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.
People were slapping the guys five, they were all pumped up to rip shit up on the stage. Tension was rushing out of the building -- finally we were gonna hear what we all came for. The moment was electric.
I made it back up to the lobby just ahead of Keke's posse. "Here comes the grand entrance," I said to one of the Rock the Vote girls. She just stared at me blankly.
Seconds later, Keke and his crew strode in the door ready to do some damage. They walked purposefully toward the stage, but only made it a few steps.
"Excuse me, sir." The Rock the Vote girl grabbed Keke's forearm. "Have you registered to vote?"
Keke gave her a look of utter bewilderment similar to the one Otis Day gave Boon in Animal House and kept walking.
But with a little luck you could escape from the worsening world situation. Arthur Yoria's Thursday-night set was politics-free. In addition to Yoria, there was another familiar face -- former Rocket Matt Maloney -- who told Racket over a pint of Guinness that he and Yoria are starting a label called 12 Records, and Yoria's first full-length album will be their debut. There's other news on the Yoria front: His whole band has been replaced. It's tragic that pedal steel player Matt Rhodes is gone; his place has been taken by a keyboard player, which makes Yoria sound much less unique, though his self-introduction showed him to be as witty as ever. "I'm Arthur Yoria, and I'm just from Houston," he told the crowd, some of whom Racket had overheard calling our fair city "dreadful" and "disgusting" a few minutes before. And even if Yoria's songs are no longer wrapped in the thick layer of shining glissando Rhodes's steel provided, his melodies and arrangements are as strong as ever.
Clouseaux's set ten blocks west on Sixth at Opal Divine's also offered shelter from the winds of war, to put it dramatically. But other sad headlines did intrude -- the Great White disaster dashed their hopes of using their fire-breather on stage, though guitarist Kelly Doyle did his best to light fires with his six-string, and the band put on a good, well-attended set. Band newcomer and Austin legend Alice Berry, who calls Clouseaux her "dream band," is a fine new addition. Mostly stationary singer Thomas Escalante is now flanked by two dancing singers in Berry and Steffany Johnston, and it all seems more balanced somehow.
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Friday afternoons at South By Southwest belong to the Allen Oldies Band. Their gig on South Congress in front of Rue's Antiques is becoming just one of those things you do at South By, like going to hear at least one really weird Japanese band (This year's model: Howling Guitar) or checking out a Scandinavian death metal showcase. Allen Hill and the boys brought out the tuxes and the usual props -- the green tambourine, the steering wheel for "Maybelline" -- with a new addition. This year, Hill toted two matching placards that read, "Make Oldies, Not War"!
But it's too bad that nobody in Bush's brain trust will ever likely consider the validity of his sweet-natured statement.
Greg Wood delivered the goods at a mostly empty Broken Spoke late Saturday night. Wood's new road band (led by Eric Dane on guitar) keeps getting better and better, and Wood's stage presence and banter are as strong as ever. Wood even dedicated a song to yours truly. Rank flattery? Hardly. The song was called "Bad Excuse for a Man" Defiant statement of the conference. At a nonsanctioned Saturday-afternoon event on Sixth Street, the bass player for Austin psychobilly group the Hillbilly Hotrods delivered this statement of intent: "I saw Willie last night, and I want you to know that he played until 2:30 a.m. And I stayed picking up his shit until four. The young generation has a lot to learn from Willie. But when we take over, we're gonna kick his ass!" Then the band launched into a brief cover of the theme from King of the Hill before moving back into their stock-in-trade: hell-fired rave-ups about the joys of whiskey and "ko-kane" Bands you will be hearing much, much more about this year: the Raveonettes, the Coral, Iron and Wine, British Sea Power, Sahara Hotnights Apologies to the unnamed man identified as a "promoter" in the Racket column of February 26. In fact, the man was a medical doctor. Racket regrets the error.