I have seen the future of music, friends, and I have to tell you I'm a little frightened. In the future, there won't be many chicks around, and the UK will continue to slowly invade our shores with spookily talented musicians. Washed-up rockers will still make you wait for them to come up on stage, and it will always be cold and wet during the South by Southwest music conference.
This year's festival was an exercise in contrasts, some chastening, some encouraging. Rawk stars are still annoying. Eager-to-please young bands are still endearing. And SXSW people apparently are not in this for the love. Not anymore. Given the crap on stage at some venues -- a sad state compounded by the fact that brilliant bands like Houston's Lowbrow were shut out -- you have to wonder at what point in its 15-year history SXSW lost sight of the difference between art and commerce. Especially when wristband prices are a prohibitive $105. This obviously is no longer a conference for the average citizen.
Then again, no one expects industry muckety-mucks to have their priorities straight, so let's talk about what's really important: the music. I saw more good stuff than crap this year, including Seattle's indie rockers 764-HERO; Austin's own Spoon, which delivered a high-energy performance in the wee Thursday-night hours; and country boy Paul Burch, who, despite a shabby backing band and some uncool prima donna tendencies (why invite a friend on stage to sing, then hog the mike?), offered solid storytelling and whimsical lyrics ("The sun don't shine on the same dog every time"). Chicago's insurgent country trio the Blacks held court at the Schubas (a Chicago live-music venue) party on Thursday, where the free beer flowed and good-looking hipsters noshed on barbecue. Beatle Bob was there, doing his funky snapping-twirling-kicking dance. (For the uninitiated, Beatle Bob is this weird social worker from St. Louis who dresses in vintage clothing, sports a Prince Valiant haircut and shows up at festivals nationwide, doing this goofy boogaloo right in front of the stage; he's been at it for more than 20 years.)
There were some new faces at the festival, too. Please tattoo these band names on your forehead and never forget them. Black Rebel Motorcycle Club, a San Francisco-based trio reminiscent of Love & Rockets and the Stone Roses, was the object of a Virgin-hosted listening party Thursday afternoon, which industry hipsters deemed cool enough to attend only after the invitation-only Radiohead listening party. With a major-label push behind it, BRMC is on the rise, having recently toured in support of art-rock brethren the Dandy Warhols. Can you hear the buzz? Then there's La Rocca, an enthusiastic, fresh-faced group of Dublin boys who serve up party grooves à la Supergrass, only smarter and more serious. La Rocca is already popular in its hometown, and judging from the Austin crowd's reaction, the band should have no problem breaking stateside.
One thing I noticed was the marked difference in the number of male and female artists. There were entire showcases in which a woman never set foot on stage. Sure, Lucinda Williams, Amy Ray (Indigo Girls), the Butchies, Neko Case (who garnered a lot of buzz when Ray Davies sat in with her and the New Pornographers) and Kasey Chambers were there, but we're talking about a festival in which 900 bands played. Yet the only female acts I saw were Blaise Pascal (fresh from Aaron Spelling Central Casting, perfect for the role of "Gwen Stefani wanna-be"), who might as well have been performing on a (preferably doomed) cruise ship, and Peaches.
Ah, Peaches. The poor dear has some issues. This Sandra Bernhard look-alike fancies herself some sort of eroticist; she starts off her show with the chant "Shake yer dicks and shake yer tits," and then extols us to "diddle [her] skittle" for there's "only one Peach with the hole in the middle." Yeah, it's kind of funny at first, and she's doing something that no other woman does (using a sexual vocabulary that resonates more with the leering men in the audience than with the women, who, on this night, were merely shifting uncomfortably), but when she started wailing "fuck the pain away" over and over, I just felt sad for her. And she's no great shakes as a musician, either; she uses a Roland MC 505 to punch out preprogrammed electro-punk beats and occasionally picks up a guitar to add a punk edge. The most interesting part of this showcase was that Stuart Braithwaite from Mogwai stood in line behind me at the door.
That same night, though, I saw June Panic and the Panoply Academy Legionnaires, and my outlook improved, despite the fact that they didn't draw nearly as many people as Peaches. Panic is a tall, lanky young man who looks frighteningly like Jeff Buckley but sings folksy indie-rock songs informed by his extensive study of philosophy and theology. The Panoply Academy boys were a self-contained anomaly. They made little to no eye contact with the audience, yet provided a small suitcase of noisemakers for us to use during the set, so we could contribute to the vibe from outside the fourth wall. The young men communicated with each other through hand signals rather than a set list. It was fascinating. The Legionnaires' chewy art rock isn't for everyone, but I, for one, am sold.
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Saturday night was the Revolver magazine party. I thought I was really connected to score an invite, but I was just one of more than 500 people there, waiting in the cold and rain for the Cult to take the stage. (Our laminates said the band would start at seven o'clock sharp -- oh, the lies.) Special guests alt-rockers Creeper Lagoon sounded wonderful, despite being rushed. Then the waiting began. When 7:30 rolled around, we began debating why such a has-been band was pulling this rock-star shtick.
Then Ian Astbury took the stage, looking hot in his hooded windbreaker and painted red eyes, and the group launched into a strangely unvaried set. The Cult offered nothing fresh, sadly; all its stuff, whether old or new, sounded the same, although the musicians were seamless in their execution. You would be, too, if you played the same set of chord progressions and drumbeats for nearly 20 years. Seeing the reunited Soft Boys shortly thereafter provided an interesting juxtaposition, though. Robyn Hitchcock and company were the perfect example of how the same four men can continue to make new and interesting sounds. The Cult should borrow a page from the Soft Boys' book.
But it was Mogwai that made my festival. This Scottish quintet is tapped into something nameless and supernatural that makes you feel like nothing in the world matters but the music. I didn't want to see anything or anyone else after seeing Mogwai. Thirty minutes after midnight on Saturday, and I was packing it in -- simply because the band ruined me for any other act. And if I ever run into that idiot who groused, "That's the worst goddamn band I've ever heard" after the final note reverbed into nothingness, I'll be handing him his teeth.
And that, friends, is what fuels one's passion for music and what should drive this festival: those transcendent moments when the only important thing in life is what's coming out of the amps.