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Sucking (Blood), Austin-style

There are at least 421 people trying to squeeze through one man-sized door on Sixth Street in Austin. The city is hosting its annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference and Festival again, and industry types are hip-checking each other out of the way for a look at some Bjork ripoff ready to play a 10 p.m. Saturday set at Bob Popular.

The club is cool, a two-story structure with east and west wings and room enough probably for three or four bands to play, each in its respective wing. Bjork-ripoff, who is dressed hauntingly like Baby Spice -- white platform sneakers, pink dress, crisp golden-blond hair pulled into a pigtail -- takes the first-floor stage, violin in hand, as her prepubescent backup band tunes up. The music never starts. Patrons get restless and start fidgeting their black-wearin' bods up against each other, which makes for real annoying beer drinking. (You hoist your glass, someone knocks your elbow, you're in a wet T-shirt contest.)

Why everyone's here clamoring for this act is an absolute mystery, especially considering the fact that 800 other mediocre bands are probably playing somewhere close by and at least 50 percent of the gatherers here own a Bjork CD or two. What does appear rather clear is the power of buzz and the way attitudes change once buzz takes hold. That no one here has ever heard of Bjork-ripoff, whose actual name will go unmentioned in this space to reduce her chances of selling records, is moot. Everyone has heard of the Columbia A&R guy who's here to see her, and, since he's a tastemaker, that's all that matters. Direction for the masses.

But crowds are South by Southwest (SXSW if you're nasty). And watching industry types, who belong to a business more akin to bloodletting than entertainment, interact with each other is sport of the highest quality. Call it Week of the Living Dead or Vampira-palooza, but in Austin last week people were cringing at the sight of crucifixes. Everybody had something to sell, and if you weren't sporting your garlic and holy water, you were getting product pushed in your face real repetitive-motionlike. Kind of like an assembly line of ass washers. "Ready for your towel-snap, Mr. Sony?"

Of course, that's not to say there isn't some real benefit from all this SXSW hoopla. The festival, now in its 13th year, has been a healthy showcase for almost-breaking and may-never-be-breaking music acts, interactive media types (a recent addition) and with its sister soiree, the South by Southwest Film Festival, independent filmmakers. What most of these aspiring artists do or have done after the festival, who knows? But simply having a place to show up and off can never hurt.

Native Austinites, at least the whiny ones, might beg to differ. One recent morning an Austin radio personality bemoaned the SXSW situation and all the Hollywood/New York pomposity that attends it. After slamming show-biz people for all their artifice, he said, most people I know are going outta town this weekend. They can't stand it.

Talk about a fakey fucker. At least Hollywood types know they're Hollywood types. And it's doubtful that of the kazillion people stumbling around Sixth Street last weekend not one was an Austinite. Every person in town with at least some social skills couldn't have just pooped the entire party, especially given that it's Austin's biggest bash of the year. Beatle Bob made the trip from Missouri for chrissakes.

The story behind Bob -- St. Louie's greatest rock and roll fan ever -- is that he shows up at, like, one rock and roll show almost every night, every day of the week, every week of the year in his Midwestern hometown and has been doing so ever since, well, forever. He also goes to all the music conferences and always makes sure to seek out only the coolest record-label parties, which are shindigs hosted by record labels in which the company bands play free little shows and plastic cups of beer are handed out like lost-dog flyers. Beatle Bob spends most of his time just kind of standing in the front row "bobbing" (ahem) his head back and forth and kind of tuning out everyone who passes by. If he were a rock star, he'd be Elvis. Or, umm, The Beatles. Errr, ummm, one of 'em.

Anyway, about Vampira-palooza. The feeding frenzy gets a little bit easier to stomach once the panels are over. See, all day long intelligent, charismatic "insiders" who know lots about their little corners of the music industry huddle together around white cloth-covered oaken conference tables, pitchers of water, microphones and name tags and, well, confer about their little corners of the industry. In the neatly aligned rows of fold-out chairs below, artists, reporters and PR flacks look, listen, ask questions and, afterward, suck blood. "Care for my new CD, Mr. Sony? How about an ass rub?"

Then there's the music.
This year's Houston selectees were very non-Houston in their coolness, more New York than Space City. Kat Jones played at Bob Pop (actually opening for Bjork-ripoff) and seemed to have a way of demoralizing the crowd with moody, moody, fuck-the-sleeping-pills-and-get-me-the-noose ambient music. A cool mix of technofied hardcore with acoustic accents, the Kat Jones sound came off clean, and it never wallowed too long in its terminal illnesses. (Illnesses, as in the Run-D.M.C. song "You Be Illin'," meaning "you be repulsive and sad.") The only problem was cosmetic. Every band member contributed to the sound in some tangible way except one heavy-set guy who stood off to the side and strummed his acoustic guitar in silence. As in total silence. As in ... he wasn't plugged in.

Two Houston DJs, Audio 3 and Zakaos, each played hour-long sets at Twist, a faux-East-Village dance club with swirly iron cocktail tables, high ceilings and a video screen comprising about 50 24-inch TVs. Funny, but during Zakaos's 11 p.m. set, and with about 75 ravers comfortably sharing floor space, the video screen swirled with images of Charlton Heston as Moses. Now, if you read deeply into the metaphor, Twist's video DJ was saying Zakaos was like the holy gun-wielding prophet, taking his people by the scruff of the neck, parting the waters of their everyday confusion and turmoil and leading them to the promised land. But if you sat back, slurped Jack-'n'-waters, smoked golden apples (Marlboro Lights) and welcomed the irony of it all, the visuals were awfully, awfully silly.

By far, the most engaging Houston act was the techno quartet Lunatex. These four young white guys sat at their instruments -- tape machines, Casios, a contraption that looked like a fuse box or the back of a really tiny, really busy TV set and computerized digitized modulized atomizers -- like characters in an Alex Katz painting, their eyes never meeting. With an occasional head bob or puff of a cigarette, the foursome melded heavy, pounding bass tones with ethereal washes of melody that, if they weren't digestible as an oral drug, were damn-near perfect as an auditory hallucinogen.

It was enough to make you glad you couldn't get into "Japan Night" at Copper Tank Main. If you'd seen Anthrax, missing the Japanese version -- a band called Nicotine -- didn't hurt that much. Besides, there was something pleasantly Twilight Zone-ish about choosing whether to go see four white guys making techno music or four Japanese guys making heavy metal.

Only in Austin.


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