This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Tulsa World
Go SOUTH-West Young Man
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
AUSTIN, Texas — Shortly after I checked into the Lazy Oak Inn
in Austin, I met Flash Gordon. This should have clued me into just
how far out this weekend would be.
Flash sings and plays flute in a basic Florida bar band called
the Pundits. They didn't make the cut for one of the nearly 750
showcases at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but
Flash and his wife, Jo, came anyway. When your band gets rejected
from SXSW, the conference offers you registration at half price,
which we determined was reason enough to apply each year.
We sat on the porch, soaking in a warm Austin evening and
watching Molly, the inn's resident pooch, chase imaginary squirrels
around the inn's massive namesake tree. Everyone had their SXSW
booklets out and was making notes, circling band names,
highlighting times in the schedule. You have to plan your attack
carefully. At the top of each hour, about 40 musicians and spoken
word artists will begin a new set in clubs all over town. Just as
any sage would advise, you first must accept that you will not be
able to see it all. Then you plan your route, lace up a comfortable
pair of walking shoes, and hit the bricks.
It's all highly subjective.
Wednesday, 7:55 p.m.
The music part of the conference (film and multimedia kick off
the week) always begins with the Austin Music Awards on Wednesday
night. Storyville, the rootsy band that's been through Tulsa (and
will be back April 4), dominates the awards, winning Band of the
Year, Song of the Year (“Good Day for the Blues''), Best Rock
Band, and so on. Ian Moore lands Musician of the Year. Junior
Brown, of course, wins Best Country Artist. And everyone is
obsessing about the January death of local hero Townes Van Zandt,
who is inducted into the Austin hall of fame.
Wednesday, 10:15 p.m.
Always on the cutting edge of
cowpunk/twang-core/alt-country/whatever it's called now, Jason
Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers tears up Liberty Lunch in a
flurry of fringe and wins the Michael Stipe lookalike contest with
a freshly shaven head. Warner Hodges remains one of rock's most
overlooked and electrifying guitar masters.
Wednesday, 11:45 p.m.
Decked out in shiny silver space suits and flailing around far
more than keyboard players should indeed flail, Roger Manning and
one of his partners from the Moog Cookbook dazzle a slovenly
audience of media registrants at the Iron Cactus restaurant. It's
the first performance of the all-Moog “band'' outside of L.A. or
Thursday, 12:10 a.m.
As Tito and Tarantula start their set at Steamboat, film
directors Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarrantino are refused
admittance to see the bunch that played the vampire bar band their
film, “From Dusk Till Dawn.'' The fire marshals had been
ticketing club owners for overcrowding their establishments, and
the film moguls had to get over it like everyone else.
Thursday, 10:30 a.m.
Carl Perkins delivers the conference keynote address in the
Austin Convention Center. Certainly one of the most surreal
experiences of the week, Perkins noodled on the guitar while
speaking, mostly about Jesus but he did demonstrate the difference
between Bill Monroe's version of “Blue Moon of Kentucky'' and that
of Elvis Presley.
Thursday, 3:15 p.m.
Tanned, rested and ready, Tony Bennett sits down for a Q&A and
talks about his “comeback'' and his irrepressible love of singing.
When talking about getting booted from Columbia in the '70s, he
told the story of Duke Ellington's similar fate years earlier:
“They called him into the office at Columbia and said, "We're
going to drop you from the label.' Duke said, "Why? What's wrong?'
and they said, "You're not selling records.' Duke said, "Oh, I
thought I was supposed to make the records and you were supposed to
Thursday, 5 p.m.
Tulsa modern rock band Epperley takes the stage at the Voodoo
Lounge for a “pirate'' show — one not officially part of the SXSW
showcase. Perhaps that officialdom has its advanatages because the
quartet plays its heart out for an audience of about 12 listless
club rats. In whatever setting, though, Matt Nader is a thoroughly
entertaining live guitarist.
Thursday, 9 p.m.
Fulflej plays a subdued but affecting set at Liberty Lunch,
including a cover of Sinead O'Connor's “Nothing Compares 2 U.''
Guitarist and singer MC No Joke G uses the lingo (he actually said
“homies'') like he's the hippest dude around, but the music is
more deeply rooted in arena rock and power pop to allow his thick,
dark curls to become dreads anytime soon.
Thursday, 10:30 p.m.
