Dispatches from SXSW 2008

March 12-16, 2008


Stray notes from SXSW: They want YOU!

Back in the days before the long-awaited death of the major label system forced the music business to return to its roots as the ultimate cottage industry, the giant bag of promotional crap given to each of the 10,000 registrants at SXSW used to be a lot heavier.

Mind you, none of this stuff was ever really worth keeping, except perhaps for the “hangover kit” (aspirin, Alka Seltzer, etc.), ear plugs, bottle opener and a few of the hefty stack of music magazines (for something to read on the plane back home). The Oscars giveaways these ain’t, and in fact, the bag itself is usually the coolest thing.

The design is by a different musician/visual artist each year. For 2008, it’s Thurston Moore of Sonic Youth. Past favorites include Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips, Daniel Johnston, Robyn Hitchcock and Chicago’s own Jon Langford. They’re great for your trek to Whole Foods.

The most notable thing about this year’s bag, in addition to its skimpiness, is a green plastic toy soldier of the classic “kids’ army guys” variety, except this one is holding a guitar instead of a rifle, and he’s twisty-tied to a color card that identifies him as “Sgt. Solo,” brave representative of Armed Forces Entertainment. (Why they didn’t just go with “Sgt. Rock,” I’ll never know; maybe there were copyright issues.)

The blurb at the bottom of the card reads: “Plug in your weapon, turn up the power and fire away. Your limo is a Humvee and your ride is a Blackhawk. For over 50 years, America’s stars have earned their stripes by performing for our country’s greatest audience. Find out if you have what it takes to tour the world entertaining the troops with Armed Forces Entertainment.”

Yes, you read right: These are your tax dollars hard at work in a promotional effort to recruit rock bands to travel to Iraq and Afghanistan to entertain our troops. Mind you, if anyone deserves free entertainment, it’s the brave men and women making incredible sacrifices for their country overseas. But really, wouldn’t they be better served by the government spending that money on better benefits and health care, more useful gifts for a theater of war (like adequate armor on those Humvees) or, heaven knows, upping the diplomatic efforts to end these conflicts?

These are things worth mulling while visiting the group's Web site, which features an even more bizarre piece of promotional artwork via the illustration of a doctored Sherman tank -- the kind that won the “good war” of WWII -- with an acoustic guitar replacing the turret and gun barrel and a swirl of paisleys beneath the treads, all under the banner “SXSW Music.”




Stray notes from SXSW II: Chicago in Austin

Given the unofficial Austin/Chicago sister-city bond, there is always a sizable contingent of Chicago artists performing in Texas over the course of the festival.

Most notable thanks to their numerous official showcases and unofficial party appearances are two Windy City hip-hop acts that are quickly becoming major national buzz bands poised to break big in 2008: female rapper Kid Sister and old-school emcees the Cool Kids.

Also making their mark at SXSW: Aging but still potent Chicago punk legends Naked Raygun; the always ubiquitous Waco Brothers; under-appreciated experimental noise mavens Tub Ring and indie-rockers Sybris and Mahjongg who, in addition to official festival gigs, are playing an intriguing soiree on Thursday called “SXS&M” located “at the little tucked-away gay leather bear bar just a couple of blocks out of the fray.”

At SXSW, everyone gets into the act, and there truly is something for everyone.

Rounding off the list of other local performers are Catfish Haven, Walter Meego, Suffrajett, Kidz in the Hall, Nick Butcher, the Cool, Dead to Fall, Dreamend, Headlights, the Hood Internet, the Hush Sound, Icy Demons, Joan of Arc, Le Concorde, Make Believe, Mannequin Men, Maps & Atlases, Trevor Menear, Mittens on Strings, Pit er Pat, the Redwalls, Russian Circles and Andre Williams.



SXSW Dispatch #2: On parties, panels and Yeasayer

AUSTIN, Texas — Residents of the capital and one of the greatest music cities in America have been doing an unusual amount of griping this year about the proliferation of elitist industry parties and special daytime and afterhours events: With more than 10,000 record biz insiders, DJs and journalists from around the world registered for the conference, it’s hard enough for non-badge-holding locals to see a lot of the incredible music that happens here during the five nights of showcase performances without the added insult of being excluded from snooty guest-list-only VIP shindigs on the one hand and SXSW stamping down on unauthorized soirees on the other.

