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Inside South by Southwest

You go to the South by Southwest conference in Austin, TX for a number of reasons—to see bands; do business, see more bands, make contacts, see more bands, and eat more barbeque than you can handle. But one of the main reasons you go is to get a fix on the current state of the music industry. We had it all summed up in one tidy sentence when Little Steven Van Zandt—the Springsteen guitarist, Sopranos actor, garage-rock champion, and all-round good guy—had a panel to discuss the industry today. The pithy quote: “It sucks major moose ***”. Thanks, Steven! Off to eat some BBQ and see a few more bands.

You can’t elaborate too much on a statement like that; but we assume he meant that a lot of money is spent these days propping up less-than-great music; and that a lot of true believers are feeling the strain. You only need to turn on the radio nowadays to know he’s got a point. But a music conference is really about idealism; it’s about all those thousands of young whippersnappers who want to break big, get rich, and change the world while they’re at it. It’s hard to get cynical when you’re watching your friends from Boston (that would be garage-rockers Muck & the Mires) play a blistering set after their airline lost half their equipment. Or when an Irish band called We Should Be Dead—a young outfit clearly raised on the B-52’s and Devo—is doing quirky new-wave with just about 50 people present. They couldn’t help it that the real Devo was playing down the street. Never mind, the band was in heaven. “That was fookin’ brilliant!”, the purple-haired singer declared after playing one of their catchier tunes.

One was of measuring your South by Southwest success is by seeing if you can get into the week’s most exclusive, most-hyped show—which this year was a “secret” Metallica show that everybody knew about. I didn’t get in, but a friend of mine really thought he had. He had the right venue, the right place and the right time—He just picked the wrong night by mistake. He sees a long line and figures Metallica must be packin’ them in, even if the audience wasn’t quite what he expected. So he walks in, ready to ride the lightning: The stage lights go down, he raises his fist, hoists his lighter…and out step the Indigo Girls. My friend was not happy.    

I decided it was better to catch a few new bands, and was glad to make a couple of fresh discoveries. I’d heard the group Baskery described as a cross between X and the Dixie Chicks, and surprise: That’s exactly what they were. Three sisters who bash hard and furious at banjos and stand-up bass while singing in perfect, twangy harmony—and did I mention they were from Stockholm? Meanwhile on the testosterone-driven side of things, Little Steven wound up being responsible for one of the best bands I saw: The Living Things, who played one of his showcases. This was classic-model three-chord stomp, with the swagger of vintage Dolls and Stooges. And surprise: They’re on a major label with a few commercial endorsements lined up, so the future may be in good hands after all.

The recession didn’t keep a lot of record labels from hitting town and raiding their expense accounts: With a few thousand bands in town, labels were doing all they could to make sure you saw theirs—including setting up stages in the middle of the  6th Street party zone. There were so many top-secret, all-day parties this year that relatively few people went to the actual conference. Which was a shame, because we saw a few priceless moments at the panels. For instance, a panel commemorating the 40th anniversary of Woodstock included a few musicians who’d played there, and Creedence Clearwater Revival bassist Stu Cook revealed what it was like to play Woodstock in the middle of the night: They took the stage in total darkness, heard nothing and started wondering if anybody was even there. “We’re with you!” yelled out someone from the massive audience. Great, the band figured: We’ll play our set for this one guy.

Even better was a story that country-rock songwriter Carlene Carter told for just a couple dozen people at her interview panel. During the 80’s she played a showcase gig in Hollywood, and between songs she let slip a very naughty comment about her relationship to country music (it had to do with her “putting the something-or-other into country”). She laughed, the band laughed and everything was fine—until someone reminded her that her mom and her stepdad were in the audience. Her mom and stepdad were June Carter and Johnny Cash. She confessed that Cash wouldn’t talk to her for a few weeks after that, but her mother came to greet her backstage. “I’m sorry I said that word,” said Carlene. Ever the perfect mom, June replied “What word, dear?”

Between sets I got to visit our Harmonix crew at the Rock Band Lounge, where I got to have Big Boi as my opening act. Well, sort of. The Outkast star had stopped in to play some Rock Band, and wound up taking the drums for “In Bloom.” Even while playing the game, Big Boi had all the right moves: He attacked the drums like he was headlining an arena, even hitting the sticks together over his head to make everyone clap along. Not to be outdone, I took the drums afterward and tried to cop some of his moves on “Smokin’.” Big Boi was already out the door, but at least we both racked up some impressive scores. Which of us was really playing on No Fail mode? I’ll never tell.