|March 22, 2001
For Fans Only
An excrutiatingly long account of my third annual SXSW weekend
By Mike Haney
|Those of you familiar with this grumbling column may find it hard to believe, but I am a big music fan. I love listening to it, I love talking about it, I love writing about it. I'm not a music-critic type of fan: I'm not very in touch with my local music scene, I don't get Radiohead, and I admit to thinking Britney Spears has catchy songs. But I am the kind of fan that appreciates live music.
Some people aren't those kind of fans. You know these people. They like a few albums, or listen to the radio in the car, but they don't really like live music. They want a live band to sound just like their CD. They only go to shows where they will know every song. I may not be a music critic hipster, but I am also not one of those people.
That's why I go to SXSW every year. The town (Austin, Texas) is cool, the food is excellent, and it's great to escape Minnesota for a few days every March. But ultimately, it's the staggering number of shows served up in a relaxed, organized atmosphere that draws me back year after year. There were more than 900 bands in the official line-up this year and probably half as many more at non-sanctioned venues. Nearly all the shows are played at mid-sized bars or in mid-sized outdoor spaces; rarely does even the most crowded show top 1,000 people. This is the event for fans of live music.
"Hey Ed, you need a ride?" Thursday
The first two days of this year's conference were the best I'd ever had at SXSW. The flight down had gone smoothly, the hotel was comfortable and centrally located, and we'd even spotted Black Crowes keyboardist Eddie Harsch at the airport and had a brief but classic exchange with him.
Thursday evening we cruised our rented Crown Vic just past the county line and gorged on what may be the best BBQ in the country. The Salt Lick claims to be the "last little bit of Texas in Austin." While I'm too much of a Yank to know what that's supposed to mean, it's hard to argue with all-you-can-eat meat and fixin's served on picnic tables in a restaurant that doesn't take credit cards and encourages you to bring your own beer.
|It's hard to argue with all-you-can-eat meat and fixin's served on picnic
tables in a restaurant that doesn't take credit cards and encourages you to
bring your own beer.|
Our feeding in the boondocks (and our getting lost on the way back to town) ate up a good part of Thursday evening, so we caught only two shows that night but both were winners. Joe's Generic Bar, an unsanctioned SXSW venue right in the heart of Sixth Street, has become a yearly tradition for us because we know we can always count on few things there: a place to sit with no cover; heartfelt blues from the pony-tailed, vest-clad Native American who always headlines and who looks like he's spent his life earning the right to play the blues; and a dance floor full of women who don't care that they have no business wearing leather pants.
We capped the night with Austin's own American Analog Set, who was almost inaudible from the back of the massive upstairs room at Buffalo Billiards. But Stereolab-inspired, Low-like quiet rock is their style, and they do it as well as anyone else out there today. Plus, getting our $85 SXSW wristbands checked several times on the way in made me feel like both an insider and a veteran.
"Anyway, here's another old song." Friday
Friday's plan was very clear: Get to the Black Crowes venue as early as possible and wait patiently through the four opening acts. Fortunately, Stubb's is a great place to hang around. Smaller than nearby Waterloo Park, but larger than the average indoor venue, with plentiful beer stands and unrivaled outhouse organization, the backyard at Stubb's is one of the best places in Austin to see a show. And the pre-Crowes musical fare proved to be worth our while.
First-slotter Elbow was just good enough to be an opening band, while second in line Bare, Jr. was the surprise of the night. Like a heavier Counting Crows (complete with Duritz-style white guy afro), they alt-country-rocked the growing crowd far better than anyone expected. David Garza, like most hometown-favorite singer-songwriters, was amazing to the unusually large number of locals in the crowd and completely unnoticeable to the rest of us. Finally, Atlanta's Buffalo Nickel could have been the headliners any other night with their textbook Southern rock and understated hooks. Maybe it was just the Atlanta connection, but I couldn't help thinking later that they sounded much like what I imagine the Black Crowes would have sounded like if Chris Robinson hadn't spent the first decade of his band on a daily diet of LSD.
|Smaller than nearby Waterloo Park, but larger than the average indoor
venue, with plentiful beer stands and unrivaled outhouse organization, the
backyard at Stubb's is one of the best places in Austin to see a show.|
(Friday side note: While waiting for the Crowes, we spotted the oldest Hanson brother [the "Mmm-Bop" Hansons, not the hockey players] waiting in the beer line, burning heaters with what appeared to be a hired girl very much his senior. Hanson rocks.)
The Crowes took the stage around 12:20 a.m. and absolutely blistered their way through an hour and a half of live classics and songs from their forthcoming album Lions. Robinson, now married and reportedly sober, was regrettably short on dialogue with the crowd - usually a highlight of any Black Crowes show - but proved a clear head has not lessened his stage presence.
