SONIC REDUCER Every spring I wing toward Austin, Texas, and the South by Southwest conference and music fest like some PBR-swilling, Lily Allenaping mockingbird, in the hope of getting my imagination kick-started by some mysterious band of outsiders from Leeds, Helsinki, or Cleveland, armed with only guitars, samplers, or taste-testing facial hair. Little did I realize I’d be clocked in the noggin instead by This Moment in Black History’s Chris Kulcsar at the Blender Balcony at the Ritz. Last I recall, the spazztastic singer had just dashed up the stairs into the audience, nodding approvingly at TMIBH’s righteous thrash. I felt the heel of his kicks against my skull moments later. "Did he just jump over me?" I asked a bespectacled Joe Indie Rocker beside me. "Well, actually, he kicked you in the head," he answered. Glad to be a part of the spectacle spare me the head trauma next time.
Oh South by more than 10,000 participants strong, more than 1,400 acts bringing their all and driving $24.9 million in revenue to the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World." Oh me (oh my) little slumber, one missed jet, a new zit every hour (just call me Stresstradamus), and drawn by the promise of cool sounds, cold beer, hot barbecued pork and brisket-taco brunches by the cold, gray light of a hangover, industry hugging and mugging, wheeling and dealing, and special guests who just might not be that, er, special at this point ("Every time you see those words on the schedule, just insert ‘Pete Townshend,’ " one wag claimed after Townshend dropped in at both his girlfriend Rachel Fuller’s acoustic show and a Fratellis gig). Oh, the rumored celeb-actor sightings Kirsten Dunst, Owen and Luke Wilson, Michael Pitt doing a Keanu with his neogrunge Pagoda. Oh, the surreal parties bunnies getting jiggy with indie at the eighth annual Playboy "Rock the Rabbit" after-hours wingding with bunnies, Ghostland Observatory, and popscene’s Omar, as well as the usual Blender (showing "the stupidest rock movies ever" at its slick, MTV-ish clubhouse), Spin, Jane, Filter, and Fader fort exclusivity rites, filled with guest-listlessness, Fratellis performances, and gratis Absolut peartinis, Heinekens, and miniVitamin Waters. If you’re a glutton for hard-drinking pleasure or heavy metal punishment (see the free Mastodon by the Lake show, the Melvins’ Stubbs-packing powerthon, and some two dozen Boris performances), then SXSW is for you.
But for a three-time SXSWhiner like myself and a very random sampling of festgoers accustomed to challenging Elijah Wood to rasslin’ matches the fest generally underwhelmed this year. It’s still the biggest cross-the-board overview of the music biz around. But demanding party people with insectlike attention spans wanted to know, where were the Bloc Parties? (Oh, naturally they were there, playing oodles of shows, but did anyone give a bloc?) Tellingly, the Horrors were here, but where were the thrills (and I don’t mean the Irish combo)?
Yesteryear’s exciters such as the Gossip and Hella showed, and Spank Rock, Girl Talk, Simian Mobile Disco, and Flosstradamus repped, yet seriously, is Amy Winehouse all that? Sure, she could croon a ’50s R&B-inflected pop tune and rock a Ronettes-style beehive, but her performance was more memorable for the number of times she hiked up her low-riding jeans than her songs. "I’m dwunk," she slurred during her packed show at La Zona Rosa. "It’s not funny." Are Razorlight and Albert Hammond Jr. truly godhead? Caveat: I caught neither, but fess, when thin-blooded popsters like Peter, Bjorn, and John and Pete and the Pirates are vaunted as the hottest shit to stream from the cultural Sani-Jons, then something is very wrong. The fact that the Black Lips were on so many lips is perfectly understandable: they’re a fine garage punk band onstage heaves or no and worthy of the humps they’re getting years along, but we all know that. I wanted my mind blown as well as punted.
Barring that, where were Arcade Fire, Of Montreal, LCD Soundsystem, TV on the Radio, Deerhoof, OOIOO, and so many others currently touring but perhaps too sensible or established to play a seemingly requisite dozen times? Whither MIA, the Hives, Queens of the Stone Age, Feist, Marilyn Manson, and others with anticipated 2007 albums to hawk? Are Coachella and its Rage Against the Machine reorientation giving SXSW a run for the splashy reunion buck (sorry, RATM guitarist Tom Morello’s Nightwatchman show with Slash, Perry Farrell, etc., doesn’t cut it)? Are SXSW’s sideshow and party scenes undercutting the panels and showcases? Perhaps the coastside cynics are spoiled because we think a Hoodoo Gurus gathering just doesn’t measure up to recent no-shows like Whitehouse.
Still, the ole rocks do get off, if when you least expect it, wandering past a bar, ears caught by some new emanation. That happened to me, when I stumbled on inspired, powerful performances like those of Toronto’s stunning, vibes-focused Hylozoists at Habana Calle and the BjörkishKate Bushy lady band Bat for Lashes. And then not so unexpectedly, when you brave the puke and garage smells of the Beauty Bar Patio for an all-Bay hyphy throwdown with an energized Federation, packing their stunna glasses at night, an ebullient Saafir, and a speaker-mounting Pack. The fact that you have to go all the way to Texas for the latter makes SXSW the beloved monster that it is it’s just getting harder to cut through the noise.
Back in black: Black Lips, Black Angels, This Moment in Black History, Black Fiction.
Some words never stop being fun: Holy Fuck, Holy Shit!, Shitdisco, Fucked Up, Psychedelic Horseshit.
All ze buzz: Paolo Nutini, Earl Greyhound, Pop Levi, Albert Hammond Jr., and Cold War Kids. *
For more on South by Southwest, click here.