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Battle Cries

SXSW finds itself covered in thoughts of war

The tall, grizzled Austin cop peered through his mirrored shades down Congress Street from his position across the street from the state capitol grounds. There, several thousand people were gathered waving placards (a sampling: "My Country 'Tis of Greed," "Vive La France" and "And We Thought You Were Too Stupid to Do Much Damage") and Palestinian and Iraqi flags, beating drums and listening to speeches by the likes of Austin musician and political gadfly Wavy Gravy and Houston's own Sheila Jackson Lee.

All that was to the policeman's back. In front of him, a couple of blocks down Congress, a puzzling sight -- a couple dozen freaky-looking youths dressed in matching white robes -- greeted his gaze.

"Naw, it ain't the Klan," he said to one of the grand total of five Bushista counterdemonstrators standing next to the police line. "They don't have hoods on. I don't know who the hell it is."

Polyphonic Spree was who the hell it was, the 24-piece Dallas-based spiritual pop collective that stole the show at last year's event. On they came, shepherded around downtown Austin by their bearded road manager. Their fashion sense -- lots of long and/or dyed hair, not to mention the ankle-length white robes -- and their youth made them look like students on the world's weirdest junior high school field trip.

They assembled on the corner. Racket eavesdropped on them and overheard two of the elder members consulting with each other.

"What do you think?" asked a long-haired bearded kid of his bandmate, a guy with an uncanny resemblance to former Monkee Mike Nesmith.

"Intense," was the Nesmith clone's assessment. "I don't think there's any way we'll be able to get a picture here."

The two walked away and consulted with the road manager, who evidently allayed the dubious one's fears. Minutes later, the road manager shouted for all of them to assemble on the corner. When the "walk" light came on, all 24 of them filed in an orderly manner onto Congress, where the road manager took their picture in front of the peacefully besieged pink granite capitol.

This South By Southwest was different. This one wasn't just about music. The threat of war hung over the whole shindig like a cloud of flies over a pecan pie at a picnic.

It was in the graffiti you saw -- slogans like "9/11 -- Bush Knew!" and "Osama is being protected!"-- scrawled on the side of a pedestrian bridge over the Colorado River.

It was in the papers, too. The day before the Natalie Maines story broke, Friday's Austin American-Statesman ran letters from two music fans who were angry at Joan Baez for speaking her mind at a March 6 show at Austin's Paramount Theater. "If I want to attend an anti-American protest, I'll go to an Austin City Council meeting," read one, while the other correspondent wrote of walking out on Baez after she "channeled herself into a young Arkansas girl complaining about Bush in a poem set to percussion." (What were these people expecting from Baez? A song of lust for Dick Cheney? "That Condi, She's Our Gal"?)

It was in the casual conversations you had. At a bus stop in South Austin, two red-faced homeless men -- the proverbial men in the street -- were cracking their first beers of the day and feeling pretty garrulous. "I'm a patriotic American," one said, after introducing the topic. "But when Germany and France say they ain't gonna help us, something's wrong. I think George just wants to avenge his daddy. This just don't feel rat."

It was also in the songs that you heard on the radio: When Racket went into a convenience store for a pack of smokes, he heard Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth," with its refrain of "Stop, children what's that sound / Everybody look what's going down."

It was also in the songs you heard in clubs. One afternoon, Racket left the teeming strip of alt-country hipsterdom that is centered on the Yard Dog folk art gallery on South Congress and walked south four more blocks and a world away to Trophy's, where the Houston Hospitality Center was supposed to be but wasn't until later in the day. There, a young Blaze Foley look-alike named Jason Eklund was serenading a hardcore crowd of Lone Star-swilling South Austin outlaw biker types with a song about "a towel-headed truck driver" who gets thrown in jail and "is somebody's bitch tonight."

It was also in the following vignette, taken from the Randall Jamail-hosted Lil' Keke-Slim Thug northside-southside showcase at the Lucky Lounge.

A couple of earnest young UT poli-sci types had set up a "Rock the Vote" booth in the club's lobby, where they periodically badgered people to get involved. They were getting pretty bored -- the show was supposed to have started at four, and two hours later, neither Keke nor Slim Thug had arrived. At 6:30, a buzz rippled through the club. Keke had finally arrived. A crowd of people walked outside to greet the rapper, who was hastily donning his stage attire -- an orange old-school Astros hat and a John Elway jersey -- next to his SUV on Fifth Street. Thus decked out, he and his posse of two other similarly attired rappers headed into the club.

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