Begun 15 years ago as a way for struggling bands to attract a label's attention, SXSW has morphed into a giant annual affair that's more about labels showing off their marquee attractions than discovering new talent. Sure, there's the occasional success story, like Houston's own Pale, which won a contest sponsored by Musicblitz.com. (The prize was $3,500 to record a single, to be featured on the Web site.) But if this millennium's Beatles are out there, hoping to walk away from SXSW with a contract with Atlantic and an imminent Rolling Stone cover, they should steel themselves for bitter disappointment.
The thrill of SXSW -- and we're talking about the music side of this multimedia festival, since after all, this is the music section -- is really for the hard-core fans; for them, it's a five-day smorgasbord of hard-to-catch acts and rock stars whose entire reason for being in Austin, it would seem, is to have their sorry asses validated by people who obviously don't understand the point of the conference.
With more than 850 bands slated to perform this year, SXSW is a strategic game of urban Risk for the music lover. Do you rub your wristband three times for luck and hope the badge line for Los Super Seven isn't too long? (The class lines are drawn very clearly at SXSW: Badge holders, mostly industry mooks, get in first, followed by wristband wearers, those regular folks who can afford the $85 to $105 piece of plastic. If there's any room left, stragglers can pay a cover to see their favorite Icelandic techno-pop band.) Or do you face the cold, hard fact that without a badge there's no way on God's green earth that you're going to get into the Black Crowes show, especially if you can't miss Ryan Adams, who's playing across downtown?
SXSW is the most stressful good time you'll ever have. It's best to map out your evenings based on two assumptions: 1) Most of these bands, say about 700 of them, you will never get to see again; and 2) Hearing an obscure band on its way up is infinitely more gratifying than being crammed into a crappy club to see an industry veteran or a label darling. Yeah, it's tempting to go see Dee Dee Ramone, but how many opportunities will you get to see Señor Coconut, the Chile-based German expat who performs Kraftwerk covers mariachi-style? One last rule: You must go to a Japan showcase. With these guidelines in mind, here are some pointers.
Indie hipsters are all dying to see the Matador showcase on Saturday, March 17, at the Austin Music Hall. Who wouldn't want to see Mark Eitzel, the Soft Boys, Mogwai and Stephen Malkmus all in one night? This is going to be a packed house, and it's likely that many will be turned away at the door. Same thing with the 764-HERO and Death Cab for Cutie shows. Why not check out the Secretly Canadian showcase on Friday, March 16, at the Copper Tank? Secretly Canadian boasts some of the best indie-rock acts you've never heard: June Panic, with his Dylanesque lyrics and squeaky-boy voice; Dave Fischoff, the plaintive singer-songwriter; the kinda scary Marmoset (think a more sinister Pavement, and you're close); and the Panoply Academy Legionnaires, who are destined for greatness with their rattletrap guitars, halting rhythm lines and Darin Glenn's rubbery vocals.
Are you an alt-country lover? Yes, everyone loves Ryan Adams and Robbie Fulks. Lucinda Williams? Yawn. Here's why you should see Kasey Chambers, that ass-kickin' Aussie country singer on Friday, March 16, at Waterloo Park: She's amazing and not all that famous stateside, and it's free, no wristband required.
The fact is you don't even need a wristband to get in on all the action. The unofficial events are where the more interesting things take place. The trick is to keep your ear to the ground. SXSW 2000, for example, brought us the fifth annual P2 BBQ, featuring Neko Case, Calexico and the Ranchero Brothers (Rhett and Murry from the Old 97's). Each band was required to include an ABBA cover in its set. (Some of them were quite good; others were craptacular.) There was free beer and barbecue, and Janeane Garofalo showed up. Look for like-minded events this year. Then there's the annual Bloodshot Records party on Friday, March 16, at Yard Dog art gallery on South Congress; expect performances by Alejandro Escovedo, bluegrass favorites Split Lip Rayfield and more.
If you're lucky enough to get your hands on an invitation to the Revolver party, run, don't walk, to the as-yet-undisclosed warehouse location on Saturday afternoon. Last year the mag-publishers-cum-punk-rock-rebels flew in Guided By Voices as the entertainment, much to the chagrin of SXSW brass. This year Creeper Lagoon and the Cult are the bands of honor, and SXSW is still pissed. (The SXSW weasels have revoked the mag's press credentials.) Expect a visit from the fire marshal. Unfortunately, particulars about the free parties and underground shows are kept mostly under wraps until the conference begins, so prepare to do some sleuthing. Be sure to check out the free in-store performances at Waterloo Records and Thirty Three Degrees.
If you're more interested in supporting Bayou City musicians, there are plenty of opportunities to do so. Local darlings Japanic rock the Cheetah Lounge on Wednesday, March 14, while the Westbury Squares represent at the Hole in the Wall on the same night. On Thursday, March 15, the Free Radicals invade yuppie enclave the Empanada Parlour, and Houston sons Clay Blaker (he's been covered by none other than Barbra Streisand!) and Cory Morrow (now an Austin resident) hold court at Maggie Mae's. (Show up a little early and catch the Moonlighters, a Hawaiian-music quartet that features former members of Helmet and the Pain Teens.) In what is probably the most hilarious and appropriate artist-venue pairing in the history of booking, Jody Hughes camps it up at the Rainbow Cattle Co. (a gay C&W club) on Friday, March 16. On Saturday, March 17, Middlefinger salutes the Capital City at Opal Divine's Freehouse, immediately followed by up-and-coming heavy-metal act Marzi.
As summaries of SXSW go, this is just the tip of the iceberg, which is fitting, because you can never fully experience the spectacle that is SXSW. There's simply too much going on; you will always miss something. Consider yourself forewarned: Lineups are in a constant state of flux until the last band heads home on Sunday night, but that's all part of the thrill.