Dappled by the last warm light of early spring dusk, Austin, Texas, could not be lovelier. Waning sunlight splays across the emerald-hued Austin River. The air is soft and moist. We’re standing below and off to one side of the Congress Avenue Bridge.
Suddenly thousands of Mexican free-tail bats take flight, fanning out from beneath the arched concrete viaduct in spiraling, oily swarms. The bats blindly negotiate the crests of riverside Spanish oaks and weeping willows in a squeaky symphony, hungry for insects. These bats, I’m told, fly from Mexico and roost upturned in the concrete crevices of the bridge’s underside at this time every year.
The bat moment becomes the perfect allegory for what’s wrong with SXSW, which sees thousands of publicists, PR flacks and major-label weasels descend on Austin in a back-slapping congratulatory swarm. It’s where eager-faced baby bands come loaded on beer and dreams of how famous they can get and how rich they can be. It’s become almost everything that’s wrong with the music business. SXSW resembles Mardi Gras; it’s a great and gratuitous excuse to get ripped and, maybe, learn how to carve a “career” from the pros.
After seeing countless shows both drunk and sober, one thing has become clear: Garage is quickly becoming the new emo, where kids play dress up by down-dressing in garage garb, not because they are moved by the music, but because it’s the up-to-the-minute thing to do.
Also, an irksome Detroit jingoism floated through certain circles of this year’s SXSW, one that was seemingly self-serving. One of the Lanternjack put it perfectly when he said, “If I hear one more person say Detroit one more time, I’m gonna puke!”
That’s not to say there were no moments of greatness. The Fags, for example — a Detroit trio I wasn’t so sure about coming in — blew in a set at The Venue on Wednesday night that effortlessly demolished any grudges. Three hundred people crammed the club straight up to the bow of the tiny stage. Sweat, beer and heady cheers ensued, and the wind-up nature of the songs had legions of non-Detroiters foisting fists throughout the band’s 40-minute set. Some were shout-singing along to the band’s Cheap Tricky tri-minute churns. The Fags played as if they had guns to the back of their heads, and though singer John Speck’s guitar was barely cutting through, his barrel-lunged voice and the wonderful rhythm section more than carried the show.
The Sights, in the hours leading up to their Friday show at the cavernous La Zona Rosa, were completely hammered. At one point, the band overtook the dressing room of V2 band Icarus Line, swilled their beer, and, for the most part, demonstrated that they were in no condition to play. The band had already missed two “industry” parties the day before when their van sputtered to a standstill in the middle of Missouri. Thing is, adversity is this band’s best pal, and they don’t care what any record company or publicist thinks about them. Hence, they’ve nothing to lose; the Sights play for the love of music and are completely appalled by PR-driven music conventions.
The Sights were saddled with a cleanup slot after the Datsuns, a band that could be described — crap songs notwithstanding — as one of the best live bands on earth. On that night, it seemed, no band could follow the Datsuns. Particularly the Sights, polluted as they were.
When the Sights settled in to play, drummer Dave Shettler muttered to the crowd with a sardonic grin, “We just want to warn you that if you’re not from Detroit you should leave now because we’re not really a band, we’re just an inside joke.” The comment was half-sarcasm based on half-truths. Until recently, the Sights were rarely taken seriously in their hometown.
So what we witnessed was stunning. Besides raising their collective middle finger to the industry, the Sights rose to the occasion — like any rock ’n’ roll band should — in a venue that had, depressingly, half-cleared out after the Datsuns.
Here were four disruptive kids in threadbare clothes, ill-fitting jackets and worried expressions making a chemically enhanced racket chock-full of hooks and soulful piss and vinegar. And it was apparent that the band’s constant touring has rewarded them in spades; singer Eddie Baranek is suddenly a buoyant rock ’n’ roll front man, exuding a crowd-in-hand confidence he didn’t have six months ago. The entire band played with a passion I’ve not seen in ages.
The Paybacks early slot at Antone’s was also inspired. Wendy Case’s hoarse and melodic bark careened over the much-improved band’s wallop. On the downside, Case referenced Detroit far too many times, going so far as to point out various local bands in the audience. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke paid no mind to the incestuous name-dropping — he was in the crowd rocking to-and-fro in his dirty Converse sneakers, just as he was for the Sights.