In the tradition of skinny, instrument-less lead singers like Mick Jagger and Steven Tyler, Robinson has that unique ability to hold the stage even when brother Young Rich and keyboardist Ol' Weird Ed launch into their trademark jams. In fact, with his strutting, clapping and leg stomping, he often appears as genuinely impressed with the music being played around him as the audience. Robinson let loose a creative and unexpected mouth harp solo during an up tempo "Thorn In My Pride" jam, while "Seeing Things for the First Time" proved that his soulful Southern vocals have only gotten better with time. The four new songs sounded like a departure from their last studio album, the poppy and watered-down By Your Side, and more like a return to the heavy, inventive rock of 1996's Three Snakes and One Charm. That's a welcome change, and no doubt a result of their live collaboration with Jimmy Page, but we'll have to wait till the record is released May 8 to draw any real conclusions.
|In the tradition of skinny, instrument-less lead singers like Mick Jagger
and Steven Tyler, Robinson has that unique ability to hold the stage even
when brother Young Rich and keyboardist Ol' Weird Ed launch into their
Judging by the steady enthusiasm from the sold-out crowd, even during the unfamiliar new songs, I was not the only one impressed with their set. Even my Dylan-obsessed fat friend, who had never heard the Crowes live before, was moved to shake his flabby ass a little. It was one of those shows when the stars feel aligned. When all the shit around you - your numb toes, your empty pockets, your blue balls from all the gorgeous women ignoring you - melts away. It's like taking a warm shower in the music. You dance, knowing that you'll get made fun of later. You sing along loudly, knowing that you're annoying the hell out of both strangers and friends around you. You "Woooo!" and clap and maybe even pump your fist because you can't help it; the show is just that cool. It was the kind of show you leave in awe, with more energy than your drunken ass should have at 2 a.m., wondering why you even own anything else.
"There's no flies on Frank." Saturday
Some shows, on the other hand, are not that cool. Some shows are fucking miserable, so bad you can't even appreciate the humor of how bad they really are, and you leave not so much depressed as just deflated.
Saturday began perfectly. The first band in the night's line-up, Luther Wright & the Wrongs, was new to us and turned out to be one of my favorites of the weekend.
The Kingston, Ontario bluegrass group has a couple of indie records under their belt, but it was the tracks from their upcoming release, Rebuild the Wall, Pt. 1 that won me over. The title of that album is intentional: it is a complete re-recording of Pink Floyd's The Wall in bluegrass, and I'll be damned if it don't work. Canadians have no business playing bluegrass, much less Pink Floyd, but Luther and the boys pulled it off. I still have their versions of "Hey You" and "Goodbye Blue Sky" in my head. The album is due out this spring, keep an eye out for it.
|Canadians have no business playing bluegrass, much less Pink Floyd, but
Luther and the boys pulled it off.|
The next stop of the night was supposed to be local blues legend Delbert McClinton, but because venues conservatively limit the number of attendees, the lines were so long by the time we got to Antone's there was no hope of getting in. So, we headed back to Stubb's to catch what was supposed to be an 11 p.m. show by the Toadies. The band were a must see for one of the guys in our group and virtually unknown to the rest of us. But, in another typical SXSW move, Stubb's changed the line-up of the bands so the Toadies would close, keeping more people there (buying drinks) longer. The Toadies turned out to be fine ... a little heavy for my tastes, but not awful. No, awful is a kind word for the band that got bumped in front of them.
(Before you read any further, click the highlighted band name below. The splash page to their site sums up this band far better than what I'm about to write. If you think the screen that greets you kicks ass, stop reading ... it will save you the trouble of writing me hatemail.)
I knew we were doomed from the beginning. As the aptly-named Supersuckers was setting up, the lead singer (wearing shades despite a not-so-bright future) stepped up to the mike and reassured the crowd, "As soon as I get my mike on, I'm gonna rock your asses!" Uh-huh.
Instead, The Supersuckers just annoyed my ass with their heavy, bland, grating metal built on repetitive licks, plain drumming and shouted stock metal lyrics.
Each musician on stage could have been replaced with a cardboard cutout reading "Insert band member here." Worse than the music was the band's "we're metal so we gotta do this" antics, which only increased with every "final" song (I counted three). The guitarist kept hopping on the speaker and striking Ted Nugent-like poses, really feeling that last extended note, while the lead singer kept unexplainably flipping off the crowd. At one point three of the band members actually lined up and started doing kung-fu kicks in time with the song. It was the worst of Metallica meets the worst of Poison, with even less talent. It was Spinal Tap without the intended humor. When they finally did leave the stage, I was filled with so much disgust I couldn't even feel relief at their being gone. I was just pissed that I had wasted that hour of my life.
|At one point three of the band members actually lined up and started doing kung-fu kicks in time with the song. It was the worst of Metallica meets the worst of Poison, with even less talent.|
A live band can be that powerful because live music engulfs us. It becomes our surroundings. It melds with whatever bar, park, or concert hall we're in and becomes as much a part of the structure as the walls themselves. It's that omnipresence that makes live shows so memorable. When it's good, there's nothing better. It makes you forget you have to piss, that you're out of beer, or cold, or broke. When it's bad, it is just as pervasive, but it makes you even colder, makes you have to pee more, and I swear it steals the money right out of your pocket.
I left Stubb's Saturday night exhausted with hate, but glad I had gone. It's good to get that worked up about a live band. It reminds me I'm still a fan; I still care about the show I'm seeing. In the end, that's why this year's SXSW was a total success, and why I will go back next year.