SXSW '98: Taking it as it comes... Griping has always been part of the South by Southwest Music Conference, where for five dizzying days in Austin, the pissing and moaning is as copious as the tepid beer and leathery barbecue. Going into this year's event, tops on the diss list of most everyone I talked to (and that includes media and industry folk alike) was the quality of the entertainment. The consensus seemed to be that the 1998 lineup lacked pizzazz -- though, curiously, no one was able to come up with a compelling reason why.

Indeed, the Texas contingent had no reason to complain this year; our representation at the conference soared well into the hundreds. Some misguided souls, however, seemed disappointed by what they saw as a lack of marquee talent (as if SXSW '98 participants Soul Asylum, Buddy Guy and Sonic Youth didn't qualify). For others, it was not so much the star-power issue as it was the plethora of acts they simply knew nothing about. One perplexed Dallas journalist I spoke with just before the March 18 kickoff had already resigned himself to the basest of SXSW itineraries, opting to see acts solely on the basis of their ludicrous monikers -- bands like New York City's Muckafurgason, the Kokessies from Japan, Australia's Accapelicans and Hai Karate out of Seattle.

I myself was intrigued enough by Plastalina Mosh to check out the name's owners in action. What I found was a young, eclectic hip-hop duo from Monterey, Mexico, whose positive energy and love of performing overshadowed other deficiencies, namely in the songwriting department. So it was a letdown when a crucial piece of equipment gave out about halfway through the set, and Plastalina Mosh were forced to cut their performance short. (In the high-tech '90s, you're only as good as your sequencer.) Ultimately, I'm convinced that winging it is the only path to happiness at South by Southwest. That way, you're more in tune with the original spirit of the event. You might recall that a decade ago, before the big-league hype set in for good, SXSW was actually a significant forum for the unknown (and unsigned) to weasel access -- however fleeting -- to many of music's almighty decision-makers. On a less philosophical level, heading into the schmooze-soaked fray with no expectations and no worries seems key to maintaining any sort of perspective on the event -- let alone sanity. (That, and staying away from Sixth Street after midnight on Saturday, the conference's final evening, when returning UT spring-breakers amplify the mayhem to near-apocalyptic proportions.)

Fittingly, it was the smaller stories away from the SXSW-sanctioned venues that seemed to carry the most weight after the '98 conference played itself out. There's the indelible, pasty-white sight of the inventive techno-rock outfit PURE lounging poolside in the Texas sun in a futile attempt to bake away their Bacardi hangovers just hours before a Thursday night showcase. Anyone heading to conference central at the city's convention center witnessed any number of artists busking nearby, among them Austin's Sheridans, a capable band rejected by the SXSW selection committee for the second year in a row. And those out and about on Sixth Street Saturday night were bound to glimpse another determined bunch stationed in the middle of the road with a sign soliciting label scouts to come meet the greatest band on earth. The group's placard didn't reveal their name.

But perhaps most reflective of SXSW's enterprising, anything-goes vibe was an elevator ride that I shared with a hotel employee. In one hand, the moonlighting musician held a bag of cassette tapes; in the other, a boom box. It seemed a Canadian A&R representative, one of many well-connected guests at the hotel, had forgotten his tape player, so he'd phoned the Radisson's audio/visual department looking for a loaner. The person next to me just happened to be the lucky one at the other end of that phone call.

"I told him, 'Sure, I'll let you borrow mine, if you'll listen to my demos.' And he agreed," spewed the guy with a mixture of elation and disbelief. "Wish me luck, man."

One trusts that at South by Southwest, fortunes have been made on less. Just ask Hanson.

-- Hobart Rowland

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Hobart Rowland