Austin's South by Southwest is a chance for music industry people to schmooze, to have a beer with Matt Pinfield, to check out the latest rock and roll fashions (aging hipsters seem to be emulating bald, bespectacled comedian David Cross) and to hear music: lots and lots of music.
Every bar, every club, every restroom, it seemed, had a band, a DJ or a guy with two-penny whistles and a bongo getting down. With around 1,200 bands playing over the course of four days last week, there was ear candy for every palate. J-music your thing? SXSW now has two showcases dedicated to Japanese music. Metal your game? SXSW offered Helmet, Pig Destroyer and a slew of lesser-known heshers. You could have charted your whole trip to Austin based around just about any genre or locale -- unless that locale was St. Louis. Out of all these bands in town, just three hailed from the Lou: Magnolia Summer, the Bottle Rockets and Son Volt (Ludo played one of the many unsanctioned parties).
Three bands, less than half of what we produced last year, is truly sad compared to the twenty bands that Denver (a town we ought to be able to compete with) fielded. Before leaving for Texas, I gave a jingle to Jeff Jarrett to try and figure out why the Lou was so poorly represented this year. Jarrett, who now works for Contemporary Productions, was Nadine's manager when that band played SXSW last year. He says that great music isn't the only thing needed to get in to the showcase.
"There's so many bands out there, unless you have something that'll raise the eyebrows of someone at South By Southwest, you aren't going to get noticed," explains Jarrett. "You have to have something cooking for you before you submit a package."
More than 8,000 bands applied to play this year, meaning a band had about a fifteen percent chance of getting in. But that's just a statistic, and statistics lie. After all, Elvis Costello's fifteen percent is a little bit larger than yours or mine. With all the record labels and PR folks pulling strings, bands with nothing but an album don't have as big a shot as the numbers would make you think.
"I think a lot of bands in this town, from my personal observations, haven't really grasped [the need for a special edge] yet," Jarrett continues. "I really think that there's not so much of a scene in this town that people from Austin are going to pick something up because it's from St. Louis. Every band here seems to go its own direction."
With one obvious exception: alt-country. The one thing that the Bottle Rockets, Son Volt and Magnolia have in common is that Americana vibe. In the decade since Uncle Tupelo disbanded, no one in town has risen up to wipe away their memory.
"No question St. Louis is always going to be identified with Miles Davis and jazz, Chuck Berry and Ike Turner with rock and roll, and alternative country and Americana with Uncle Tupelo, because they were the first to succeed on an international level with that sound," agrees Jarrett.
If we're going to do better next year, St. Louis bands need to find themselves a gimmick. This year's festival was filled with shtick. Costello and Erykah Badu had their "we're-too-popular-to-need-to-play-this" vibe. Billy Idol and, horribly, Vanilla Ice had the "try-not-to-laugh" gag. There was Titan Go Kings, three Japanese ladies each less than five-feet tall, dressed like anime characters, and bashing out delirious pop punk. Even shorter were Smoosh, nine- and eleven-year-old sisters, playing surprisingly decent indie pop. Aqueduct, whose "Growning Up with GNR" is a novelty song with real heart, came off as Tenacious D with real songwriting skills.
There was plenty of great music at SXSW this year, that is, if you could get in to see it. The festival felt oversold, too crowded for anyone to see all of the bands they wanted to. When I saw a line stretching down the street for Harvey Danger, I knew something was amiss. If I hadn't been on a list, there was no way I would have been able to catch Son Volt playing for a crowd of thousands at Stubb's on Saturday night. My brother, who purchased a $200 wristband for the festival, estimates that he saw $70 worth of music at the showcase.
Even though it was overcrowded, overhyped and dependent on gimmicks, South by Southwest is still one hell of a party. Getting to see the music you wanted was hard; putting a beer in your hand was easy. It would be nice if next year, St. Louis was more represented. But maybe, local bands would be better served by staying on the lookout for a festival where it is the music that matters most.