Austin feels like Chicago


March 16, 2001

By Jim DeRogatis, Pop Music Critic


AUSTIN, Texas--Walking the streets of the Texas capital during the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference can be a disconcerting experience for Chicagoans, because it's almost as if they never left home.

Now in its 15th year, SXSW is the music industry's largest annual gathering. Some 6,000 musicians, journalists and industry professionals are registered to attend the three days of panel discussions, and more than 1,000 bands from around the world are performing at the four nights of showcase gigs. But every other face seems to be from the Windy City.

Austin and Chicago share a unique sister-city relationship: Both are the homes of diverse independent music scenes that proudly operate as alternatives to business as usual in the company towns of New York, Los Angeles and Nashville. SXSW has become an annual opportunity to celebrate this fact--and to decry an industry increasingly obsessed with marketing, mega-sales and chart positions at the expense of great music.

The conference kicked off Thursday morning with a reminder of what's really important as the New York trio the Holmes Brothers delivered a soulful mix of blues grit and breathtakingly beautiful gospel harmonies. Only at SXSW could you see a crowd of jaded, pierced, tattooed and hungover music-biz pros transported by a transcendent version of "Amazing Grace."

(The Holmes Brothers recently released "Speaking in Tongues" on Chicago's independent Alligator Records; the group will perform March 31 at Fitzgerald's in Berwyn.)

Continuing a trend of keynote speeches delivered by venerated rock elders, legendary Kinks bandleader Ray Davies followed the Holmes Brothers with a rambling but entertaining survey of everything that's wrong with the music biz. This, of course, was nothing new, but such grumbling always carries more weight when it comes from someone like Johnny Cash, Roger McGuinn or Davies.

"Music as most of us know is under assault from all sorts of change," Davies said. He went on to compare the current cultural climate--with music placing a distant second to cheap entertainment like trash TV--as similar to the gray period of the early '60s, when the Kinks started out.

"But I think if we all wise up, the musicians and the corporations, and we all get together, then we'll all win out," Davies said.

As he punctuated his speech with bits of Kinks' tunes such as "Come Dancing" and "Low Budget," the songwriter's famous dry wit also was in ample evidence. "Beware of the record exec who doesn't know how to tap his feet," he warned.

Davies isn't the only established musician whose appearance at SXSW is highly anticipated: Soul pioneer Ike Turner also is attempting to launch a comeback here, as is the pompous '80s metal band the Cult. But in most cases the spotlight remains on up-and-coming or defiantly independent artists.

They will perform at nearly 50 venues near the governor's mansion, which until recently was the home to the new president of the United States.

Jim DeRogatis' full report on South by Southwest XV will appear in Monday's Showcase section.