Cultural Clash

SXSW turns a cold shoulder to the Houston music scene

It's Friday afternoon on Austin's über-hip South Congress strip, and the Allen Oldies Band has set up in front of an antique shop. All its members are in evening wear even though it's mid-afternoon -- dark shades their only nod to coolness. Saxman Joe "Teen Idol" Earthman is wearing a hand-painted green tambourine around his neck. David Beebe, freed from his drum kit, is working the crowd, can of RC Cola in one hand, Allen Oldies mailing list clipboard in the other. Allen Hill is being Allen Hill, which is to say a tuxedo-wearing whirling dervish of golden oldie pandemonium. He's already ripped a big hole in the ass of his black pants, and his blue grippers are peeking through. He's also blocking the sidewalk.

"All right!" he screams, snatching up a gallon jug of Ozarka and glugging down a long hit. A good pint of it spills down his chin and onto his tux. Hill is midway through a nonstop 210-minute set. "This next tune is gonna be in F, which stands for fun, fun, fun!" The band then launches into the Classics IV's "Spooky."

A few dressed-down-to-dress-up, tattooed Austinites are trying to get by on the sidewalk. They want to get to the Bloodshot Records Showcase down the street at Yard Dog Folk Art. They're looking at the Allen Oldies Band with the utter revulsion with which one might regard a maggot-infested squirrel cadaver. How dare anyone come to South Congress and be so uncool? For the love of Alejandro Escovedo and all that is sanctified in South Austin, these guys are having fun playing unoriginal material. A real Austin band would play a 15-minute set of unrehearsed originals, maybe throw in an ironic cover of some Bee Gees or Abba tune, bully some poor defenseless slob in the crowd, head off on a heroin bender, and then wonder aloud to anyone within earshot why they don't have a major-label deal yet.

It's the Houston-versus-Austin culture clash in a nutshell. A brash, hardworking, sharply dressed band that revels in the tried-and-true and doesn't give a shit about the industry has come to the strike-a-pose slacker Mecca of the Flavor of the Month, right in the middle of its annual Music Biz Ramadan. Allen Hill's band is the antithesis of Austin and South By Southwest, and the locals don't get the joke, if there is one. Is there?

Evidently, someone at SXSW regarded the entire Houston scene with the same disdain the South Austin hipsters had for the Allen Oldies Band. On Saturday night of the festival, not one Houston band played a SXSW-sanctioned gig. Back in the old days, SXSW's mission was to spotlight local and regional bands; now either the mission has changed or the Austin region extends to Dallas but not to Houston. Or maybe the showcase organizers were afraid we would befoul the pristine Austin air with whatever world-famous smog vapors might be clinging to our clothing.

Racket did catch one of the few Bayou City acts that did get in the "big game." Mando Saenz unveiled his debut CD, Watertown, at a Thursday-night Southwest Wholesale showcase at the Hard Rock Cafe. Mando and producer John Egan have a good thing going. Saenz and band (which includes mandolin and fiddle as well as guitar and rhythm sections) have an early-REM-meets-Dwight Yoakam feel. Saenz's voice -- like that of Michael Stipe -- is a pleasant instrument, and he knows how to use it as such, even when muddy sound renders his lyrics indecipherable.

Houstonians current, former and seasonal teemed all weekend in the alley behind Austin's Continental Club, the venue owned by former Houstonian Steve Wertheimer, which served as a de facto Houston embassy for the length of the musical siege. Former Local Charm owner (and man about Texas) Rory Miggins was back there, as was summer Houstonian Mary Cutrufello. Mike Barfield was manfully battling a case of "cedar fever," as the Austinites call allergies, and preparing to unleash his newfound country soul inside the Continental, where Allen Oldies and Beaver Nelson also played. The barbecue squad from the Houston Continental set up a smoker off to the side of the club, where they did their part to add to Austin's air pollution with their fragrantly roasting meat.

A few crumbs from the feast: South By Southwest creates the illusion that the music business doesn't just matter, it's the only thing that exists. From Red River to Lamar, and a good ways out South Congress, a bubble envelops the Capital City. Before it pops, everyone you meet knows who Miles Copeland and Hilary Rosen are, and even cares what they have to say. Bands the hoi polloi hasn't heard of yet, and maybe never will, are whispered about with awe. Did you catch the Polyphonic Spree show last night? Is Clinic ready to take it to the next level, or are they just a shtick band? That Norah Jones -- is she something or what? You find yourself doing strange things like relieving your bladder of the first bloody Mary of the day next to mentally ill singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston, stained T-shirt and all.

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