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Whiskey, Whiskey, Whiskey! Bands, Bands, Bands!

A South By Southwest diary

Thursday, March 17: My friends and I roll into Austin around 2 p.m. to the majestic strains of the Arcade Fire's "Wake Up." After registering at the Convention Center, where Harry Shearer brushed past me with his entourage, and picking up my Robyn Hitchcock-designed swag bag, I head over to the Crowne Plaza, where I run into St. Louis Riverfront Times music editor Jordan Harper. His room isn't ready yet, so I invite him over to mine, where we uncork a quart of Jameson's and talk shop. I rev up the CD player and hip him to Michael Haaga, Linus Pauling Quartet and Gogol Bordello. For his part, Harper bemoans the fact that Da Lou has only three bands playing South By this year. And we thought we had it bad when we only had 15 or so there. Eventually, the Crowne Plaza sets Harper up and we head out into a gorgeous Austin afternoon.

We don't get three blocks down 6th Street before I hear Clem Snide putting their new "Fill Me with Your Light" through the paces up Red River at Emo's Annex. Harper and I part ways here -- I stick around as Eef Barzelay and the boys run through "Something Beautiful," "Jews For Jesus Blues" and "The End of Love." An hour later, I meet up with a few of the other music editors from our New Times sister papers and Haaga, his wife, Carol, and some Austin filmmakers at the Copa Room on Congress, where Denver's new critical darlings Devotchka were supposed to headline a slate of Mile High City bands. They cancelled, though, so we retired to the back patio and knocked back a few brews instead.

Next, it was back to the hotel, but along the way we dropped in and caught the end of Helmet's set at some bar that changes names every South By. I would just like to say here that Helmet sucks. And all of the bands you hear on the Buzz that stole from them suck too. It's just plain ugly music.

A couple of hours schmoozing with my New Times brethren later, night had fallen and I found myself at the Ritz Balcony, where I caught first Austin psych rock institution ST 37 and then a stellar set by Elvin/English troubadour Robyn Hitchcock. And then, for something completely different, I caught local Zin and Dallas' Money Waters playing back-to-back sets on what was supposed to have been the showcase headlined by Scarface, who pulled out. Those who allowed the lack of a megastar on the bill to dissuade them from attending missed out: All of these hip-hoppers played with live, three- or four-piece bands and a few female backup singers, and this band format looked like the birth of the next phase of hip-hop to me. Both Zin and Waters put on the best live hip-hop shows I've ever seen.

And then I headed up Red River to catch the Fatal Fling Guilloteens, but I misread the time in my South By booklet and missed the set. I did talk to the band and it turns out they added another page to their book of legends. Their show was on a balcony above a place called the Velvet Spade and the stage was probably about 30 feet above the street already when singer Shawn Guilloteen ripped a hole in the plastic awning over the stage and climbed a tree on the hillside behind the stage. He was said to have gotten about a hundred feet above street level. A couple of days later I asked him what he was thinking while he was up in his aerie. "I was watching some other band a couple of bars away," he said. "They looked like they were a lot better than us."

Rusted Shut followed, and to say that Don Walsh was drunk is an understatement on the order of "Mike Tyson has issues," or something. His jeans kept sliding down his flat ass and since he was freeballing, the effect was disturbing, to put it mildly. But hell, Don's a Paddy and it was St. Patrick's day, and I'm sure he wasn't the only Irishman to show his ass on this day. As for me, I split before his set, headed back to the hotel, fired up Calexico's Even My Sure Things Fall Through EP on the jambox and watched the waxing yellow half-moon rise over the waning festivities below.

Friday, March 18: Woke with the jankers -- a mild hangover coupled with lots of nervous energy, which I cured with a cup of in-room coffee topped up with a wee dram of the Jameson's. I had to get out to the Chunklet party, which was at the very Super Happy Fun Land-like Church of the Friendly Ghost over in the East Austin barrio, right across the street from the projects. I walked down to Cesar Chavez Avenue, caught an eastbound metro bus for 50 cents and arrived without incident.

Chunklet's editorial ethos seems to be "Everything Is Overrated," which astounds me with its Zen-like wisdom every time I sit down and truly ponder it, just as I am amazed every time I pick up a copy of their hilarious and wise magazine. Anyway, the Chunklet staff were all wearing full Boy Scout regalia, for whatever reason, and their party had free Abita beer (which became damn-near unattainable once the party got going and the lines got long) and a band line-up that included rootsy punkers the Starvations, Baltimore weirdos Oxes, a Dutch punk band that should just quit like right now, and the Fatal Flying Guilloteens, who wore Girl Scout uniforms on stage. In the middle of their adrenalized too-short set, guitarist (and Nightfly columnist) Brian McManus took over vocal duties for a spell after doing his best Anna Nicole Smith as a Girl Scout voice: "Want some cookies? Like my bah-dee? Want some mun-ny?" (Yes, McManus watches too much TV.)

