AUSTIN, Tx. – So here are some random musings from the 2006 South By Southwest festival (pronounced “South By” to sniffly big-shots), captured while trapped in the rained-out airport and surrounded by zombie-eyed band types – you can always tell the bands – getting in one more cup of coffee, industry types getting in one more meeting, or civilians nodding off awkwardly in those gray terminal seats that, if you sit in them long enough, will reorient your spine for you. Have you ever tried sleeping in one of those things? Heavens to Dashboard Confessional, you might as well try to nap on a pile of charcoal. I know – I’ve been trying for an hour. And all I can hear is the two guys behind me telling me how the Editors, who were the fest’s easy winners for Most Posters Per Square Foot, was, and I’m quoting here, “f—ing a-MAAAAaaaY-zing.” (Well, that’s not entirely true. I can also hear the ringing in my ears pretty well).
SXSW is a magnificent blur. It’s an exhausting mess of indie-rock and noise-pop and occasionally free beer and hairy people in vintage T-shirts and enough merciless walking back and forth from club to club that one morning I woke up to find my feet on the nightstand smoking a cigarette and calling me dirty names. It’s an insanely overstuffed festival (over 1,400 bands) perfect for the attention-deficit crowd, not one of those tie-dyed hippie fests that sport all the same bands but a showcase for the nation’s newest, hottest, most buzzed-about … OK, it’s a mammoth schmoozefest that’s entirely too damned crowded and has an irrational dependence on dissonant indie rock, but it does afford you the chance to see the Beastie Boys, Morrissey, Mates of State and Goldfrapp in under three hours.
Here’s what I took away: 1. I’m old. Know how I know? I shave, a hygiene choice of an unpopularity that’s hard to overstate. And 2. Most nights lacked real headliners who demanded immediate attention, but that allowed me to wander the scene of Austin with impunity. And barbecue. (Twenty bucks says next year a band named Impunity And Barbecue plays the Pitchfork day party).
The Beastie Boys held a rare press conference to promote “Awesome! I Fuckin’ Shot That!” a concert flick for which they handed out 50 digital recorders to fans at a Madison Square Garden gig and had them do the cinematography. (The movie’s certainly energetic but way too enthusiastically edited; still, it’s great to see Doug E. Fresh’s beatbox cameo on “Time To Get Ill.”) For 45 minutes, the Beastie men were subjected to questions by fans, questions that generally started with: “So, I have a Web site called pinklittlehowlermonkey.com, and we capture amateur video and lay mashups featuring the Flaming Lips and Ray Parker Jr. over them, and I was just wondering, uh, do you guys think that’s a good idea?” One girl began by announcing that she “really liked the album with, uh, ‘Girls’ and ‘Brass Monkey’ on it,” causing Adrock’s jaw to hit the stage floor and MCA’s beard like a billy goat to visibly droop. Best line: Responding to a query about how to write rhymes, MCA deadpanned: “Just don’t make some wack shit.”
The following night the Beasties turned up for their not-very-secret gig at Stubb’s. Their 7pm set was one of the fest’s biggest draws, but the show was a ragged (if often fun) mess; they’d obviously had no … rehearsal … since Brooklyn.
Speaking of skinny white rappers, Lady Sovereign, the diminutive hobbit from London, is Jay-Z’s latest signing and one of the fest’s liveliest acts: by my unofficial count she did no less than eight sets in three days. The finale was a seven-song banger at La Zona Rosa late Saturday that found her visibly drained but still able to work up a crazy lather on tracks like “Hoodie,” “Random” and “Public Warning.” Feminem, nah, but fun as hell.
Most satisfying set: Morrissey at the Austin Music Hall. Previewing material from his new “Ringleader of the Tormentors,” due April 6, Moz and his new band (the Tormentors, natch), blazed through material from the new record (first single “You Have Killed Me” is magnifique) as well as “At Last I Am Born” and Smiths standards like “How Soon Is Now?” and “Girlfriend in a Coma.” At 47, there’s a little more jiggling going on when he takes off his shirts, but the man knows how to make a crowd dance to his every flick of the hand. Morrissey told a SXSW panel earlier in the day that he turned down millions for a Smiths reunion. Second-most satisfying: Jersey’s Ted Leo and the Pharmacists, smart, raging punkers who stuff more fire, political and otherwise, into their three-minute epics than most bands do in a career.
