Beer and Loathing in Austin
with Lolita 18, Ultrababyfat, Elizabeth Elmore, Junior Varsity, Dressy Bessy, Rika Shinohara
South By Southwest 2000, my fourth SXSW music festival in a row, could have been one of the best, but alas many of the problems that were prevalent last year continued to grow worse, not better, and as a result SXSW appears to be on a slippery slope out of its spot as the can’t miss music conference. The conference has gotten way too crowded. Venues are jam packed, mostly with non-industry people leaving the wearers of nearly five hundred dollar badges shut out of shows while people sporting fifty dollar wristbands were in. The conference organizers have also put too much of a premium on marquee acts and local talent, leaving too few quality indie acts performing in the showcases. The indie bands that did get in found marketing their showcases an uphill climb, as the trade show was largely off limits for such enterprises. In past years bands like Demi Semi Quaver, Metro Stylee, the Panties, and Red Elvises used guerrilla-marketing campaigns to get people to their showcases, or at least know their name. This year, it was very hard to even find out what to go see. The overall feeling was not one of inclusion and fun, but far more exclusionary. It felt much less like an industry event than a fan event. The organizers seem to have forgotten what the conference is supposed to be about — an opportunity for people in the music industry to mingle, schmooze, and find out about the bands that they need to know about for the upcoming year. It has become a four-day combination of a corporate music festival and tourism promotion for Austin, Texas.
There were, of course, some good bands, but I find it very telling that one of the best bands I saw was actually the night before the conference got underway, and a band I had seen multiple times before. Seeing Lolita #18 live is as much fun as you’re likely to have seeing a live band. Bursting with energy, these four girls from Tokyo have repackaged old school punk and new wave into an ultra-cute, yet surprisingly edgy sound.
Wednesday brought to Austin not only the start of SXSW 2000, but also the rest of the Ink 19 contingent. After a tedious afternoon of preparing the Ink 19 trade show booth, an evening of great bands would certainly seem in order. I was hopeful when I chose to see the New Mexican folk quartet, ThaMuseMeant, for the fourth time. The band was as sharp as ever, but they were playing in the ultra-yuppie restaurant Iron Cactus, before a crowd of mostly locals. The whole scene was not happening for me, and ultimately, the personal hygiene of some of the audience members sent me from the club before I was ready to go.
I took refuge in Austin’s shrine of punk, the ultimate shit hole club, Emo’s, to catch some of the Kindercore Records showcase. Athens, Georgia’s Kincaid was the first Kindercore band I was able to see. To say they had equipment problems would be a gross understatement. These guys had equipment Armageddon. They were even breaking borrowed equipment, but they toughed it out and played their set. Two nights later, Hank Williams III will walk of the stage after just a few minutes because of an amp going out, but Kincaid can play though dying amps, broken strings and a busted drum head. Dressy Bessy, after reclaiming their gear from Kincaid, took the stage. Led by the geekily charismatic front woman Tammy Ealom, Dressy Bessy wowed a packed Emo’s Jr. They put on a really fun show, with lots of fun, cute songs. The songs are so well constructed that they really stick in you psyche. The beats are so infectious you’re humming them after one listen. St. Louis icon and SXSW fixture Beatle Bob even graced the show with his presence.
Thursday brought a glimpse of legendary rocker, Patti Smith. She was part of a one on one interview before a few hundred people. I wished for a chance for the audience to ask questions so I could ask her about her days with Scandal. That’s probably part of the reason they didn’t take questions from the audience. Smith seemed about as interested in being there as she would have been in having a couple hundred people watching her get a tooth filled. Boredom set in and I escaped early, although I was informed later that the interview took off shortly after I left. So instead of listing to Patti Smith, I suffered through back to back demo listening panels without getting Stella-Marie’s demo heard.
