No direction home


March 19, 2001

By Jim DeRogatis, Pop Music Critic


AUSTIN, Texas--With 6,000 attendees, three days of panels and four nights of showcases by more than 1,000 bands, it's impossible to take in everything at the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference, but observers can usually glean some signal of what lies ahead for the year in music.

Not in 2001.

In its 15th year, the music industry's largest annual gathering mainly reflected the uncertainties plaguing the business. There were no sure indicators of what will become of record companies and retailers in the face of the digital revolution, of what will replace Napster as the engine of that uprising, or of what will follow the now-reigning sounds of teen pop and testosterone rock.

The only sure bet, driven home by speakers such as Ray Davies and David Byrne as well as a parade of promising artists, is that a thriving, independent underground will remain to stand as a defiant alternative to business as usual.

In keeping with the spirit of energized befuddlement, I offer the following highlights from my own "tour diary." (I'd have downloaded it from my Palm Pilot--those were as ubiquitous as cell phones among industry weasels--but I make do with an old-fashioned notebook.) This is probably as useful a summation as any of SXSW XV:

Thursday panels, 10:30 a.m.-5:45 p.m.


After Davies' rambling but witty keynote, the most inspiring session of the day was a public interview with Byrne by Chicago Tribune rock critic Greg Kot. The best line from the former Talking Head turned Luaka Bop label manager: "You want the audience to be happy, but you don't have to give them conventional things."

Later, a one-sided panel on censorship proved that free-speech advocates can be as pedantic as censors; missing from the monologuing was any consideration of the industry's culpability in profiting from hate-filled art. The sanest voice belonged to punk legend Jello Biafra: "Especially ironic at Wal-Mart is that you can't have an album in there that sings or raps about gun violence but you can trot across to the sporting goods section and get yourself a gun."

Thursday showcases, 8 p.m.-2 a.m.

My evening started with a set of angular punk by Chicago's the Dishes at Emo's, followed by two strong pop bands from Paris at the Waterloo Brewing Company. The gentle, wispy sounds of Tahiti 80 are generating the most buzz, but that group was outshined by Mellow, a sextet that used synthesizers and French horn in addition to guitars to merge harmony-laden, Beach Boys-style pop with the psychedelic experimentation of '70s Pink Floyd and Can.

The version of the Latin supergroup Los Super Seven that played La Zona Rosa wasn't quite so super without Caetano Veloso, who didn't venture to SXSW, but a 20-minute Cuban groove proved that jam bands aren't confined to North America.

I ended the night with two extraordinary stoner-rock bands at the Back Room: New Jersey's Atomic Bitchwax and Electric Wizard from Dorset, England. The tradition of the Cream-style power trio lives on, and it's heavier than ever; Electric Wizard rocked until the guitarist broke most of the strings on his S.G. during a full-throttle cover of Pink Floyd's "Interstellar Overdrive."

Friday panels, 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.

The conclusion of the music press panel: infected by the industry hype machine, rock journalism is ailing. The conclusion of the music retail panel: under siege by the massive chains, the old-fashioned record store is on life support. The conclusion of the digital music panel: Napster is dead and soon to be buried, but it will be impossible for the industry to stop "10,000 [ticked-off] hackers" who'll continue peer-to-peer music file sharing.

I ended the day by moderating a panel about Creem, the upstart Detroit rock magazine that championed punk and heavy metal through the '70s. Avoiding the usual nostalgia fest, the eight veteran editors laughed in the face of the glum predictions cited above. "There is no bad time for music," Dave Marsh said. "There's just a time when you're not paying attention."

Friday showcases, 9 p.m.-2:30 a.m.

First stop of the night: the Living Room. Backed by Austin's Playthings, grandfatherly crooner Harvey Sid Fisher punctuated his set of wacky lounge/rockabilly with Don Rickles-like one-liners. "The music business is tough," he said. "There've been times when I've had bread and water, and times when I had nothing."

Following a set of no-holds-barred glam-punk by Cleveland's Cobra Verde, the revelation of the conference was Chicago's Fire Show. Celebrating a new release on Perishable, the quartet mesmerized by pairing loopy dub rhythms with slashing art-punk guitar--Can meets Wire and Television--while singer "M. Resplendent" hurled himself around like Iggy Pop.

Shut out of Ike Turner's much-ballyhooed comeback gig at Antone's, I shuffled over to the Speakeasy for the Original Brothers and Sister of Love, a sextet from Ann Arbor, Mich., that evoked a modern, harder-rocking Fairport Convention. The night ended with Stew, the leader of L.A.'s psychedelic-popsters the Negro Problem, who performed a set of funny but affecting solo tunes about the trials of rehab, unconventional sexual proclivities and being a stone cold eccentric in a button-down world.

Saturday showcases, noon-2 a.m.

I skipped the last day of panels to hear even more music, which, after all, is the point of SXSW. According to a report in the Austin Chronicle, I didn't miss much except for an entertaining session with Ozzy's manager/spouse, Sharon Osbourne. Metal's Iron Lady said her brief relationship with Smashing Pumpkin Billy Corgan ended when she dared question his concept for a video: "It [expletive] big time [expletive], and I had to tell him that."

Meanwhile, the coolest party of the conference was under way in the backyard of a barbecue joint called Pok-E-Jo's. Chicago's Hideout transferred the vibe of its beloved dive off Elston to Texas as kids played in a sandpit in front of the stage, owner Tim Tuten introduced bands with his typically gonzo rants, and musical highlights came from Chicago power-popsters Frisbie and Catherine Irwin and Dave Gay of Freakwater.

In the evening, Robyn Hitchcock's reunited Soft Boys proved to be anticlimactic at the Austin Music Hall. The set list was great, but the performance itself was average. Maybe they'll kick into high gear by the time they get to Metro on March 30.

After catching yet another stoner-rock trio at Emo's--Nebula was distinguished primarily by its very large gong--L.A.'s Bellrays seared like a flame-thrower at Room 710 with their mix of Motown soul and punk-rock fury. In the audience: Biafra, Wayne Kramer of the MC5 and Brian James of the Damned. How cool is that?

Also rocking hard was Indigo Girl Amy Ray, who supported her new solo album at the Rainbow Cattle Company by punking out with the Atlanta band the Butchies. Finally, my longest night ended at Waterloo Brewing, as Austin icon Alejandro Escovedo sampled material from his forthcoming release on Chicago's Bloodshot Records.

Escovedo is planning a unique event in Chicago in April--he'll play the Hideout, Schubas, the Empty Bottle and Fitzgerald's on consecutive nights, showcasing a different aspect of his music in each set, while illustrating that Chicago's musical community is just as rich as Austin's. I might even consider catching each show to see if I can finally figure out why Escovedo is so revered--that is, once I get some sleep and recover from SXSW.