But moaning about this state of affairs does little good: The fact that SXSW has only gotten bigger every year has become a fact of life through the last 22 conferences. Dealing with the ensuing difficulties builds character, and in the end it’s worth the trouble — if you keep your eyes on the prize.

I generally have always avoided the velvet-rope bashes and stuck to the public conference events, and I remembered why when I tried to see the much-lauded British garage-rock duo the Kills in a warehouse space rented by the New York magazine the Fader for one of the fest's hippest parties. But I gave up after 45 minutes on line, cursing myself for even considering abandoning my usual rule, and walked over to the excellent Mexican and South American folk art store the Tesoros Trading Company to buy a gift for my wife before the next few days get really crazy.

I've been visiting Tesoros for as long as I've been coming to SXSW, 18 years, but this will be the last time I stop at that location: It's being forced to move, along with its neighbor, the homey breakfast cafe Las Manitas, because the entire block of Congress Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets is being torn down for yet another hotel, part of the booming urban renewal slowing chipping away at Austin's eccentric soul.

This is a big reason behind the popular "Keep Austin Weird" t-shirts — and the growing animosity for big business (and SXSW has certainly come to qualify) and waves of outsiders descending on the city.

One more tangible and legitimate complaint about the festival is that the four days of panels at the Austin Convention Center, which started on Wednesday, have become increasingly dull and devoid of the fireworks that used to make for real headlines as well as considerable entertainment when different elements of the industry clashed over the ideals of art versus the realities of commerce.

SXSW organizers should be lauded for including a lot of nuts-and-bolts sessions where veteran lawyers, recording engineers, publicists and other professionals mentor hopeful up-and-comers; a prime example was Chicagoan Martin Atkins' panel on surviving the grueling challenges of life on the road. But gone are the contentious panels about ethical issues and the radical changes in the business, while the sessions with artists have turned into superficial chats with interviewers trying to outdo the fawning obsequiousness of James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.”

Yet if the daytime activities in the convention center are falling short, there are still 100 times more artists performing every night than any one listener could ever hope to catch.

Wednesday night started with another disappointing shut-out: I was eager to see if Scotland’s answer to X, the Glasgow quartet Sons and Daughters, have taken as big a leap onstage as they did on their stellar recent album, “This Gift.” But the long line at the landmark club Antone’s dissuaded me from even trying to get into the Domino Records showcase.

Undaunted, I moved on to La Zona Rosa and endured an hour-long set by Philadelphia’s uninspired techno DJ Dave P before the Columbus, OH trio Times New Viking finally took the stage. Onstage as on its Matador Records debut “Rip It Off,” the band worships at the altar of Guided by Voices, and at its best, it captures a similar mix of lo-fi noise, garage-rock chaos and jaunty melodies worthy of the best Britpop.

Unfortunately, much of that promise was smothered by the sort of pretension that prompted guitarist Jared Phillips to hide his vocals and those of keyboardist Beth Murphy under a smothering blanket of distortion that grew as annoying over the course of a 45-minute set as the band’s demands for “red lights — only red lights!”

Much better and by far the highlight of my second night in the clubs was the Brooklyn quartet Yeasayer, which plays a swirling, melodic and hypnotizing brand of psychedelic rock incorporating gorgeous harmony vocals, exotic computer-programmed polyrhythms and electronic versions of several global drones, from Celtic bagpipes to Indian ragas.

The band was to have performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, but it was wooed away by Lollapalooza in a bidding war. In any setting, it is a must-see, and after the supreme finale it provided for my second night in Texas, I'm eager to experience it again.




SXSW Dispatch #3: Lou Reed's "punk aggressive steel street action"

As I noted yesterday — or very early this morning, actually — the friendly interviewer-and-revered rock legend format of many recent sessions at SXSW has been one of the worst things to ever happen to the conference, sapping much of the fire and soul of the daytime discussions. And Thursday morning’s keynote with Lou Reed did not get off to a promising start as he sat down with his friend, producer Hal Willner.

“Lou Reed is to rock ’n’ roll sort of like Miles Davis is to jazz,” Willner said in introducing the artist. “Basically, with what he does, more than half a dozen times, he’s changed the direction of rock ’n’ roll -- with what he’s done with the Velvet Underground and ‘Transformer,’ which was recognized in its day, and then other things from ‘Berlin’ to ‘Street Hassle’ to ‘Metal Machine Music.’”

