Friday, April 1, 2011

SXSW 25: Thorazine in my Tecate

A short walk around he trade show offered full confirmation of my thoughts about how dramatically SXSW had changed over its 25 years. What started out as a kind of national community gathering of alternative weekly newspapers and independent music labels had transformed into a slick corporate trade show. I made many new friends in the first few years here at the trade show, either locals offering their warm version of Texas hospitality or people who had traveled great distances at their own expense to share ideas and meet like minded peers. This year the music content of the trade show was almost nonexistent. The showroom floor was dominated by interactive companies fronted by fast talking pitchmen. I passed more than one setup fronted by multiple hucksters delivering word-for-word sales pitches to anyone passing by. The evaporation of the music and alternative press aspects of the trade show is the most telling way SXSW has changed. The event hs morphed along with American entertainment. Although there's lots of music on hand, music is now a throwaway commodity. The presence of more bands than ever actually underscores how less important the music has become. It's now essentially wallpaper, lifestyle enhancement that underscores the real value of millennial life in America -- the cult of celebrity and fashion. The trade show, which used to go on for three days, was scaled back to two this year to accomodate a fashion trade show. It's not surprising to hear that the interactive part of SXSW now draws more registrants than the music festival. Millennials expect music to be a free commodity -- it's the hardware and killer aps that they're willing to pay for, and the nature of celebrity is not measured by signing a record contract but by being bought out by Google. The interative geeks are on the make for corporate copulation in ways the music delegates never dreamed of. One of these smooth talkers actually argued that spending your life playing video games can help save the world. I'll skip the dubious specifics of his argument, which was delivered with the zeal of a Glen Beck fan. Hard not to see the dollar signs lurking behind such proseletizing. It's a different world.
One aspect of the conference that remains as good or better than ever is the panel program. Right at the beginning there was a thoughtful and revealing panel about the late Capt. Beefheart, moderated by his old friend John Morthland with particularly inciteful commentary from guitarist Gary Lucas, his musical director in later years. After I left the panel I crossed the street to Brush Square Park where the Canadian government was providing free barbecue while a series of undistinguished rock bands played in the background to a large and disinterested audience. Thank you, Canada! There I met a number of friends, including Holger Peterson of Stony Plains records. He gave me a terrific new record by Rory Block, the woman guitarist who has done a series of fascinating tributes to country blues masters. Her Robert Johnson and Son House tributes were both excellent, and this time around Shake 'Em On Down does similar justice to Mississippi Fred McDowell. Block is a skilled instrumentalist, but many guitarists have mastered the old bluesmen. What makes her tributes so riveting is that these songs, always heard from the male perspective, take on additional nuance when a woman sings them. "Mississippi Man," "Good Morning Little Schoolgirl," "Worried Mind" and "Woke Up This Morning" are especially effective in this context.
While enjoying the kindness of Canadians I ran into one of my favorite Austinites, Jim Yanaway. I first met Jim in the early days when he gave me cassette tapes of some of the best music I heard back then, released on his own Amazing Records label. Yes, it was all that many formats ago. Early SXSW goody bags were stuffed with cassette tapes. Jim always has a hot tip or two about who to check out in town (he introduced me to the great Black Joe Louis and the Honeybears a couple of years back), and this year he pointed me to a private party, "two blocks past the Convention Center on Red River. You can't miss it, they'll be a band on the front porch."
After another depressing pass through the trade show I made my way down Red River and passed a parking lot that had been coverted into what looked like a giant kid's playpark. It was an installation from Hewlett Packard for SXSW registrants, a circle of trailers promoting interactive gear on a bed of synthetic grass with tables and beanbag chairs, a DJ/pitchman and free beer and soda. I sat down at a table to read my Austin Chronicle and drink a free Tecate. The young people around me were networking furiously while the DJ massaged them with inoffensive, mildly undulating background music guaranteed not to upset the conversation. He made one mistake when he played a Lil Wayne track, which crackled with such actual feeling I thought he might clear the garden. Mostly we got the dubious pleasures of a mashup that made "Smells Like Team Spirit" sound like a shampoo commercial and ventured into such dangerous territory as Wilson Picket singing "Sugar Sugar." I think somebody slipped thorazine into my beer when I went to take a piss.
Safe to say I got out of there alive and proceeded a mere block down the road when the sound of a real party with live music offered its smiling invitation. People were sitting on folding chairs or standing up and tapping their feet to the music of the Nortons, a popular local band that has no ambitions beyond playing the Saxon Pub once in a while. The band was indeed playing on the front porch. There was the great bassist Speedy Sparks, who'd played with just about every important band in Austin history, grinning and pushing the music along with long, vibrant lines that made the music breath. There was a keg of beer and barbecued ribs. The great Lissa Hattersley, vocalist along with her brother Cleve and his wife Mary in the legendary Texas band Greezy Wheels, was on hand. Lissa got up and sang an impossibly wonderful version of "Be My Baby" while the beer poured sweet from the tap and the sun went down. I felt like crying tears of joy. No amount of disappointment at what SXSW had become could overcome the sense of wonder that this simple, beautiful scene infused in me. People stopped in the street to listen. Speedy, who played with Roky Erickson, sang one of Roky's best songs, "Starry Eyes." No corporate tie-in, no badge required. Just a two minute walk away from the maelstrom. This moment is what SXSW has always meant to me.

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