Saturday, March 22, 2008

Back to SXSW

I've attended nearly every renewal of SXSW going back to the very beginning, when I covered the nascent event for United Press International on my way back home to Brooklyn from the Grammy awards. Since then I've seen a bunch of jobs come and go and moved my tack to New Orleans for what has been a pretty mind boggling life experience there, but SXSW has been a constant touchstone throughout even as the city of Austin itself has gone through dramatic changes. Not to mention the music industry. At the earliest SXSW events I always looked forward to going home and listening to all the new bands who'd handed me cassette tapes of their work. Ponty Bone, Daniel Johnston, the True Believers, Brave Combo, Joe King Carrasco, Killer Bees, what a wealth of great tapes I always got. After a few years bands started handing out CDS, then organizations began really flogging those CD samplers.

The experiences of going to various events such as MIDEM and the Montreal Jazz Festival (if I never attend another Grammy it will be too soon) all have certain charms but aren't compelling enough to look forward to year after year. On the other hand SXSW never, ever disappoints and would be difficult to pass up any year. I no longer even care about who is listed in the lineup of bands before I attend because I know I will stumble across something unexpected that delights me. It has happened every year, often in non SXSW showcases or local bars. At this point the bustle of downtown and desperate industry networking sessions are the least interesting part of the event for me. But the people themselves continue to give me a reason to keep going. Every year I tend to stay further away from downtown to the point where I have become a denizen of south Austin. Instances of transcendence inordinantly cluster around the Continental, Yard Dog, Jovitas and Maria's Taco.

This year's SXSW had an even larger surprise quotient prepared for me than usual. I arrived in town two days before the music festival began and my host, local manager Gretchen Barber, had to hit the mall to shop for a computer. I'm not a shopper but I have been known to hold up my end of a barstool conversation and before I knew what happened I was drinking beer at the bar of the California Pizza Kitchen with Billy Gibbons, who was on hiatus from his endless ZZ Top world tour. Gibbons is a legendary conversationalist and as the beer tab added up (thanks Billy!) the subjects ranged from guitars to Apple computers, guys who write computer virus worms, space aliens, the Illuminati Trilogy, language, cigarettes (prompted by a visit from the Native American smokes perveyors, who fixed Billy up), vintage cars and the sound compression on MP3s.

Gibbons had been shopping for special shoes to wear through airport metal detectors that day, and while waiting to pay for them he spotted two skateboard-toting tweens giving him the eye as if to say 'That's that guy from You Tube.' Billy turns to the kids and says gruffly "What are you punks doing here?" They tell him they're waiting for their buddy to get off work. Noting the white i-Pod earbuds they're both wearing Billy asks "Watcha got there?"

"I've got 4,000," says the first kid.

"I've got 6,000," says the second kid, "but our friend had 15,000! We're fixin' to trade some with him."

Billy asks "You get those from CDs?"

The kid looks at Billy. Maybe he's being cute, maybe not, but he says "What's that?"

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