It was a fitting synopsis of Reed’s career, but even Wilner seemed intimidated to be interviewing such an accomplished artist, especially one who loves to play the role of the Prince of Darkness. “If my parents knew I’d grow up to work with Lou Reed, they’d have suffocated me then,” Wilner confessed.

“Instead they moved to Florida,” Reed quipped.

And so it went at first:

Willner: “I feel like Tony Soprano and his shrink. What’s her name?”

Reed: “Dr. Melfi.”

Willner: “That’s right. Talking about the anger you had toward your mother.”

Reed: Deadpan silence and a withering glare.

Willner: “Okay… um… I thought it was funny.”

Reed: “It’s a good thing you’re a producer.”

From there, Reed proceeded -- with some justification -- to sneer and bark at people who’d forgotten to turn off their cell phones, and to hype his latest project: director Julian Schnabel’s film of his recent concert performances of the 1973 concept album “Berlin.”

The musician asked how many people had seen the movie as part of the SXSW Film Festival on Wednesday. “Not even half. Good,” Reed snarled as he surveyed the raised hands.

As Reed told it, the album was universally derided upon its release as “the worst album ever made… It was used in a lawsuit by management to show why I shouldn’t handle my own affairs — I’d make an album like that.”

The disc, he said, “is all about jealousy, peaks of jealousy, and… [how] that attachment to another person turns into physical abuse because you love them so much.”

The fact is, at least some now-revered critics recognized the brilliance of “Berlin” back in the day, among them Nick Kent and Reed’s just-as-legendary nemesis and champion, Lester Bangs, who hailed it in one of his most memorable reviews in Creem magazine:

“What [‘Berlin’] really reminds me of, though, is the bastard progeny of a drunken flaccid tumble between Tennessee Williams and Hubert (Last Exit from Brooklyn) Selby, Jr. It brings all of Lou’s perennial themes -- emasculation, sadistic misogyny, drug erosion, twisted emotionalism of numb detachment from ‘normal’ emotions -- to pinnacle.

“It is also very funny – there’s at least one laugh in every song -- but as in ‘Transformer,’ you have to doubt if the humor’s intentional. ‘Transformer’ was a masterpiece at least partially by the way it proved that even perverts can be total saps -- whining about being hit with flowers, etc. -- and this album has almost as many risible non sequiturs as that did: the heroine gets up from a beating and says that it’s ‘no fun... a bum trip,’ and the protagonist’s plaints draw a laugh just when they’re most spiteful.” – Lester Bangs, Creem magazine, December 1973

But the interview began to become something more than a gripe fest about halfway through, as Wilner turned to questions that had been submitted by fans on the Web. Reed loosened up and began to reflect on his accomplishments, undercutting any hints of self-importance with the perfect old-school timing of a Borscht Belt comedian.

Here are some of his most noteworthy quotes:

* “What we were doing with the Velvet Underground was for me, as someone very aware of Leonard Cohen and Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs, I saw an opportunity to write thematically about things no one else was even going near… human relationships and difficulties with situations and crime and dope and violence, all in a contemporary idiom. Nobody was doing that.”

* “People always want to know, ‘How do you write a song?’ I don’t know. I’ve wanted to know, too. If I could have done it, I would have had ‘Son of [Walk on the] Wild Side’ and I would own an island in the Caribbean. But I don’t know how to do it or how it works or why it works or what it has to do with anything.”

* “I thought eventually it was the thing of punk rock, punk soul, and it was the people who couldn’t play R&B, who hadn’t grown up in Austin listening to all those great guitar players every minute of every day, who grew up in the city or wherever, and they had that, but they were rock people, very pure – that’s the kind of music I wanted to make with the Velvet Underground. So we had a little fine system: No R&B licks. No blues guitar licks. Because we can’t play them…. We’re going to do this other kind of thing, and it’s going to be city, pure….

“Punk in the old days meant a coward. I meant punk aggressive steel street action. That’s what I meant, and there they were, like a lot of these bands last night. All that young guy stuff? That’s punk. No one did that, and now it exists, and it will forever, because where else are we going to put it? It’s there or jail.”