Once the panels and trade show shut down, Julio Diaz and I took off in search of parties and free booze. We got to Emo’s too late to get food or booze and we were uninterested in the band playing, but we did see former MTV jock Matt Pinfield. Of course, I’d have rather seen Martha Quinn. Undeterred, we headed up to Club DeVille. Again we missed the food but we got some booze. The drinks were strong, and on an empty stomach, they did their work very well. As the rain started we sought shelter under a canopy with the lovely Jen Jones from the band the Camaros. Once the rain stopped, Julio and I headed for the top SXSW schmooze fest, the Rock-n-Roll Prom. At the Prom we finally go a hold of some snack food and even more vodka. Once our drink tickets were exhausted and we had schmoozed with enough people to make our stop worthwhile, we headed on to La Zona Rosa for the Columbia Records wingding.
Once night had fallen and the rain had returned, I decided to cab it to Sixth Street. My first stop was the Copper Tank to check out Ultrababyfat. The Atlanta band is fun to watch, but doesn’t really stick to your ribs. I was far from bored, but nothing about the music has really stayed with me. My next stop was the Pecan St. Ale House and the Japanese folk singer, Rika Shinohara. Shinohara has fine-tuned the Lilith Fair sound and turned it Japanese. Bits of Sheryl Crow, Suzanne Vega, and of course, Joni Mitchell run through her songs. She sings both in Japanese and English. She sounds more confident in Japanese, but her lyrics could be total crap, and I’d never know it. She still has a nice sound and plenty of charisma. But very much like Ultrababyfat, I really enjoyed seeing her but she showed little staying power. My last stop on this cold, wet night, was Red-Eyed Fly to shoot photos of Backyard Babies for Gail Worley. I’ll defer to Gail’s prose to tell you about this show.
After chasing and finally getting a sit down interview with Thomas Dolby, it was party time on Friday. It was also St. Patrick’s Day. We started at the Ariel Publicity/Indie Alliance party. The party featured bands, snack food, free drinks, and of course, the always lovely and gracious Ariel Hyatt. The best performer at any of the parties was singer/songwriter Kathleen Lague. Her songs had some serious bite, despite her delicate delivery. I would have stayed for her whole set, but the Todd McFarlane party was beckoning so the Ink 19 posse headed on to the next stop. The McFarlane party was pretty much a bust. The food consisted of pretzels and chips, but the Atomic Café was packed. We did get to meet the Enigma, and Julio won a Scott Evil action figure, so it wasn’t a total loss.
As far as the showcases Friday night, the only one to speak of was the Cropduster showcase. The star of the evening was Julia Greenberg. Her strength is in her songwriting, which mixes strong, clever lyrics with sophisticated arrangements. Despite being several months pregnant, Julia Greenberg put on a captivating, all-too-brief set. Unfortunately, hers was the only set that evening worth mentioning.
Saturday night, and we were all longing for a really great show. With that goal, a large Ink 19 contingent squeezed and even snuck into the tiny Blind Pig Pub to see Houston’s own Junior Varsity. There were so many people from Ink 19 there, you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting an Ink 19 staffer. In fact, it was so cramped by the stage, you wouldn’t have been able to swing a dead cat if you had one. Junior Varsity’s show was so good, it made you realize how weak the week had been. Following the Junior Varsity show, Julio, Ian, Frank and myself started off to another show. We first stopped on the street corner to watch Twang Bang perform on the street. Anyone into irreverent bands like They Might Be Giants would groove on Twang Bang. After that, we settled on going to see Neko Case. When we got to the venue, we saw a sight common throughout the week — a huge, imposing line. We decided we had minimal chance of actually getting in and being able to see Neko Case. Finally, we wound up at the Cue Lounge for a singer/songwriter showcase. The main attraction was a set by Elizabeth Elmore, formerly of the band Sarge. Unfortunately before Elizabeth Elmore could go on, we were subjected to the horrific Ani DiFranco wannabes, Tegan and Sara. These nineteen year old twins project so much angst as to venture well into the territory of unintentional satire. It was bad enough to be a Saturday Night Live skit. Luckily, the sets were short and Elizabeth Elmore soon took the stage. Elmore seemed to take all of the turmoil of the disintegration of her band and let it blast out through her guitar and voice. She sang, grunted, pounded her guitar, and stomped her foot. Elmore even offered the audience deals on Sarge merchandise. She totally embodies the geeky rock chick archetype, and she could teach Tegan and Sara something about angst and longing. Once her far-too-short set was over, as far as I was concerned, so was SXSW 2000.