Just over two years ago in this space, we wrote a piece taking South By Southwest to task for two things -- the small number of Houston acts on the bill (a mere seven that year) -- and the absence of Houston rap on the bill.
The former of those complaints was a Press staple; going back through this paper's archives, it popped up every spring as surely as the blooms on the azalea bushes. Here is Racket's predecessor Brad Tyer in 1994: "Observers in all camps agree that there's no dearth of musical talent here in Houston, but on the heels of an event as awe-inspiringly huge as SXSW -- credited to dippy little Austin, no less -- our second-city inferiority complex kicks into overdrive and the question on everyone's lips seems to be, well, how do we sell the damn stuff?" Here's Tyer again the next year: "...our town can't get a reasonable cross-section of rock represented to save its life."
Hobart Rowland picked up the torch in 1996: "If my only job at this week's [SXSW] were to witness every showcase performance by a Houston artist, my efforts would amount to little more than a day's work. Houston's representation at the event is a piddling eight bands this year..." Anthony Mariani mentioned the problem a couple of times around the turn of the century, and then yours truly came out both barrels blazing in 2002 and 2003. "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," I wrote in '02, and the next year, addressing the lack of rap and other matters, I dubbed the whole shebang "White By Whitebread."
Well, that's all changed. I won't be contributing to the noble canon of Press South By screeds this year. For one thing, we already have about 30 acts on the official bill and more will probably be added closer to the date. (Each year, a couple dozen national and international bands cancel at the last minute and a few Houston bands get added late.) And this year, there's a good sampling of our city's many scenes.
Here's the list, which includes a couple of acts from places like Alvin and Beaumont/Port Arthur, by genre:
Rap: Chingo Bling, Abstraq The Grindologist, Bun B and UGK Present MDDL FNGZ, Deep, Devin the Dude and the Odd Squad, DJ Chill, Ghostwriters, G.R.I.T. Boys, K-Rino and South Park Coalition, LRJ, Slim Thug, Scarface, Studemont Project, Trae and Paul Wall.
Rock: By the End of Tonight, Michael Haaga, Fatal Flying Guilloteens, Linus Pauling Quartet
Country/Americana/singer-songwriter: Hayes Carll, Rodney Crowell, Jesse Dayton, Lise Liddell, Angela Peterson, Mando Saenz, Daniel Johnston
Jazz: Drop Trio, Jason Moran
Blues: Calvin Owens' Blues Orchestra
Conjunto: Rusted Shut (at least that's what they claim at South By's Web site.)
That's not a bad cross-section of stuff, but no doubt some of you are decrying the relative scarcity of rock acts, especially when compared to the number of rappers. So who gets the credit for all those rappers getting in, and who gets the blame for the lack of rockers?
I talked to KPFT radio host, freelance writer and former Houston Press listings editor Matt Sonzala about the situation. Sonzala goes way back with SXSW -- he helped put together showcases in the conference's early days, earned and kept the trust of the people who make decisions, maintained his contacts, and over the past couple of years has played a huge role in getting Houston hip-hop its fair share of the limelight. A couple of years ago, he put the word out through a publicist that he would like to get more Houston artists on the bill there, and the conference was all ears.
"I told her I would love to get some of this Houston rap that was blowing up at this big Texas conference," he says. "The publicist forwarded my e-mail to Craig Stewart, the guy in charge of the music there, and he wrote me back real quick saying 'Do you really think you could do that?' I was like, yeah. And it was as simple as that -- a frickin' e-mail."
That was last year. Sonzala was given two showcases -- an underground night and sort of a Texas all-star affair. Both went well, so this year Sonzala has pretty much been given carte blanche. "Craig was like 'Do whatever you want this year.' I kinda wanted to do more, but I don't think I [physically] can. I'm not an employee of SXSW, I don't get any money from this, but I do get my folks out there and I do get some work out of it."
