To get to the Fader party at South By Southwest, you must first wend your way through a maze of Levi's products out to a back patio that is brought to you by Southern Comfort peach brandy. There, The Good, the Bad and the Queen, Ladyhawk, Vietnam, Redman and Bone Thugs-N-Harmony graced a stage brought to you by Fader as the assorted throngs passed around cups bearing the Southern Comfort logo.
Today, South by Southwest has evolved into a binary event.
By night, it is the same as it ever was. Bands play showcases in attempts to play the music game by the old rules -- to impress journalists, promoters, label execs and other such old-school music biz riff-raff in order to sell CDs, get signed or put together a few tour dates.
South By Southwest 2007
By day, when the buzz bands play the corporate shindigs, it's a different story, one that is by turns thrilling, fascinating, repellent and scary. At events like Fader's, not even some of the most exciting acts in the world can conceal the fact that, as far as corporate America is concerned, the sale of music is no longer an end in itself. It is just another accoutrement of a fashionable lifestyle, a mixer to pour in your cup with your Southern Comfort and perhaps slosh on your brand-new Levi's. Sales of recorded sound aren't carrying the bacon anymore, so music is now seen as a keyhole to unlock the kids, so that you can sell them stuff that actually has the kind of value you can see on a bottom line.
Daytime at South By also clearly reveals the post-Internet fracturing of the mass market. There is no longer one, two, three or even ten youth culture niches. Today, psych-rock hipsters with Civil War general-shaggy beards rub shoulders with androgynous denizens of the Beauty Bar who step on the toes of designer throwback-clad hip-hop heads who bump into old-school funksters.
It was long believed by the powers-that-be in the corporate suites of the tall buildings on Madison Avenue that today's kids could not be marketed to. That's not true, and South By Southwest is where the suits go to learn and adapt. They are getting really good at it.
Of course, marketing through music has been going on a long time. What bugs me about it now is the whole charade -- that on the one hand, the companies pretend they are not marketing, and on the other, that the fans believe that they are not being marketed to. I'll cop to succumbing myself -- after that Fader party, I have definitely noticed a psychic shift in my head. I might just buy a pair of Levi's and a quart of Southern Comfort and head out on a tear.
With that little sermon out of the way, I'll step off my soapbox and get on to the music. Here's a partial blow-by-blow (some adapted from my two blog dispatches) of my seventh consecutive South By Southwest.
Wednesday: Drove thru intermittent rain to Austin with my dad, who is here in his newish capacity as the manager of country chanteuse Sunny Sweeney. We caught up as we munched Antone's poor boys and listened to the magic iPod, which hit us with an incredible random shuffle, following the 13th Floor Elevators' "You're Gonna Miss Me" with Pink Floyd's "Shine on You Crazy Diamond." Syd Barrett has to be smiling somewhere.
As for Roky Erickson, he's right here in A-Town, along with tens of thousands of lesser mortals. I waited in line behind a few hundred of them at the credentials line in the convention center. I struck up a convo with a girl who drove down here from Alaska pretty much just to see Iggy Pop.
"I heard his new album's pretty weak," I said. "The reviews have been pretty lousy."
"Yeah, that's 'cause music critics suck," she said. And I guess we kinda do.
Got my badge and my swag bag and headed over to my digs at the downtown Omni. It's an atrium-style joint not unlike a Hyatt, only the difference is that one-half of this place is an office building. So while I'm sitting in here swilling wine and plotting whether to see Clem Snide at Emo's or Sondre Lerche at The Current, I can gaze at people 100 yards away toiling in cubes under signs that say things like "Sell Like A Champion Today!" So yeah, music critics may suck, but our jobs don't.
Anyway, I caught Charlie Louvin and the aforementioned Ms. Sweeney at The Parish to kick off the evening. Louvin's show was a disappointment. The man himself said his best days were behind him, and it was hard to disagree.
