature, essence, Nedelle, the Scheme, the Cost, the Stratford 4, Red Planet, Madelia, Fabulous Disaster, Communique, Drunkhorse, From Bubblegum to Sky, Me First and the Gimme Gimmes, John Vanderslice, the Court and Spark, Divit, Auditrons of Kemetic Suns, Tribe 8, Virgil Shaw, Fields of Gaffney, Vienna Teng, Erase Errata, Pushy, Porn (The Men of), Nate Denver's Neck, OM Trio, Tea Leaf Green, and Oxbow.
The tropical mugginess blew in Tuesday, just in time for the festival, and by Wednesday it didn't seem to be going anywhere. You don't think of Texas being wet, but you're wrong. The air hung heavy, so sticky you were likely to choke on it if you breathed too deep. It wasn't raining, but you could tell it wanted to more than anything. The sweaty weather drew out cockroaches bigger than your big toe -- their carapaces punctuated your steps so much you might as well've been wearing tap shoes.
By Wednesday night's kickoff, there seemed to be almost as many bands underfoot as there were roaches. In this one week alone, Austin pretty much earns its self-styled moniker of the Live Music Capital of the World. It's hard to catch even a fraction of the action around town, and not just because there's so dang much of it. There are free shows in parks and record stores, but the official SXSW showcases let in badge-wearing convention registrants first and people who shelled out for all-weekend wristbands next. The crowd waiting to pay the cover was usually shit out of luck, especially because some clubs turned paying customers away to make room for the badge-holders who might show up later.
"I guess this is capacity, post-Great White," said Erik Carter of Oakland's Mumble and Peg, looking around in a club not even half-full, with a long line outside that wasn't getting in. Carter was attending not as a musician but as an organizer of the Wednesday night showcase featuring the Jungle Brothers and And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead -- and as a guy who likes to go to shows.
"I sat outside the Yo La Tengo show, but I couldn't get in," said Sean McArdle, bass player for Oakland punk band the Cost. Still, from outside he said it sounded great. "We were given the option of either getting wristbands or getting paid, and we chose to get paid. But we later realized we would have made more money if we'd got the wristbands and just sold them."
Oakland's Actionslacks pulled out of the festival at the last minute, citing the fact that they're breaking in a new keyboard player. "We'd rather wait a bit and debut the new lineup when it's up to snuff," 'Slacks member Tim Scanlin explained. Larger acts with less to lose opted to go ahead and play anyway: Modesto's all-powerful Grandaddy confessed in the middle of an otherwise dreamy set plagued by flubs and false starts, "It's been a long time since we played together, and actually we're ill-prepared for all this."
Wednesday started off slow. The bands were there, but the crowds had yet to arrive. Bay Area queercore outfit Tribe 8 held court before a small but enthusiastic mob in the backyard at Stubb's. "We used to be lesbians before we all got sex changes," lead singer Lynn Breedlove said, but despite a slight change in lineup (though not gender), the band's lewd shtick hadn't changed much in the last decade. Breedlove still sang about objectifying her girlfriend, still strutted around with a rubber dick sticking out of her pants, and got fellated by fans, giving "in your face" a whole new meaning. The other acts that night were neither local nor worth mentioning, though I caught just enough of Oxbow's set to see a big muscular sweaty guy in bikini briefs howling and flexing and swiveling his hips as guitars clashed and moaned.
For whatever reason, Thursday seemed to be the night for East Bay rock. Communique, an earnest new Oakland five-piece with hoarse vocals and synth, kicked off the usual Lookout Records showcase at Emo's and made me rack my brain to figure out which '80s song each bass line reminded me of. The Cost was up next, and had come a long way from the heavy, bellowing Oakland hardcore band of a few years back. It still did all that, but added in some more serpentine and lush punk rock with murmured, plaintive vocals and complex, sometimes downright pretty melodies. Its songs were all angles, full of twists and turns amid the tumbling clatter of drums, guitar feedback, bonebreaking bass rumble, and howling vocals. A slow, almost dainty number in waltz time soon sped up into a screaming punk barrage.
"Yeah, everybody's tastes have changed," the Cost's McArdle said. This was the band's first time at SXSW (unlike some Bay Area acts, which come back year after year).
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