* “I have a B.A. in dope -- and a PhD in soul.”

* As a well-known devotee of hi-fidelity, if not an audio perfectionist, Reed was asked about MP3s, prompting a long rant about the failings of digital sound. “With MP3s, you have a lot [of music] available to you. The trade-off is it sounds bad…. The technology is taking us backwards. It’s making it easier to make things worse.”

Finally, as things wrapped up, Reed was asked what other musical instruments he wished he could play (saxophone and the MiniMoog Voyager analog synthesizer – “Imagine God showed up and said I will give you 9,000 new sounds. That’s my idea of heaven”); what he is listening to now (Japanese noise rockers Melt-Banana and Brooklyn singer-songwriter Joan as Policewoman) and the advice he’d give young musicians (“Keep the publishing”).

So there you have it, kids. And when Lou Reed speaks, you know you’d better listen.





SXSW Dispatch #4: R.E.M. is back (well, sort of)

Once upon a time, up-and-coming bands came to SXSW in the hopes of leaving with a record deal. Since the industry as it once was is essentially in its death throes, bands on the rise now come with the hope of building regional success and Internet buzz into broader success by playing for booking agents, managers, the people who place songs in movies and TV shows and of course the dwindling number of professional DJs and critics.

Established bands and superstars come for the same reason they’ve always come: To try to relaunch their careers. And the major act with that goal at SXSW XXII has been R.E.M., which played a highly anticipated showcase at Stubb’s on Wednesday.

Just as the t-shirts here read “Keep Austin Weird,” the New Jersey city where I spent my formative years trumpets “I Remember Hoboken When Hoboken Was Hoboken.” I first saw R.E.M. perform at Hoboken’s venerated rock club Maxwell’s when I snuck in as an underage teen in 1983, not that long after the release of its first EP, “Chronic Town.” So I remember R.E.M. when R.E.M. was R.E.M. And for my money, the band hasn’t been since the mid-’90s.

“Monster” (1994) and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi” (1996) had moments, but this was clearly an artistic entity running out of gas. By “Up” (1998) and ever since, it’s essentially been R.E.M. in name only –though every album in the last 14 years has been greeted with claims from diehards boosters that “R.E.M. is back” and “they’ve finally made a rock record again.”

Once again, “Accelerate,” the band’s new album due for release on April 1, is prompting those claims. Because I wanted to wait until I saw the band live in Texas, I haven’t spun the disc yet, so I can’t say if the enthusiasm is warranted. But the hour-long set I witnessed Thursday afternoon as the band taped an appearance to run on “Austin City Limits” in May definitely was better than all of the shows I’ve witnessed since the departure of original drummer Bill Berry.

Now a quintet with founding members Michael Stipe, Peter Buck and Mike Mills augmented by second guitarist Scott McCaughey and drummer Bill Rieflin, the group played most of the songs from the new album, with the rollicking openers “Living Well's the Best Revenge” and “Mansized Wreath,” the single “Supernatural Superserious” and “Hollow Man,” the sole new ballad, emerging as the standouts.

At times during the intimate ACL show, it did indeed seem as if R.E.M. might be recovering a measure of former glories. But when the band turned to some classics from its catalog – “So. Central Rain,” “Drive” and especially the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Fall on Me” – you realized that while the new material is better than much of what it’s released of late, it still isn’t as good as the group’s best from 1982 to 1992.

Sure, we can give the band a partial pass for the fact that it’s just warming up, and its Austin shows really were just soundchecks for a major tour expected to come to the United Center in June. Yet for this longtime fan, the sure sign that all is not yet right was how little the core members interacted: Stipe and Buck exchanged a few whispers but barely looked at each other, and neither ever looked at Mills.

Buck used to like to tell the story of how R.E.M. opened for the Police at Shea Stadium in 1983 and were aghast to see Sting and his bandmates all arrive in separate limos; his group would never be like that, Buck promised.

These favorite sons of Athens, GA, may be enjoying playing with each other again. But the jury is still out on whether or not they like each other any more.



SXSW Dispatch #5: Night three in the clubs

The highlights: Jay Reatard, Dark Meat and Syd Straw

My third night with aching feet and ringing ears spent crawling down Austin’s main music drag of Sixth Street started with a set by underground favorite Jay Reatard, the Memphis garage punk born Jay Lindsey and recently signed to Matador Records, which is set to introduce him to the widest audience of his career by releasing six 7-inch singles in the coming year.