Now that his original power pop band 20/20 has resurfaced, Tulsa
native Ron Flynt tried out his solo chops in the tiny space of Bob
Popular's Headliner's Room Upstairs. With fellow 20/20 member and
Tulsa native Steve Allen adding lead guitar flourishes to Flynt's
acoustic strum, the two rolled easily through a warm set of 20/20
classics and new Flynt originals. Flynt's soft, childlike voice is
better suited to this folkie setting, but Flynt is still concerned
with his primary (and unabashedly pop) lyrical topic: the love and
loss of chicks.
Thursday, 11 p.m.
Dwight Twilley takes the first step in his, what, fourth
comeback? Safely rooted in Tulsa once again, Twilley and his new
band lean into the set of power pop gems they'd been trying out on
small crowds at Caz's last fall. The large patio of Austin's
Waterloo Brewing Company is nearly SRO for this gig, and Twilley
looks as young and sounds as fresh as he did in 1975. He plays a
classic like “I'm on Fire'' right next to something brand new, and
no one knows the difference. He isn't slumming for the nostalgia
addicts; he's just doing what Twilley does — rocking with more
melody than the radio has played in 10 years. Susan Cowsill, a
former Twilley sweetheart, backs him up at the mike for three
songs. The set is flawless and exciting.
Friday, 12 a.m.
20/20 follows up Twilley at the Waterloo with more stripped-down
and direct rock 'n' roll. Fresh from his solo gig, Ron Flynt now
wears shades and Allen's finesse on the electric guitar proves
that's his real forte. Opening with the classic “Remember the
Lightning,'' they charge into last year's “Song of the Universe,''
a driving melody that gets better every time I hear it. The crowd
cheers every solo from drummer Bill Belknap. Flynt introduces “The
Night I Heard Her Scream'' as “a song from our second album, or is
it third? We've got four or five. I don't know.'' Someone from the
audience shouts, “I bought one!'' Flynt looks relieved and says,
Friday, 1 a.m.
Justly introduced as “one of the great songwriters of the
universe,'' Okie-born songwriter Jimmy Webb slides behind a grand
piano in the Driskill Hotel Ballroom and pounds out several of his
touching, smartly arranged songs. He sings with much more power
than he gives himself credit for (“These songs were made famous by
others who can actually sing''). Sure, Barbara Streisand wrapped
her silky voice around Webb's “Didn't We,'' but when Webb sings
it, the nuances of each original emotion are wrenchingly vivid. He
pounds the piano with a confidence that's built up for 30 years,
but his voice still caresses the yearning for that 21-year-old
woman on a Galveston beach. There is indeed magic in the Webb of it.
Friday, 2 a.m.
La Zona Rosa is offering “breakfast shows,'' featuring non-SXSW
acts whooping it up next to a spicy buffet line. Tonight it's
Oklahoma City's Red Dirt Rangers. Someone always dances at a Red
Dirt Rangers show, and one woman was so eager to get to the
dancefloor that she beaned me in the head with the Miller longneck
in her grip as she ran by. No problem, though, the slow laments
like “Blue Diamond'' and the male bonding of “Dog on a Chain''
had already knocked me out. Multi-instrumentalist Benny Gene Craig
absolutely wails on the steel guitar.
Friday, 4:10 p.m.
Thomas Anderson, a spaced-out folkie (a native of Miami, Okla.,
now based in Austin), finally goes on at ABCD's and once again
proves the strength of his songwriting skills. Anderson, exactly
like Elliott Murphy, writes intricate and intriguing character
sketches — songs that are too big for his timid, thin vocal chops.
In trademark shades, doo-rag and blazer, he sings of Bill Haley's
tragic death in Mexico and a freaked-out killer named Nash the
Slash. Even with subjects that could easily have been far too
precious — the admiration of Deadheads in “Jerry's Kids'' and the
touching “White Sands'' — Anderson boasts a tenderness that's
usually hard to find in songs of this intellectual caliber.
Friday, 5 p.m.
This time, Epperley drums up a teeming crowd at a skate shop
called Blondie's. They sound better, too, playing mostly new songs
— “She's Like a Marine,'' “Jenks, America'' and “You're So
1988.'' The crowd whoops it up and cheers without the prodding of
the band's rep from Triple X Records.
Friday, 6:20 p.m.
