The road to Austin, Texas – home of the four day music industry mega-showcase South By Southwest – is one filled with twists, turns and enough marketing glitz to make just about any label executive smile with pride. But in the end, the music ultimately is what becomes most memorable. A day by day, and in some cases, blow by blow account of one writer's travails to and at SXSW 2002.
Wednesday 3/13 –
In the midst of looking forward to the Alternative Tentacles label showcase (among so many other shows), a big snag interrupts the plans. My flight into Salt Lake City, Utah where I'm scheduled to catch a connecting flight into Austin is late . . . .VERY late. I miss the flight into Austin and to make matters even worse, there's no other available flight until the next morning. Being stuck in snowy Utah when I could instead be watching Victim's Family perform live isn't exactly my idea of a wonderful thing. To make matters even worse, the cold, apathetic reactions levied at me from the airline employees regarding my predictament are as cool as the chilly conditions outside.
Later in the evening, I visit the Hard Rock Cafe to hopefully remind me of the music that I'm missing. My bartender “Mike” explains to me in the state of Utah, people have to pay an annual “sponsorship fee” to drink in bars that serve liquor. How strange. The fact that Tonya Harding is pummeling Paula Jones on a celebrity boxing Pay Per View on the big screen in the bar reinforces my already confused state of mind.
Thursday 3/14 –
FINALLY make it to Austin, roughly 16 hours later than originally planned. I discover that they've decided to put pictures on the press badges this year. My picture's so poor that I look like a cross between Wesley Willis and Fred Durst. Scary.
As the evening begins, I'm quickly reminded of the best thing about SXSW. In spite of the large crowds and the heavy commercialism, it's the opportunities to see obscure but talented bands that one might otherwise never know that makes this event so special. The Iron Cactus offers such an opportunity thanks to the performance of Gunfighter from San Diego. The group hits an early and unexpected homerun with a sound that's layered and extremely compelling.
Over at Elysium, Kinski from Seattle offers a mesmerizing performance that seems representative of what many people call the “Seattle sound”. Long, heavy guitar solos, minimal lyrics and extremely moody sound. Hmmm, maybe it isn't the lack of sun that depresses people in the Emerald City. Instead, maybe it's the moody music.
Rounding out the evening is an edgy lineup at the Back Room. First up is San Diego's Unwritten Law. It's “new school” punk at it's very worst. Girls scream adoration while the lead vocalist (with the requisite tattoos and tousled hair, of course) feigns inner turmoil and pain. The band would be better served to change its name to the Backstreet Boy Punks. Now THAT would be truth in advertising. Local band Gong Li is next up and it thankfully cleanses the stage with genuinely aggressive music, some which is strikingly reminiscent of Kurt Cobain's angst-ridden singing on “Negative Creep. The finale turns out to be the highlight of the night as the Dead Kennedy's (minus Jello Biafra) take the stage. Brandon Cruz from the band Dr. Know steps in for Biafra and very capably handles the spotlight. He's particularly magnetic on the DK classic “Too Drunk To Fuck”. The band's set is a wild, rollicking hour that reminds both young and old in the audience of the legendary power that was once the Dead Kennedy's.
Friday 3/15 –
The evening begins at Buffalo Billiards with the Suicide Squeeze label showcase featuring Seattle's Minus the Bear and the Six Parts Seven from Kent, Ohio. Six Parts Seven are an immensely talented group with a new album that really hits the mark. Unfortunately however, the sound system at Buffalo Billiards doesn't hit its mark at all and is atrocious for much of the early evening. What a disappointment given the talent that this up and coming label has to offer.
Fighting the throngs of people at Stubbs later in the night to see Better than Ezra perform turns out to be worth the trouble. The band doesn't disappoint. Singer Kevin Griffen is a consummate entertainer in addition to being a talented musician. He easily carries the crowd in the palm of his hand through the band's set. But it's the song “Recognize”, which apparently is a favorite among the U.S. troops in Afghanistan, that really whips the crowd into a wild frenzy.
The evening ends at Emo's where Chicago's avant-garde Cheer-Accident offer a completely unbalanced set that ends with the drummer Thymme Jones yelling at his band mates and then storming off the stage. The Chicago band is known for being unpredictable and on this night, they don't disappoint in that department. But here's hoping that next time they might offer a little more in the way of music and leave some of the comedy props at home. The band actually turns out to be the proper introduction to the next group, the enigmatic trio Chicks on Speed. Despite a series of sound glitches, the three German women thoroughly entertain a capacity audience with their off-beat style and sound. With each wearing neon chiffon and dancing to techno music, the three musicians collectively offer its own very unique brand of Euro-dance-alternative music.
Saturday 3/16 –
An early start is needed on this day to witness the in-store Tower Records performance by The Original Sinners. None other than punk legend Exene Cervenka fronts this new band on the Nitro Records label and while it hasn't released its first record yet, the band performs as if it has played together for many years. The performance is woefully under attended but Exene is at her playful, quirky best throughout the group's 45 minute set. The band ends its show with a rousing rendition of “Birds & Bees” from Nitro's current Punkzilla compilation record. The song is so good that it makes one even more anxious to listen to band's debut album that is slated to be released later this year.
After Tower Records, a visit is made to River City Tattoo. It's clean, well lit shop, right in the heart of the SXSW music scene. Easily the best part of the place is the excellent work of artist Johnny Green. If you're ever in Austin and in the mood to get some ink, Johnny's definitely your man.
Later in the evening, much like it did on Thursday night, The Iron Cactus again provides the opportunity to witness a relatively unknown band. New Jersey's pete. offers some amazing on stage energy to go along with an excellent rock sound. The band's animated efforts on stage are so compelling that they force even those walking on the sidewalk outside to stop and watch the group through the large glass window.
Heading over to Room 710 where the Hopeless Record showcase appears to have a lackluster turnout. Easily the brightest light of the showcase is the Huntington Brach hardcore band Avenged Sevenfold. The term “intensity” is synonymous with this young band. The relentlessness with which they attack their music is nothing short of mesmerizing and the group appears to be a quick riser on the scene. Without a doubt, it's a band that should not be missed.
And therein lies the true importance of SXSW. Critics often lament (with good reason) the event's redundant lineups, its seemingly never-ending label showcases and relentless corporate sponsorships. But in the end, SXCSW succeeds because it's a well-organized event that very often showcases the new, up and coming musical talent that makes the music world such a vibrant, creative place. That simple fact makes SXSW a relevant event, in spite of all those damn Jim Beam promotions. Big business is a wheel that will keep turning whether SXSW perpetuates it or not. So, rather than criticize it, a better alternative may be to just relax and enjoy the ride.