The fact that the 45 is the singer and multi-instrumentalist’s chosen format is indicative of his fondness for the short, sharp shock: Performing at a club called Vice, he tore through one rapid-fire barn-burner after another with impressive energy, and his set was all over in less than 20 minutes – record brevity even at SXSW, where every show is limited to three quarters of an hour.

Since it was over so soon after it began, and it never stopped pummeling forward while it lasted, it was really hard to quibble with anything Reatard did. And it provided the necessary double-espresso adrenaline rush to power me forward for the rest of the night.Even better, however, was the next set at the same venue, a visual and aural bacchanal from the Athens, GA, 11-piece art-punk ensemble Dark Meat.

Dressed in outlandish, mismatched thrift-store duds and sporting strange face makeup, the members of this horn-heavy ensemble threw small plastic glow sticks and glitter confetti at the crowd, and they responded by throwing it back along with rolls of toilet paper liberated from the rest rooms.

All the while, the band churned out its gonzo but melodic high-energy sound, which it describes as “the Stooges meets Crazy Horse with killer Stax/Funeral/Marching band horns, wailing gospel-style female backing vocals, ripping Eddie Hazel guitar leads and Albert Ayler breakdowns.” I think “the evil, punk-rock flip side of the Polyphonic Spree” also works pretty well.

The group self-released a strong 2006 album called “Universal Indians” that Vice Records is now reissuing to coincide with a 60-date tour that you’ll need to see to believe.

My final highlight of the evening was, like R.E.M. hours earlier, a veteran performer looking for a new start: the always endearing chanteuse and comedian, Syd Straw.

For those unfamiliar with Straw, who lived for a time in Chicago but now calls Weston, VT, home, she is best known, in this order, as the voice of the ’80s indie supergroup the Golden Palominos; an actress whose credits include “The Adventures of Pete & Pete” and “Tales of the City”; a backing vocalist for Rickie Lee Jones, Richard Thompson, Daniel Lanois and Pat Benatar and a fantastic if not exactly prolific solo artist -- her second and last album was the wonderful “War and Peace” in 1996.

Now, the singer and songwriter finally has a new disc called “Pink Velour” ready to go – “Give me enough money and I’ll put it out right now,” she said when someone asked her when it would be released – and her rare gig at a dreadful Sixth Street bar called Bourbon Rocks found her fronting a quintet with mandolin and four guitars, including one played by Lucinda Williams’ virtuosic bandmate Gurf Morlix.

Straw made no secret of the fact that the group had neither rehearsed nor soundchecked, and perhaps to make up for those handicaps, she spent as much time cracking wise as she did playing several pretty new ballads (the best was called “Casually”), a few old favorites (“CBGB’s,” but no “Black Squirrel”) and a cover of a tune by Austin’s Jo Carol Pierce.

As is her style, Straw tossed out one wry bon mot after another. The one that stuck with me and made me smile all the way back to the hotel at the midpoint of this conference was her description of the SXSW experience:

“It’s all about rubbing elbows in hell.”


SXSW Dispatch #6: The Ticket Master speaks, and debating ethics in the blogosphere

AUSTIN, Texas —Truer words have never been spoken at a SXSW panel than when Wall Street Journal reporter Ethan Smith introduced Ticketmaster CEO and president Sean Moriarty on Friday afternoon as the head of a company that more than any other “makes music fans’ blood boil.”

Moriarty sat down for this rare public session at a time when his company — the dominant (some would say monopolistic) force in concert ticking for the last 32 years — is on the ropes, as Live Nation, the dominant (some would say monopolistic) force in concert promotion, ends its relationship with Ticketmaster and not only directly begins selling tickets to its own events, but to those of other promoters seeking an alternative to Ticketmaster. (Live Nation is 15 percent of Ticketmaster's business, Moriarty said.)

Even as Moriarty claimed that Ticketmaster is trying to enter a new era of transparency in its business practices, the embattled executive dodged direct questions such as “Why do Ticketmaster service fees cost so much?” by hiding behind an obfuscatory cloud of friendly but Orwellian corporate doublespeak.

Ticketmaster is “one of the most misunderstood well-known companies out there,” Moriarty said.

