Notes from the front... "This your first time here?" inquired the toothy record label rep with a sympathetic grimace that seemed to imply, "I feel your discomfort."

"What a zoo," came my sluggish response, as if I were programmed to repeat the same three words when the question came up -- which turned out to be a lot of the time.

On this damp Saturday evening in Austin -- the fourth of five long nights making up the 1996 South by Southwest Music and Media Conference -- I was still standing and surprisingly at ease. The day before, the thought of bailing early had crossed my mind. In a vision of escape colored by a half-hour in the smoke-choked Four Seasons lounge (big, fat cigars were big at SXSW) surrounded by record industry A&R types, I saw myself bolting out of the Icon seconds after a typically loose and loaded set by the Jinkies, catching a shuttle to back to my hotel, packing my bag and speeding home to Houston, a city that may have little of Austin's musical clout but, thankfully, has none of its hype.

I can't say that I wasn't forewarned. I'd been told by everyone from close friends in Arizona to longtime publicity contacts in Los Angeles and New York (many of whom I met face-to-face for the first time at the conference) that South by Southwest was no longer the free-spirited jaunt through the unsigned wilderness that it used to be. As the event's reputation and attendance has grown, its usefulness as a forum of opportunity for promising new acts has accordingly shrunk. This year, as in the last few, the conference was more about flaunting already earned success than showcasing hungry up-and-comers. Of course, these sentiments are hardly anything new. But this being my first glimpse of what was supposedly the Disney World of music conferences -- a hallowed hubbub only read about in the past -- I was damned if the jaded opinions of conference vets were going to thwart my enthusiasm.

In the end, running on that attitude served me well -- even through the rash of technical problems that plagued the small contingent of Houston acts. The most disappointing setback involved Clouded (formerly Clover), whose Friday set at Icon was hacked short when guitar problems forced the band off the stage after only a couple songs. An hour later, the Jinkies had it a bit easier, though a poor mix exacerbated the club's already muddy wind-tunnel acoustics. Minor sound problems failed to prevent ska loyalists the Suspects from making a respectable showing at the Back Room Saturday, overpowering the club's weird vibe and its odd out-of-the-way location. As usual, the Houston octet's horns and rhythm section were dead on, egging on new vocalist Thomas Escalante (less showman and more singer than recent deserter Chris Kendrick) and the rest of the band through a vigorous 45-minute set.

Among the more interesting non-Texas surprises was critics' darling Robin Hitchcock, who showed up at a Saturday afternoon panel discussion on the validity of rock criticism. As is often the case with these things, little was resolved, but plenty of choice moments made it worthwhile. Hitchcock's dry, often hilarious comments on the subject (the conclusion, for instance, that his detractors in the British music press are somehow physically "malformed" and jealous of rock stars) offered as much -- if not more -- entertainment value as anything the panel's rather smug journalists had to say. Another daytime highlight Saturday: a modest, good-natured acoustic set from Golden Smog (a side project featuring members from the Jayhawks, Wilco and Soul Asylum) on a small stage set up in the Austin Convention Center.

In more than a few cases, Austin bands put in the strongest showings on their home turf. Jam outfits Breedlove and Ugly Americans -- powerful live acts even when they're not trying -- were especially perky Saturday evening at the Steamboat, as was the more pop-oriented opening act Glueboy. Also Saturday, a small crowd at Topical Isle witnessed the curious re-emergence of blues-based singer/guitarist Tommy Conwell, whose major-label career was cut short after two so-so releases for Columbia six years ago. A frontman at heart, Conwell hasn't lost any of his ham-it-up style in his new role as second gun to Frank Brown in the hook-heavy Buzz Zeemer, one of the few exceptional new bands coming out of Philadelphia these days; another, the gritty roots rock act Go to Blazes, performed at the conference Thursday.

Word around Sixth Street this weekend seemed to indicate that maybe the appeal of South by Southwest is falling off a bit. The crowds were not as overwhelming, and this year's selection of established bands not as impressive (ZZ Top and Radiohead both decided to bow out after first agreeing to perform). Even so, it was difficult to find anyone among the problem-ridden Houston acts who wouldn't do it all over again, which implies that it still means something to show your face in Austin every March -- even if that "something" isn't a fat contract with a major label.

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