It was time for something completely different, so I headed a few blocks down Sixth to one of Matt Sonzala's many H-Town rap throw-downs. K-Rino, the conscience and one of the patriarchs of Houston rap, spit fucking fire like only he can. Devin the Dude and his Coughee Brothaz closed the show. I'm not sure if Devin ever got around to rapping himself, and the posse lacked the military precision I've seen them operate under elsewhere, so it was a bit of a shambles.
Thursday: This year marks the 50th anniversary for the Stax label, and they're relaunching this year. The MGs were Stax's heart and soul, their taut organ jams the hipster nocturnes of a generation. The rhythm section of Duck Dunn and Al Jackson was the epitome of economy -- the late Jackson was famous for rarely if ever playing a drum fill. Steve Cropper's chiming, chunky rhythm guitar and Jones's soaring organ were fairly well redolent of the smell of Memphis...Pork barbecue and beer.
And damn if the dudes still don't have it. Jackson's stool was occupied by a cousin, and the surviving three members were all obviously enjoying themselves immensely, as did the huge crowd. Cropper stretched a little more on the guitar than he does on the records -- I know the dude humbly claims to be nothing more than a rhythm guitarist, but man, come on. Cropper plays a mean lead and you have to recognize that he is one of the finest six-stringers this country has produced. Go back and review your copies of "Hip Hug Her," "Time Is Tight" and "Green Onions" for a refresher.
What better show to match with Booker T. than UGK? Memphis and Houston have always had a sort of symbiotic relationship going back to the days of Bobby Bland and Junior Parker continuing through 8Ball and MJG, so to me, UGK occupies part of the same cosmic wavelength as the MGs. Their show was a frickin' madhouse -- the energy was palpable as the throng waited for Bun B and Pimp C to take the stage. When they did, dudes were completely blazing. Bun's opening salvo kicked like a donkey on meth, and their renditions of classics like "Pocket Full of Stones," "Front, Back & Side to Side" and "Return" sizzled, as did new stuff like their new single and Pimp's solo joint "Knockin' Doorz Down."
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Matt Sonzala's theory of hip-hop is that the East Coast variety rises out of jazz, and the West Coast stems from funk. Our version comes from the down-home blues, and rap don't get no bluesier than UGK. Somewhere, Al Jackson is smiling down on all of it.
Friday: Friday afternoon is a nightmare of scheduling. Everybody hosts their huge bashes, and you can only go to one or two. For me, that meant the Village Voice Media party at La Zona Rosa, 'cause it was hosted by the people who sign my checks. The Cinematics put on a pretty good show there, but I split before the Bravery played. Buzz band or no, they aren't my cup of tea.
Sundown found me at the Ponderosa Stomp at Opal Divine's, where one Gulf Coast music legend after another took the stage before a steadily morphing house band. (Buckwheat Zydeco manned the keyboards for much of the night.) Here was my pure music highlight of the whole festival -- Houston's own Herb Remington playing the steel guitar. The former Texas Playboy is truly world-class, a national treasure. He opened with his composition "The Boot Heel Rag," always one of my favorite Western swing instrumentals, and I practically cupped my ear to the stack of amps, the better to drink in every nuance of his amazing playing. And then he absolutely killed me with his delicate, magical rendition of Santo & Johnny's exquisite instrumental "Sleepwalk."
Saturday was all about the rock, with a hint of Jamaican smoke. For the first time ever, I skipped out on the South Congress/Continental Club hoedown entirely and stayed downtown all day and night. First, there was the Fatal Flying Guilloteens at Red 7, and then, after a break, it was Rickie Lee Jones and "Scratch" Perry on separate stages at the convention center. Next came the aforementioned Fader party, then it was back over to Red 7 to see Houston's bluesy hard rockers Amplified Heat and Austin stoner-sludgers Tia Carrera. To close the festival, I rounded up a posse of Sound Exchange regulars including co-owner Kurt Brennan and occasional Press contributor Sean McManus, local rock guitarist Eric Bogle, friends Annika and Mara, a couple of six-packs, and my iPod and speakers, and we all headed to one of Austin's downtown parks. There we howled at unimpressed passersby with karaoke versions of H-Town rap classics and Journey singles. Believe it or not, we hope to make that a lasting tradition, but Austin just isn't ready for us.