“I think any service business that charges a fee for services faces challenges. If you look at service fees for cable companies, for example, or banks’ ATM networks, people on one hand are pretty quick to criticize the price, but if you ask them if they’d like to live in a world without the access that they have to cable television or a world where they aren’t able to walk up to any ATM and take money out, they’d probably say ‘no.’ Our service is actually much more complex than people know.”

Fair enough: In the new millennium, it really is pretty amazing that we can log on and purchase tickets to an event anywhere in the world in a matter of a minute or two, printing those tickets out on our own computer (for an added “delivery charge,” of course). But that has never been the issue. At the center of consumers’ rampant dissatisfaction with Ticketmaster fees, which can add a third or more of the face price to each ticket purchased during one transaction, is the question of how much it really costs the company to provide that service, and the “pie chart” of how those fees are divided between the promoter, the artist, the venue and Ticketmaster.

Smith suggested that part of what Ticketmaster does is to act as the “bad cop” or “lightning rod,” absorbing customer anger at steep fees while sheltering the promoters and artists, who get to make extra money thanks to rebates (some would say kickbacks) of extra cash from the service fee. (In other words, the promoters and artists get to look like the good guys by charging one price on the face of the ticket while pocketing extra cash by also collecting a share of the service fee.)

Moriarty: “I would say that in a world where the brand and your experience in the business is everything, being a lightning rod is not a good service business to be in, because ultimately you’ve got to provide people with a safe and secure and comfortable experience. To the extent that we’re being used as a lightning rod, it comes to the detriment of our brand. That may have been true historically, but as we see the business today, that is not the right way to position the business in any way, shape or form.”

Nevertheless, Ticketmaster’s master declined to explain to Smith, just as he declined to explain when listeners including this reporter later questioned him, exactly how that dreaded service fee is broken down. I’ve been asking that question of a long line of Ticketmaster executives and public relations executives for 14 years now, and I’ve never gotten a clear answer.

“I don’t think it’s appropriate in a world where we’ve got 9,000 clients, Jim, to actually disclose the particulars of any individual client deal, and summarizing or making a sweeping statement is probably not something that’s appropriate, either,” Moriarty said. “You choose to bring it up as fodder for the same conversation over and over, [but that] doesn’t really get you very far. It’s easy to be redundant and it’s easy to talk constantly about rising prices, but it actually takes a little more work to understand the situation in full context.”

Gee, and here I thought that was what I was trying to do. So much for transparency.

Pressed by Smith on Ticketmaster’s plans to compete with major forces in the burgeoning market of secondary resellers (some would say scalpers) through its recent acquisition of Ticketsnow.com, Moriarty stressed that Ticketmaster is a “safe, secure and legal” name that ticket buyers can trust, as opposed to the unknown entities selling tickets on sites such as eBay, Craig’s List and Stub Hub.

“When people go to buy a ticket online, they should have confidence that they’re going to get exactly what they’re paying for,” Moriarty said. “They should have some understanding of the value of the ticket as opposed to just the posted price, and they should know if they’re actually buying tickets or selling tickets in a jurisdiction that actually has laws on the books [prohibiting that],” although all but a handful of states still do that, since resale laws have been altered to accept the realities of the digital age.

Smith asked Moriarty about charges that Ticketmaster has been furiously lobbying many states to change the laws so that only the original seller of the ticket — in many cases Ticketmaster — can conduct the auctions for reselling tickets.

“Our focus has been on a level playing field, and we actually believe the market should be an open market,” Moriarty said, expressing an admirable sentiment while dodging Smith’s question about lobbying. But Moriarty did say that Ticketmaster includes its clients in revenue-sharing of the income from reselling tickets — providing those rebates (some would say kickbacks) on service fees from secondary sales the same way it does from primary sales.

Resale is a $3 to $4 billion market on top of original ticket sales, Moriarty said, and he made clear that Ticketmaster hopes to dominate that market and forge ahead to a world where there are no set prices for tickets, with value fluctuating based on demand. “Ultimately, there’s an inevitability to any market, which is to say, you’ve got to let buyers and sellers trade freely in a way that’s unencumbered in a way to really maximize the market, and I think that’s where we’re going.”