And so back to the room to collect myself. I unwound and listened to Scarface's The Fix. Head duly corrected and shenanigans masterminded, I headed down to the lobby and ran into SF Weekly music editor Garrett Kamps, who took me over to the Fader party nearby. We arrived just in time to catch the end of Bun B's set, and Kamps introduced me to SF journalist/author Chris Baty. Over Red Stripes, we debated the Streets (me and Baty pro, Kamps con), but we all agreed on Saul Williams, who was next on stage. We thought he should slow the fuck down.

I took off to go catch San Francisco's Two Gallants, who did nothing to dispel my belief that we'll still be hearing from them a few decades hence. And then I headed back down Sixth to Habana Calle 6, where I saw the Dawn of the Replicants (sort of the Scottish Guided by Voices, complete with beer-bellied frontman), Marlowe (a Liverpool band with a string-heavy line-up that probably will have people comparing them to the Arcade Fire, who they don't really sound like.)

And then it was local boy Michael Haaga's turn. For me, this was the highlight. I've seen him do two or three shows before, but this was light-years beyond them. The Plus and Minus Show CD is the best Houston rock CD I've ever heard, and up to now, the live show had not yet attained quite that level, but there on that Tiki hut stage right by Waller Creek he matched it and possibly even exceeded it. He unveiled some new tunes, lightly reworked some of the stuff from the CD, and quite simply blew the minds of the 50 or so people there. (Among them were Cactus general manager Quinn Bishop, Tom Bunch and KPFT's Rhonda Garner.) I walked to the back of the room at the end of the set for an objectivity check -- Haaga's a local and a friend, so I wanted to hear what the uninitiated had to say. And it was things like "Who is this guy?" and simple, slack-jawed staring in wonderment. (Mark my words: On this date, Haaga's guitarist Kelly Doyle officially left the ranks of "very good guitarist" and entered the "Guitar God" pantheon.)

Bishop and I then hurtled up to Stubb's for the New York Dolls extravaganza, which left me a little underwhelmed. They are a godhead band, just not my godhead band. But hell, now at least I can tell the grandkids I saw the New York Dolls. And so to bed.

Saturday, March 19: As usual, for me anyway, I did the South Congress thing on Saturday. With my old buddy Steve Uecker, I went to the Continental and said howdy to Messieurs Hill, Gordon and Beebe and took in sets by Austin pub rocker Elizabeth McQueen, San Diego's Irish-tinged bluegrass combo the 7th Day Buskers, and James McMurtry, whose rendition of his new classic "Choctaw Bingo" turned out to be the highlight of the whole day. He invited the Continental's Dancing Sisters on stage with him and the two leggy, French maid-clad blondes shimmied and flaka-laka'ed their way through the droning North Mississippi-style proto-rap about Oklahoma speed freaks. For that ten minutes at least, James McMurtry was the Bobby Rush of South Austin. "Wow, that should have been my finale," he said at the end of the song. And for me it was -- Uecker and I left.

And then, all of a sudden, South By Fatigue set in. I hosted a little sangria-fuelled party in my room with Haaga, Matt and Mo Kelly, Uecker and some of the Kellys' Austin pals and then, as a vicious little hailstorm roared in from the west, we adjourned to the Kellys' pretty new house in South Austin, where we had coffee and bean dip. By this point, all of our serotonin levels were frazzled and we were having difficulty coming to grips with all the beer and all the noise and all the faces we had seen. Though most of us took in full slates of bands that night, it was difficult to get too amped about anything -- it was like being in one of those noirish movies where the protagonist walks alone down a street as neon bar signs fly around his face. So in short, I saw the abbreviated Devin the Dude set and then met up with my Austin counterpart Christopher Gray and caught the Scissor Sisters-like Chicago band called 30 Hertz, a painfully bad punk-industrial band from Paris called Metal Urbain, and then Blowfly, a 300-pound-plus sixtysomething black guy from Miami who rewrites classic songs with filthy lyrics and performs them in a red spangled wrestling suit. And it was hard to get excited even for that. Nighty-night, South By, and see you next year.

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