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.
There are conflicting rules of cool at SXSW. On the north side of Town Lake, all-access badges, star-spotting, schmoozing and other forms of big-shottery are cool, especially at the festival's secret vortex, the lawyer- and A&R-infested bar at the Four Seasons. Along South Congress, where the South By So What ethos prevails, badge holders are regarded as scummy insiders, as welcome to Austin as any other Volvo full of bourgeois bohemians who came to visit friends and stayed after they "just fell in love with the place." All those who got here first tacitly tell visitors to have fun basking in their reflected cool, and then get the hell out.
While Austin is not the Live Music Capital of the World it claims to be, it certainly does beat the crap out of H-town in the venue department. There are as many top-shelf venues in one East Sixth Street block as there are in the area bounded by Galveston and Conroe, Baytown and Sealy. Then there are the clubs on the west side of Congress too, plenty more on the Red River Strip and some along South Congress. Why the City of Houston has never seen fit to induce something like this (with tax breaks or some other such carrot) in some godforsaken stretch of the Warehouse District boggles the mind. Has the titty-bar lobby killed this possibility in order to protect its monopoly on male nightlife in Houston? Or is the problem that there are NIMBY-shrieking lofts, lawyer's offices and art galleries in the way everywhere a music district should be?
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Austinites talk about their clothes a lot. Racket was privy to three conversations in a two-hour span in which somebody would ask somebody else, "Where did you get that jacket?" or coo something like, "I loooove those shoes," at which point the complimented one would launch into a 15-minute remembrance of that article's past: "Oh, I picked this hat up in a little thrift store in Seguin. Wouldja believe I only paid $2 for it?" or "I was over at my wife's parents' house and her dad was going to throw this jacket away." It was like watching Antiques Roadshow. These people are seriously into provenance.
Speaking of dudes who like cool duds, Racket had a close encounter with several, but none so bittersweet (to him, anyway) as the following: While Racket was standing at the back of an outdoor concert at Under the Sun on South Congress, he espied a couple of beautiful women smiling and pointing his way. "Just a couple more of my devoted readers, who finally see me in the flesh," Racket thought to himself. The women walked toward him, and Racket prepared himself to be gracious and humble. Then, they walked right by. Little did Racket know that rhinestone cowboy Jim Lauderdale had been standing behind him the whole time.
There are few dead events more lamented than the old Westheimer Street Festival. Fitting, then, that Montrose underground impresario M. Martin will try to resurrect its spirit on Memorial Day weekend. Martin, who managed the unsanctioned HempFest stage and later the Montrose Radio/Houston's Other stage at the old shindig, calls the official successor, The Westheimer Street Festival In Exile, "a corporate sponsorship whore event." (Hey, count the Press among those whores, buddy.) While many old WestFest heads share this view, unlike the others, Martin is doing something about it. His Houston Jams weekend, May 24-26 at the Last Concert Cafe, will showcase Houston music in all its multiculti splendor. Friday night is to be a hip-hop soiree, presented by the Post-Millennial Funk crew. Saturday is given over to 12 hours of alternative bands, hosted by Dom Benczedi of Rusted Shut infamy. Sunday host Kingfish Keith will reel in a full day of Texas blues, country and rock and roll. The goal is 30 bands in three days, and if you'd like your band to be one of them, contact Martin at email@example.com.