Neil Young’s keynote address with Jonathan Demme, who directed the new Young concert film “Heart of Gold” was … er, not attended by me. Come on, it was at 10:30 a.m! (Judge me if you will, but it’s literally impossible to catch everything you want; in fact, it’s impossible to not feel, at any given time, that you should be somewhere else. Shows I missed: Norah Jones’ offshoot country project, the Little Willies, the Arctic Monkeys, a tribute to New Orleans featuring Allen Toussaint and Sam Moore and the Rhymesayers showcase featuring Atmosphere, P.O.S and Brother Ali. Morning-after meals are generally used for two things: 1 – Stuffing yourself full of breakfast tacos until your duodenum hurts and 2- Reading the local pubs to learn what you missed).
One of the draws of SXSW is the titillating buzz given to mystery performances. The Beasties were no surprise, but Ray Davies was – he was slated to appear Friday at the Music Hall after Morrissey. But no dice – Davies was rumored to have left in a huff after enduring some serious prima donna ‘tude from the Mozzer (“I get the bigger dressing room” kind of stuff). I’d have given up seeing every single show I did for two minutes of watching that happen. Other “special guests:” Lyle Lovett, Rosanne Cash, the Zutons, My Chemical Romance (?) and the ubiquitous-to-the-point-of-absurdity Flaming Lips, who are excellent musicians, nice guys and utter festival whores. Here’s a fun game to try sometime: hold a festival and see if you can keep the Lips away from it. I’ll give you $20 if you make it two hours. (The oft-rumored Neil Young secret gig never happened, though Demme brought him to a party to catch the M’s.)
Also winning a workaholics’ award, again: the Drive-By Truckers, who did four sets on Thursday alone, including a loose, swaggering acoustic one at the New West Records party where they previewed material from their excellent new “A Blessing And A Curse,” due April 18. The Truckers’ showcase set that night at La Zona Rosa (which followed a crisp set by Kris Kristofferson) was a little sleepier – it was 2:15 before Patterson Hood dropped the last riff on “The Living Bubba” but easily worth the walk.
And then there’s Billy Bragg, who turned in panel session before his packed showcase set at the Cedar Street Courtyard, which, bizarrely, unfolded about 15 steps down from a frat-tastic St. Patrick’s Day party on 5th Street. In addition to nuggets like “New England,” Bragg previewed the new “I Keep Faith” and mused that all of his hardscrabble political material was designed basically to get women to sleep with him. Bragg joined Joe Henry and Ramblin’ Jack Elliott for a little “hootenanny” on Saturday night that doubled as a Republican fund-raiser. Just kidding.
Other random notes: The singer of Austin-based band the Awesome Cool Dudes – who performed clad in matching track suits – closed an afternoon set by singing to passers-by outside and climbing perilously into the rafters. Nice job. Flying all the way in from New Zealand, the Bats closed Saturday night with ragged but endearing indie-pop. The Boy Least Likely To is a sunny, bouncing seven-piece from London who should be getting all the buzz levied to Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, who performed to a packed house at the InSound party despite not bringing too terribly much new to the table. Late of Belle and Sebastian, Isobel Campbell (along with ex-Vaseline Eugene Kelly, whose scruffy voice was the easy counterpoint) delivered dreamy pop to an adoring crowd in a venue that ate it right up; her sublime vocals got a little eaten up in the Dirty Dog. Head Automatica unleashed some trashy-pop on an unsuspecting La Zona Rosa audience; ex-Jurassic 5 DJ Cut Chemist followed up with a skillful if a little too-polished set. The Pitchfork party on Saturday featured approved hipsters like I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness and the Pink Flamingos; it was tough to hear the lyrics outside the massive, unmoving line, but the Flamingos sent lush pop into the afternoon skies. Ted Leo’s handpicked billmates included Tralala, a Brooklyn-based group that included four girl singers in the vein of the Shirelles and apparently some guys; they were messy and giggly and primally infectious. The Animal Collective at Fox and Hound found a way to sculpt melody out of raging, dissonant noise; the previous night at the same venue, the Brazilian Girls delivered a seductive set all about snaky, Latin bass. And this is about all I could make out from a notebook full of scribblings, scrawlings and smeared BBQ sauce. Thanks, Austin, let’s do it again next year.