Monday, March 24, 2008

What goes up must come down

My experiences with SXSW have taught me not to expect too much and always ready to be surprised. In my first years at the festival I made a ridiculous effort to see everything, which is of course impossible. I developed a kind of holographic analysis of bands – listen to 15 seconds and project the entire sound of the group from the information at hand. In the case of strictly formatted genre musicians, which at this point make up well over 90 percent of the music content of SXSW, this method can be very useful at tossing out the truly incompetent and those who are there on adrenalin alone. Keys like – are the players in tune, does the rhythm section play as a unit, is anybody listening to other members of the band – are immediately apparent. If a band shows any penchant for melodic invention, harmonic architecture or individual personality it merits further consideration and I’ve found a lot of favorites, from the Duckhills to OK Go, using this method.
There are many disappointments, most of them relating to bands I didn’t get to see, like Little Village the year I thought it would be too crowded, or Van Morrison this year, because I just didn’t make it over to La Zona Rosa in time for the show. This is the problem with scheduling at SXSW. You can sit down and map out your strategy of what you’re going to see until you’re blue in the face but your chances of getting to fulfill all of your tightly scheduled wishes go down the drain with that extra-long set, chance encounter with an old friend, distraction of a million possible varieties, transportation snafu or simple fatigue.
The greatest disappointments are the shows you make it to expecting something special that don’t live up to what you had hoped for. This year’s performance by Bonnie Bramlett at Pangea earns five stars in the disappointment department. I’ve been at some bad clubs at SXSW, but this one was the worst. I mean, Pangea is so bad it makes me wish there was some kind of official Department of Club Control formed to close places just for sucking. The fact that people were forced to stand outside for half an hour waiting to get into this place just to be herded like cattle into the back with no sightline so a handful of people sitting on couches in front of the stage could act like swells is enough to make me want to … well, go someplace else, or actually in this case to call it a night and try again the next day. Bramlett’s new album, Beautiful, produced by southern soul veteran Johnny Sandlin with a superb backing group of veteran R&B sessioneers, is Bramlett’s best solo effort and a cinch to make a lot of people’s Top 10 lists this year. The whole band was on hand for this showcase, which generated tremendous interest based on the extensive lines in front of the club. But the acoustics in Pangea were so bad Bonnie might as well have been Britney Spears. Couldn’t see her and what was coming through that echoing sound system was incoherent. I mean, maybe if you were in the VIP section you could hear the stage sound. What a joke.
On the other hand I thought the hotel bar at the Hilton Garden Inn was going to be a terrible venue and it turned out to be great – spacious, good sight lines, decent sound. I saw a terrific set from Jeremy Fisher there. Fisher is a talented young singer songwriter who has found more in life to write about than unrequited love, clearly doesn’t aspire to be Justin Timberlake and has a voice that makes you care about listening to what he has to say. Which makes him stand out among his peers in the young singer songwriter business.
This was the night when I wandered back and forth on Sixth Street without hearing anything special while I watched the heavily made up talking heads on every corner screech about how “exciting” everything was and how “fabulous” SXSW is. Yep, SXSW can be just as exciting as MTV’s most glamorous fashion show.
But that’s what I get for hanging around Sixth Street and going to places like Pangea. It’s not like I don’t know where the real fun in Austin is. It wouldn’t be long before I got back into the swing of things.

Correction: In the last post I wrote that Billy Bob Thornton and the Boxmasters played at the Continental. Don’t know why I wrote that down because I was certainly aware of being in Antone’s and having a dancing good time. I would be getting to the Continental soon enough.

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