Just as every public establishment in New Orleans has a cocktail
lounge, every place in Austin books live music, especially this
weekend. As we savor the Mexican food at El Sol y La Luna, one of
those South American bands with the drums and pan flutes fills the
place with tropical ambiance. Greg Brown, the guitarist for Cake,
is at the bar. “I see guys like this everywhere I go now,'' he
says with a hint of boredom. “Better not go to Tulsa's Mayfest,''
Friday, 9:10 p.m.
On that note, there's even a band scheduled to play at the inn
where I'm staying. Scheduled at 8 p.m., Seattle's urban-folk
progenitor Caz Murphy arrives late. His excuse? He was taken to the
hospital after being bitten by a bat on the Town Lake bridge. I
love this town.
Friday, 10:05 p.m.
I could bypass the lengthy line and get into Stubb's with my
snooty press badge, but I opt to watch from outside the fence with
the cheapskates; the sardined crowd on the Stubb's lawn is
wallowing in mud from the previous week's rains. Supergrass plays a
solid set of very British Invasion rock 'n' roll, looking a great
deal more mature than the superb but spastic debut album that
spawned what fans feared would be the band's wondrous one hit,
“Alright.'' New songs from the album due this May included “Cheap
Skate,'' “Richard III'' and the Who-ish “Silence the Sun.''
Friday, 11:20 p.m.
It's Japanese Night at the Tropical Isle, and I wander into the
adorable screech of Lolita No. 18. Fliers on the tables declare
that the band “captive (sic) the heart of both punk rock fan and
cartoon fan immediately.'' True enough — the all-girl thrashers
are, to our Western sensibilities, cute as cartoons, and any punk
fan would enjoy their racket. Singer G. Ena squawks with a smile
over the band's quirky time signature shifts. Suddenly I recognize
one of the choruses — my God, it's “Hang on Sloopy.''
Saturday, 12:30 a.m.
After an interminable delay, Spring Heel Jack finally begins
their set, only you can't really tell. They remain in the dark on
Bob Popular's inadequate stage, and the ambient techno the London
duo begins punching out of a huge bank of machines is not
discernable in quality or style from the tape that was filling time
between showcases. Techno of any kind is simply unsuitable for
environments outside a dancefloor.
Saturday, 1:05 a.m.
The Mysterious John pleads for quiet through a bullhorn at the
start of the Asylum Street Spankers' show, declaring that “we make
music the way God intended — without the use of de-e-e-mon
electricity!'' When some patrons continue talking, the elder
ukulele player jumps out of his chair and shouts, “Don't make me
cut a switch!'' The bawdy songs — played with clarinet, ukuleles,
guitars, banjos, kazoos, washboards and a little soft shoe --
highlight the roaring part of the '20s (“Roll Me One of Those
Funny Cigarettes''). As homespun and rollicking as bathtub gin.
Saturday, 1 p.m.
Art Alexakis, leader of Everclear, is the first hungover
musician to take the Daytime Stage for a string of sets benefitting
Artists for a Hate-Free America, which Alexakis helped to found.
With just an acoustic guitar (he obviously writes with an electric
— listen to those strings buzz!), the songs about trying to kick
yourself out of the gutter are somehow more ostensible. I must have
been hungover, too, because I swear he introduces one song as being
“about my dog.'' The lyrics make sense: “You know I'm never home
/ I call but you don't talk on the phone.'' Later I'm told he said
Saturday, 2 p.m.
Back to the Daytime Stage for my hero, Mark Eitzel, former
frontman for American Music Club and a patron saint to all who
drink for reasons other than escape. He knocks out five of his
gems, getting lost in every song, flailing his body awkwardly and
with abandon (so much so that during “Firefly'' he hits the mike
with his head). He finishes a new song, with a chorus of “Why
can't you leave my sister alone,'' this way: “That song's about my
sister. She's a pro-rights kind of person. Her brother-in-law
banned her from seeing the kids because he said she was from Satan.
My sister is not from Satan.'' Despite that conviction, Eitzel
momentarily retreats into an unusually potent moment of pessimism:
“They told me to say lots of nice things about a hate-free
America. Is there such a thing? No. This country is finished.''
Someone in the crowd asks, “Then where are we going?'' “We're
going to hell, man,'' Eitzel replies.
Saturday, 4 p.m.
