Thursday, March 25, 2010
Spike asks riders to honor one rule. He recites it without pausing for air, despite the fact that he’s running with a rickshaw carrying two men through a trafficky Austin afternoon.
“I don’t care if you smoke meth or give someone a hand job back there,” he says. “Just don’t stand up.”
Spike’s wasn’t the only rule to emerge over 72 hours of music-laden liveliness. Others appear below:
Don’t fall down (or slow down).
Even as the eye of the mosh pit suddenly surges into your person with a thunder-chord from shock-rocking GWAR, there is simply no time for laying on your neighbor (or the ground). You might miss the fake blood spurting from a life-size gargoyle-like Lady Gaga double that GWAR’s members are chopping and chainsawing on stage – while dressed in elaborate costumes that are equal parts Alien, Transformer and dinosaur.
Here the gauntlet of diversion is high density. More than six dozen bands play at any given mid-afternoon moment – officially. Rolling Stone alone tracks 100 bands by tweet. Already pressurized show sequencing intensifies as last-minute posts and e-mails bring more “secret” showcases. Meanwhile, step too close to a doorway and get sucked in by sassy English pop from serendipitous discoveries like Doll and the Kicks; linger too long with Avi Buffalo’s electronica funk and miss punk-rocking F****d Up frontman Pink Eyes lathering his shirtless, 325-pound Canadian self over the anemone arms of an ape-shit outdoor audience, before losing his pants, too – and climbing a ladder in full, flabby, hairy-back hysteria.
Use all senses.
Bikinied women and harmonica-playing men hula-hoop in the street. Tendrils from the Best Wurst’s brats mix beautifully with billows from saucy barbecue grills. A stilt walker in a pilot’s helmet teeters by, promoting his free rock show. An older gentleman with loose skin and tighty whiteys runs by, repeatedly. An ill-advised evangelist appears in the middle of what might be Texas’ most agnostic intersection, near midnight, struggling with a less-than-receptive crowd. A 20-something in a carnival-style box delivers French smooches for $2. “Business has been really really good,” she told the local TV affiliate. “People like to kiss.”
Much as Rushad Eggleston’s rabid-charismatic antics obscure his talent for those not looking closely (see story, p. 15), the asphalt circus and on-stage awesomeness can distract from just how gifted the many street musicians – or the dude standing next to you – might be. Two disheveled longhairs near a sidewalk are string metal virtuosos and regular Peninsula visitors Judgment Day. The guy standing in the crowd at the Sleepy Sun show is Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis; at the Brooklyn Vegan show, it’s New York Times media writer David Carr. That guy bounding to unabashed ’70s rockers Free Energy’s show is none other than Patrick Stickles, frontman for epic punkers Titus Andronicus. The tall, thin guy who looks like he was a member of the Ramones is Rolling Stone writer David Fricke hoping to catch the end of a set by The Whigs.
They don’t come for the mainstream music. This is where the edge emerges. No other festival draws so many industry professionals. Bands press CDs into hands with business card-like liquidity. Those mega-watters who do show – like Euro stadium rockers Muse – seem most intent on asserting indie cred by connecting with the soldiers of underground music at their altitude.
See the big picture.
Sure, the music can’t be escaped: Earplugs, as ubiquitous as barbecue, barely dent its dominance. Even on the outskirts of town, any given hipster in plaid stands ready to analyze music with a sensitive palate and, perhaps, an exacting recipe. (“They’ve got a pinch of Vivian Girls, a dash of Broken Social Scene.”) Each shuttle passenger is a music professor, an agent, a radio DJ or a bloke with a bloody righteous British band. Even the shuttle driver heads Austin original rock outfit Moon Dog.
But there are now nine full days of SXSW Interactive Festival, a film festival and a media conference amplifying the already robust musical opportunities.
“You’d have to travel all over, driving, touring, for weeks to meet all the groups and fans you see at one show,” says local MC Hanif Wondir, whose group has played with Common, N.E.R.D., Ghostface Killah, Method Man, Redman, De La Soul and Goodie Mob since Animal Farm’s SXSW debut a year ago. What Street Sweeper Social Club MC Boots Riley said about his new band (featuring Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello), after they pounded through a knockout cover of LL Cool J, extends to the wider SXSW community. (“We’re more than a band,” the one-time Coup star said. “We’re a social club.”)
This South By club’s creativity is more than a subculture’s engine. It’s one of our greatest national resources. China commands the engineering and manpower to erect envy-of-the-world rapid transit train systems, but can’t assemble a fraction of this artistic expression. Google may be god, but is ultimately only as strong as the content these types of talents provide.
Know the moment lives.
The premature passing of independent-underground music hero Alex Chilton – on the eve of a SXSW appearance that would’ve been his group’s first in a decade – rocked the festival. The news and resulting tributes rippled across stages until his Big Star bandmates appeared, despite the loss, for a timeless festival-closing tribute galvanized by standouts like R.E.M.’s Mike Mills, M. Ward, Evan Dando, Sondre Lerche, John Doe, Chuck Prophet, the dB’s Chris Stamey and Meat Puppets leader Curt Kirkwood.
For a festival that applies the tab “Tomorrow Happens Here,” the timing of the loss added important perspective. Groups already seemed abnormally motivated to cover cross-genre classics, and talks from legendary American music vets like Smokey Robinson brought more buzz among insiders than any blockbuster show.
But these tributes seemed intent on remembering that a chance at inspiring others, or finding inspiration themselves, requires the visionary daring of artists like Chilton, and current efforts as massive as SXSW.
With apologies to Spike, that’s something worth standing up for.