Down and Dull in Austin

Austin's annual South by Southwest Music Conference is a perpetual disappointment and probably couldn't be otherwise. Hundreds of unsigned bands, many of whom are unsigned because they suck, gather in a tiny city to mingle with vacationing journalists, screw up parking, piss in the bushes and try to make 20-minute impressions that will last in some hapless scout's mind all the way back to L.A. Meanwhile, Austin's cliquish scene huddles in a circle of civic self-importance (in Austin, your monthly telephone bill comes on letterhead proclaiming Austin the "Live Music Capital of the World") and whining resentment ("why does everyone always talk about Nashville?"). Without a label's checkbook or Jimmie Dale Gilmore's home number in tow, it's pretty easy for a journalist, band or wristband-wearing fan to think the conference is happening for someone else's benefit.

This year's music wasn't terribly invigorating either. Maybe, with so much of the indie farm system incorporated into major label America, and with much of what's left not interested (anyone know how many hot Houston bands didn't even apply?), the pickin's are getting slim.

What's left is a celebration of acts already broken, and those didn't make much magic last week. The tail end of the Spinanes' Saturday night gig at the Blind Alley didn't reinforce that charming duo's hype, and Giant Sand's abbreviated Liberty Lunch showcase was merely amusing. Cracker's outdoor concert on Friday dragged David Lowery's vocals through mud so thick that I left before "Low."

Beck, who, far from being a discovery, came into the conference with an album (Mellow Gold) in stores and a high-charting single about what a worthless slacker ass he is, played a buzz show at Emo's, but call me irresponsible -- I skipped that one.

Rykodisk's Saturday night showcase at the Terrace (ex-Austin Opera House) featured a hyped Oyster Band that started strong, but by song three I was starting to think of their modern Celtic rock shtick (via London) as pseudo-ethnic Alan Parsons Project. Boston's Morphine, up next, was the low-register highlight, with a set of bass-sax-and-drums jazz-rock. The highly publicized reunion of True Believers (Ryko just released the Austin guitar band's first and second albums as Hard Road) sounded awfully good but, to ears fed on the Troobs legend, didn't live up to the status Austin myth has accorded it. Oh well, show up tomorrow with a guitar and Austin will think it's nurturing the next Dylan

The hottest showcase, as far as buzz factor is concerned, had to be Johnny Cash at, again, Emo's. The Man in Black has been taken under the hairy wing of American Recordings honcho Rick Rubin (ever hear of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?), who trotted out his fossil find as a bored-out, revamped hero to the alternative darkside masses. I'm eager to hear what the assorted critters have to say about Cash's re-emergence as a meta-alternative hero. Is the collective memory so tweaked as to not remember that big bad Cash has been pushing schlock born-again gospel for the past decade?

And how did Houston's proud ambassadors fare? Miss Molly's Thursday night show at Antone's came off without an apparent hitch, but it didn't exactly knock anyone's socks off, either. The Whips, functioning as a three-piece, didn't do much better than get by, but Molly's undiminished vocals make you wonder why she's still pushing that ridiculous party-girl image.

Dive played the Back Room Thursday, and it wasn't their fault that they were booked in a glam-metal club, or that their sound was too loud and brittle, or, perhaps, that there was next to no crowd. They will, though, have to take responsibility for a sloppy set and whatever you may think of Eddie's increasingly tortured ham-standing. Hadden Sayers played Babe's that same night and turned in one of the tightest Houston sets of the weekend, even if Sayers' brand of blues rock doesn't seem poised to turn many heads in Austin.

Saturday night, Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys played to a full house at Steamboat, showcasing a new tape (Truck Stop Favorites Volume 2) and a sound that trades off an emphasis on Wonderland's blues virtuosity for what's turned into a fine, ragged rock-and-roll band. Later that night, the Terrace hosted a rap showcase that advertised Poetic Souls, Black Monks and K-Otix from Houston. The scheduling was screwed up and all I got to see was Rap-a-Lot's Monks, who might make a living renting out their dancers.

Topping the night like icing, dead horse played the late-night slot at the Back Room, and with sound flown in from L.A., proceeded to blow the toupees off of visitors from Interscope and Giant. Once again, the horse ought to ride this one into the sunset.

But if there's one thing to be learned from SXSW, it's to not count unborn chickens. When the assorted masses at a new music conference are collectively agog at the prospect of a reborn (or now that he's label-mates with Slayer, is that "re-buried"?) Johnny Cash, chances are that any attention you get is going to be the wrong kind anyway.

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Brad Tyer