Elsewhere, American Mars and the Waxwings — who debuted three new songs — played sets to sizable crowds. Both were goose bump-inducing. And I’ll say, as I have for months, both bands are sadly undervalued, a sense that didn’t change in Austin.
The Witches, who played just before the Waxwings for a couple handfuls of people, proffered a linear thump that quickly became superfluous, saved only by singer Troy Gregory. Here is a guy who can bound on stage in front of a tiny crowd with his face beaming, with an enthusiasm that is uplifting. The front man twists and shuffles — often on the dance floor — with a grace only possessed by those who have belief in and love for their record collection, and its power to elevate.
On the other hand, the so-called “Detroit Future Platinum” showcase on the patio of the Lava Lounge was a complete flop. Gold Cash Gold entertained their friends and a bacchanalian Lanternjack played a sloppy (if not droll) set to a few more, including three A&R guys from Jive and Curb, who departed midset. Said showcase — put together by Aural Pleasure’s Dana Forrester and Erica Koltonow — became a source of scorn by some band members who had to pay to play. Both Gold Cash Gold and Laternjack forked over a tidy sum to get into the lineup, all with the promise of a packed house, a good venue and myriad record company weasels floating about. ’Twas hardly the case.
Some Michigan bands revealed themselves to be, at best, a logo on a T-shirt. Grand Rapids’ Molly, which played the aforementioned showcase, is one of those. The band is full of fresh-faced intent — strident chording, sing-along choruses — but revealed itself to be by-the-numbers radio-ready punk/frat rock; think Sum 41, All-American Rejects, Blink 182. Where is the shamanistic rage? Where is the integrity? Molly epitomizes the kind of bland mediocrity that, for a lucky few, can snowball into megastatus born of a SXSW gig.
At the Austin Convention Center, where trade show vendors display their wares, we spotted the much-ballyhooed “Detroit” booth. The jumbo kiosk, in fact, was the largest one there, six times larger, for example, than Australia’s. Grey and black “Detroit @ SXSW” logos were clearly embossed on banners that stretched horizontally and vertically. The display — put together by a group that included attorney Howard Hertz, Made in Detroit owner Robert Stanzler and promoter Amir Daiza — was ostentatious and, from my vantage, projected something other than its intent, which was for musicians to meet and promote themselves.
But that’s not the word uttered by most Detroit musicians who actually saw the thing. Almost all those I spoke with were appalled that somebody had co-opted the word Detroit and splashed it all over SXSW in a manner that was almost embarrassing.
The same group hosted an invite-only afternoon “Detroit” party at the Whiskey. The place was teeming. The party — like the Detroit booth at the trade show — smacked of dubiousness, as if the word Detroit had been trademarked by a select set of people. What’s more, here is a party supposedly representing a city whose population is predominantly black, yet the bash was an all-white affair.
Worse, ivory-hued rap band Trip was abominable, albeit backed by a worthy rhythm section. Two tubby white guys were attempting to adopt black culture circa 1998; they name-dropped both Detroit and the Red Wings in their transparent rhymes. Gold Cash Gold — a band up from the ashes of Charm Farm whose singer and guitarist toured in Uncle Kracker’s band — offered up a laudable display of rock ’n’ roll swagger. Led by singer/keyboardist Eric Hoegemeyer — a former drummer who switched jobs nine months ago — and guitarist Steve Zuccaro, the band is, as Truman Capote would say, “in the dirtiest of all dirty words, promising.”
If the party was an exercise in ennui, then it was symbolic of the conference as a whole.
Many bands and major labels — and, now, SXSW — simply embrace and nurture apathy as though it were musical virtue. Inventiveness and innovation takes work. Bringing something new to a tired musical palette takes emotional investment. But indifference, it seems, is a solution. It’s easy for a band or artist to lose themselves in formula and go for the cash, the record deal and the idea of becoming rich and famous. It’s hard to exist playing music that is gut-level, full of life, joy, celebration and fuck-all fun, music that works on many levels and explores both the head and the libido. It takes real courage to be independent in a world where you’re validated by how much money you can make for other people, and how wide-ranging your celebrity can be.
The Sights show us that you don’t have to bed with swooping corporate bats to be heard. You just have to go out and play. And that is, after all, the original point of SXSW.Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org