About 2,000 people cram into the second level of a downtown
parking garage to hear the Car Radio Orchestra, an experiment led
by Wayne Coyne of Oklahoma City's Flaming Lips. Lips manager Scott
Booker says they had expected about a fifth of this crowd. “I'm
just trying to keep people from destroying my car,'' he said. “I
wish I'd used a rental.'' (Though, in a Dallas Morning News note
about the event, Coyne had advised that most rental cars “won't
have adequate sound systems for the experiment.'') After an hour of
positioning 28 vehicles and running two tests, the real music
begins. Coyne gives each driver a pre-mixed cassette and instructs
them to press play and blare it on cue. Soon, soothing synthesizer
parts are swelling from various auto systems, and then the sound of
a gasping, moaning woman begins building from Coyne's car in the
center of the fray. The sounds build to a, well, climax, whereupon
the ecsatic female cries are sped up, manipulated and squelched and
begin rapid-firing from every car. The piece is called
“Altruism,'' subtitled “That's the Crotch Calling the Devil
Black.'' The second piece uses more looping drum sounds, but the
ending fizzles because the principle sound was on tape no. 16 --
and that car had blown a fuse.
Saturday, 10 p.m.
My one and only personal indulgence — Paul K. and the
Weathermen play at the Atomic Cafe. Even though he wears a
turtleneck tonight, the darkness of his tales of a criminal past
are not blunted. The fiddle player is superfluous, and the rhythm
section only adds spine to the brooding, mythical post-punk-blues
Paul pulls from his surprisingly powerful acoustic guitar. “30
Coins of Gold'' tells the spooky story of a beggar who posed as
Judas for da Vinci's rendering of “The Last Supper.''
Saturday, 10:45 p.m.
A Ryder truck is parked on the edge of Red River Avenue, and
there's a big film screen in the back door showing a director's
reel of film and video clips produced by L.A.'s Underground Media,
which has provided videos for everyone from Marilyn Manson to David
Bowie. This reel is dominated by videos for Cottonmouth, Texas — a
group from Dallas featuring musicians from the New Bohemians
providing a backdrop for the clever spoken musings of an ex-junkie.
The work is more accessible than that sounds. Watch for the Virgin
Records debut this summer.
Saturday, 11:20 p.m.
Who knew Fred Sanford had given up the salvage business and
launched a hip-hop career? Endlessly toying with his voice effects,
Mike Ladd slops through some captivating rants. The crowd was
paltry but enthused, and Ladd will probably get used to that
because his raps are about topics that matter, not sex and guns.
When he gets furious, as he does in his lambaste of Richard
Herrnstein's race-and-education theories in “The Bell Curve,'' he
sounds like he's about to clutch his chest and have “the big one.''
Sunday, 12:05 a.m.
Deborah Harry may not be aging gracefully, but her vocal chops
are juicy in her latest project, the Jazz Passengers, a sharp jazz
outfit that sidesteps the latest retro-lounge fad in favor of
stream-of-consciousness, almost avant garde compositions led by sax
and trombone. Harry's role as singer is well-suited to her dynamic
voice, purring one moment and roaring like a tiger the next.
Sunday, 1 a.m.
Figures. The best punk show I've seen in years is by the three
nellie queens in San Francisco's gay punk pioneers, Pansy Division.
Venting about kinky boyfriends (“James Bondage''), the men north
of the border (“Manada'') and right time alternatives to night
time (“Horny in the Morning''), this trio puts out the most
entertaining and energetic set of the week. Bassist Chris Freeman
is in a skirt and flaming out all over the stage while guitarist
Jon Ginoli (wearing a T-shirt that reads, “I Dream of Weenie'')
this time plays it a bit more, uh, straight, offering an unexpected
moment of seriousness in his solo tale of “Denny.''
What Is South by Southwest?
By Thomas Conner 03/23/1997
The South by Southwest Music and Media Conference takes place
each March in the remarkably hospitable city of Austin, Texas. It
could take place in no other city, really — Austin is, per capita,
the live music capital of the world.
Conference organizers book about 750 acts (solo musicians,
singers and bands) to perform one-hour showcases during five nights
in 36 clubs around the city, mostly concentrated on Sixth Street
downtown. (Every other club in town, though, books “pirate''
shows.) The purpose is to provide one-stop shopping for music
industry talent scouts and journalists (and, oh yeah, fans) looking
for the Next Big Thing. Among the scores of up-and-coming bands are
scheduled shows by well-established artists — it helps draw the
The event calls itself a “conference'' because it also includes
panel discussions of music industry issues and a trade show, all of
which helps to justify a week of listening to rock 'n' roll in bars.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.