So here's my proposal -- Houston's rock scene needs a Sonzala. This year, someone who believes in our scene should go in to the conference as a worker bee, toil away in obscurity, make some friends and start laying the groundwork for SXSW 2006. It really can be as simple as Sonzala says it is, but only if you work as hard and as long and as well as he has.
But beware: Sonzala believes that a local rock fixer/facilitator/broker would have a tough row to hoe in dealing with the amateurism and lax work habits of far too many of our local bands. "Here's my fuckin' question to Houston rock bands," he snarls. "Austin's two and a half hours away. Why don't you ever play there? Those people at SXSW have to pick 1,200 bands out of 10,000 submissions, and I don't want to say they play favorites, but sometimes it's hard to distinguish one good band from another, and I don't think Houston bands hustle as hard as they should. Houston rappers -- from the first days at Rap-A-Lot -- laid the blueprint for how to take an independent record and make a life out of it.
"I haven't seen too many rockers here do that. These cats can play these local clubs every day, but that doesn't mean that anybody even two hours down the road even knows who they are. Most of these guys never go to Austin, San Antonio, Dallas, and the few that do are probably on the bill. I just don't see too many of these cats making that trek to where our music business crap supposedly is. I don't think Austin's a music-business Mecca, but they got 10,000 fuckin' clubs. You can get a show."
Sonzala even has a theory about how this local lassitude has come about. "I think drugs are too easily available here," he says. "Weed is everywhere. You're never gonna not be able to get some weed. You're not gonna have a dry moment in this town, and that's fuckin' people up."
Agreed. I can just see some band sitting around their rehearsal space passing the bong around. The singer's saying, "You know, they say weed's all bad for you and shit. They say it'll lead to other drugs. What a bunch of bullshit. I'm the same guy I was when we started this band six years ago." The phone rings. It's their "manager," some dilettante who works at Kinko's and has poured all his spare money into this band for five years. "Have y'all finished that demo yet?" he wants to know. "Cardi's says they won't book you on a Saturday without a demo." "Naw, man," the singer drawls. "We'll get around to it." (He hangs up and says to his band mates: "Dudes, let's get out of here. Aqua Teen Hunger Force is coming on!")
Lower Kirby denizens have no doubt seen the enormous stainless steel armadillo that has seemingly erupted out of the earth amid Jim Goode's restaurant empire. This weekend that sucker will come to life -- smoke will billow from its nostrils and its beady little eyes will burn coal-red -- and the building behind it will rumble into what promises to be a long and successful existence as the Armadillo Palace, the Goode family's first big venture into the music business.
Manager Craig Harrington took me on a tour of the Old West-themed joint and amid an army of contractors and clouds of sawdust, you could see a real Texas-size gem emerging here. It's got that sense of bigness we Texans all once prized; it is an oversized appeal to all of our senses.
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There will be plenty to taste: The kitchen will offer an all-star lineup of Goode Company specialties -- everything from steak to venison chili to empanadas to the delectable seafood campechana -- and the bar will be well-stocked with Texas brews and western-themed cocktails. (My favorite: the Gunslinger -- Southern Comfort, Bacardi 151, cranberry juice and a dash of Seven-Up.)
There will be lots to look at: All four walls in the main room will be positively encrusted with first-rate Texana and western artifacts -- old revolvers and rifles, saddles, Victorian portraits and yellowing newspapers, such as the one Harrington showed me: a framed copy of the New York Tribune bearing the news of Custer's Last Stand.
And it will be a feast for the ears: Harrington and Davin James will book top-shelf Texas bands every weekend. Jesse Dayton will play the opener on March 5; other March bookings include James, Clay Farmer, Owen Temple, 1100 Springs and Scott Walker, with the likes of Shake Russell, Max Stalling, Hayes Carll, John Evans and Tommy Alverson later this spring.
As Houston gets more and more international and cosmopolitan, it's all too easy to forget we are, in fact, still in Texas. As Goode likes to say, we should all give some serious thought to thanking our lucky stars for that, and the Armadillo Palace will make it all the easier.