Navel-gazing with the navel gazers

The other noteworthy panel Friday, a session called “The Blog Factor,” left as many questions unanswered as the Ticketmaster session. But this was only because the men and women behind the music blogs and Web sites that were represented—Sean Adams of Quietus Group/Drowned in Sound, Maura Johnston of Idolator, Amrit Singh of Stereogum and Jason Gross of Perfect Sound Forever—are trying to answer many of the same questions I posed in my recent interview with Pitchfork founder Ryan Schreiber.

Can blogs play by the rules of traditional journalism and criticism? Should they? And will they be compromised if they expand into other multi-media ventures, such as online video channels, choosing music for films, TV, video games or advertising, hosting music festival or starting record labels?

Gerard Cosloy, co-owner of Matador Records and one of the most extraordinary A&R men or talent scouts in rock history, joined musician and NPR correspondent Carrie Brownstein and the always even-handed moderator Gross to provide the voices of reason as bloggers looked in the mirror and admitted that they just don’t know the answers to those questions — yet.

“The notion of conflict of interest, I’m not sure how you even define that anymore,” Cosloy said. “But as long as there is ever the appearance [of a conflict] — for example, that if you don’t play my festival or buy an ad, you’re not going to get favorable coverage — there is always going to be that element. But it’s not just blogs [that have to deal with these issues].”

While we may disagree on the merits of Times New Viking, I believe that Cosloy and I are on the same page here: The more things change—in the shift of journalism from print to the Web, as in life in general—the more they remain the same. Journalists and critics have been talking about these issue since long before Gutenberg built his famous printing press. And they’ll be discussing them in the future when some new mode of communications (electronic telepathy?) replaces the Internet.


SXSW Dispatch #7: Chicago rising: The Frantic, the Cool Kids, and Kid Sister's Pro Nails Salon

Four down, one to go, and the ratio of great showcase performances to disappointments so far has to be at least 3 to 1 — as good as any SXSW I’ve ever attended.

Night four started at Emo’s with a short but strong set by Crystal Castles, an experimental duo from Toronto that alternated between lulling chill-out electronica and much more aggressive punk-techno, with multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath creating undulating washes of sound as captivating vocalist Alice Glass commanded the room.

The next stop was a twisted Tiki bar called Head Hunters for another of the many non-SXSW gigs, a showcase for Sinister Muse, a Chicago punk label with an excellent roster and one of the coolest logos ever. I was eager to catch the Frantic, an ultra-energetic punk foursome in their late teens that had piqued my interest with their recent debut album "Audio & Murder."

The group didn't play anything at a tempo of less than 110 miles per hour, but it never skimped on melody, either in its originals ("This is a song about someone saying you can't do what you want in life and you proving that they're wrong every step of the f---ing way!") or their killer cover of the Foundations' classic "Build Me Up Buttercup."

"There are 10 million bands in town tonight, and it means a lot to us that you came out to see us," guitarist-vocalist Kyle Dee exclaimed, and the band's enthusiasm and undeniably frantic tempos (talk about truth in advertising) were impossible to resist.

From there, I returned to Emo's for the red-hot, beyond-packed Chicago hip-hop showcase sponsored by Chicago's Biz 3 Publicity and featuring party music DJs Flosstradamus, old-school rappers the Cool Kids, DJ A-Trak (who’s actually from Montreal, though Chicago has adopted him because of his work with Kanye West) and the magnetic Melissa Young, a k a Kid Sister, who also hosted “Kid Sister’s Pro Nails Salon,” with several of her girlfriends doing women’s nails for free throughout the evening.

Clearly, Friday was a night for breaking my "no Chicago bands at SXSW" rule. But there absolutely were no more promising artists that I wanted to see anywhere in Austin, and I was eager to see if the hometown excitement about these bands and the increasing national interest would begin to blossom into something much bigger at SXSW.

I'd seen that happen before for hometown heroes, back at the onset of the alternative era, with artists such as Liz Phair, Veruca Salt and Red Red Meat, when national tastemakers descended on their showcase to see if the word out of Chicago was right.

In those cases, it certainly was. And with all of Friday's local artists delivering as good as they ever have, and the buzz in the room palpable, the same was true this energizing Friday evening.


Stray notes from SXSW III: Ticketmaster's trickery

As I continued mulling over what really bothered me most about Friday's interview with Ticketmaster CEO Sean Moriarty, it finally struck me: the slight of hand comparing Ticketmaster fees to cable TV and ATM fees, which hits at the heart of the lie behind the company's PR efforts.

Ticketmaster provides a service, as does the cable company and a bank ATM. But the cable company charges the same every month, no matter if you watch one hour of TV or 100, and if you watch a movie on demand, it's the same price, whether it's a blockbuster or an obscure indie film. Similarly, the ATM charges the same fee whether you're withdrawing $20 or $200.

In the end, it costs Ticketmaster no more money to provide the service of selling a $30 ticket or a $300 ticket, yet the fee for the former might be $7.50 and the fee for the later $37.50.

Of course, the company needs to maintain and upgrade its infrastructure; no one denies it that, just as no one denies it should be reasonably paid for the service it provides. But wouldn't one ATM-like fee across the boards and per transaction be much clearer and more fair? Moriarty's arrogance toward journalists aside, why shouldn't consumers keep questioning the price of those service fees and demanding the pie-chart breakdown — how much goes to Ticketmaster? the artist? the venue? — when no one can see any logic behind the differing fees other than kickbacks to promoters and artists on one hand, or Ticketmaster's greed on the other?


SXSW Dispatch #8: The kingdom of heaven and the best band in the world

Powell St. John, Joe Black and the Blacks, Space City Gamelan and the Marked Men

My last night at SXSW — at least until next year — began at Room 710 and the showcase sponsored by Birdman Records, the cool garage/psychedelic label run by David Katznelson, once the Flaming Lips' A&R man at Warner Bros.

Launching the bill was a former beatnik and trailblazer in the Austin-to-San Francisco psychedelic pilgrimage of the mid-'60s: Powell St. John, who wrote songs for the 13th Floor Elevators, Janis Joplin, Boz Scaggs and Doug Sahm, among others.

Like many psychedelic pioneers/survivors, St. John hasn't aged particularly well: He didn't have much of a voice left as he sat singing between two acoustic guitar players, and much of his material was generic folk/blues. But it was a kick to hear the song's author sing the Elevators' classic "Kingdom of Heaven," which ended the set, trumpeting the very psychedelic notion that said kingdom is within us all, just waiting for us to find the key to unlock it.

From there, I crossed the street to the lovably grungy Beerland, probably the non-SXSW venue with the best bookings throughout the week. My original plan was to pay the cover and camp out until the band I wanted to see: Denton, Texas, garage-punks the Marked Men.

As chance would have it, the first set I caught was another Chicago punk act, Joe Black and the Blacks, the new band fronted by Jim Hollywood, formerly of the Tyrades. The group delivered in fine, sweaty fashion, especially considering that it was its first show ever.

In fact, Joe Black and the Blacks are so new, they don't even have a MySpace page yet. And they're probably the only band in Texas this week that can say that.

Unable to stay in one club all night when there was so much music going on in so many other places, I took a chance that I wouldn't be able to get back into Beerland later on and decided to go to church.

The Central Presbyterian Church is always one of my favorite venues at a certain point during SXSW: It's reserved for the most avant-garde fare; the sound is exquisite, but most of all there are the pews, and after five long days and nights, I'm not ashamed to admit I needed to crash.

As big a draw as the pews, though, was Houston's Space City Gamelan, an eight-piece group of young men and women dressed all in black, wearing red and white face paint and playing a mix of traditional Indonesian pieces and their own "polyrhythmic, psychotropic lullabies" on acoustic percussion instruments.

If you want to visit the kingdom of heaven, these entrancing and mystical sounds are as good a vehicle as any, and I came back down to earth and left the church only 11 hours before the start of Sunday school.

Finally, it was back to Beerland to hear the group a trusted pair of ears assured me was "the best band in the world." The Marked Men are a quartet that plays frenetic buzzsaw punk laced with delicious British Invasion harmonies—bubblegum garage on speed—as evidenced onstage and on their third album, “Fix My Brain,” released on Swami Records, the label started by John Reis of Rocket From the Crypt.

While I cannot endorse Gerard Cosloy's hyperbole 100 percent, the Marked Men certainly were one of the three best bands I heard in Texas, and for that matter, one of the best bands I’ve heard this year. And they were absolutely the perfect way to end my SXSW experience.