Inside the Austin Convention Center on Cesar Chavez Street in Texas, the South by Southwest trade show sprawls like so much weedage under ghastly fluorescent lighting. Exhibitors such as Spin magazine, Jim Beam, Planned Parenthood, the Dutch Rock and Pop Institute, the Texas Hemp Campaign and Launch.com hustle or just look worn out as middle-aged men with their khaki SXSW shoulder bags mill about looking for free stuff. In the lobby outside, where musicians without badges -- the flimsy passports identifying you as an industry weasel or, worse, a journalist -- pass out CDs and chat with Beatle Bob, two perky girls stop passersby. "Excuse me, sir," one says. "My friend and I are in a band, and we're looking for management. Are you in the industry?"
Discovering that they've introduced themselves to yet another music critic, they stop smiling and move efficiently on.
SXSW needs schmoozing, just as it needs stars such as keynote speaker Robbie Robertson, heavyweight panelists like Ben Fong-Torres and Dave Marsh and controversies, such as the one that erupted between Hilary Rosen (president of the Recording Industry Association of America) and Don Henley (of the renegade Recording Artists Coalition). After Rosen complained that RAC, which had been using SXSW as a forum to attack the legality of most major-label contracts, is throwing "fresh meat" to the media, Henley quipped to the Austin press, "Ms. Rosen should take care not to make disparaging remarks referencing meat in the state of Texas. Ask Oprah Winfrey."
For most of the band members and music fans who drove 500, 900, 2,000 miles to play or listen to short and often brilliant 45-minute sets, the industry circus was little more than a necessary evil. Adam Reichman of Nadine -- which, aside from the Bottle Rockets, was the only St. Louis-area band to make the SXSW cut -- explains it this way: "Sure, people are schmoozing and performing, but they actually like each other and are getting into the music. You have to be kind of foolhardy to drive across the country for a 40-minute set. After all the pain in the ass, though, you realize that you're onstage in front of a great crowd and the night is really pleasant, and all that effort seems worth it. We also met a lot of people -- nobody who's going to give us a million dollars -- but good people who love music. The guys from Miles of Music, our distributors, some press folks, a cool photographer, other bands who we might hook up with on the road. I think it's more about just showing up and having a good time. That's what rock & roll is about and it's a party that'd be stupid to miss."
But missing the party and then lucking into another party is often what SXSW is all about. Hundreds of folks, even some blessed with talismanic badges, waited in vain for superhyped chanteuse Norah Jones, only to scan their spreadsheets for a backup choice at a nearby venue. On Wednesday night, outside the Red Room, the queue formed for Knoxville speed-rockers Superdrag, as opposed to the Minks, a sweaty punk band from Brooklyn that had no buzz, no press, no industry snakes molting around their merch table. Evidently the Red Room had forgotten to pony up for the firefighters' charity ball: The club was barely half full, yet the fire marshal kept all but badge-bearers in the street.
Given the sound, the street was just as musical. Whether the Minks always writhe and moan and rampage like Peter Buck drunk at 12,000 feet, or whether they were protesting the soundman's efforts at turning them into a bunch of mimes with guitars -- "It's not my board," the slacker whined after the 50th request to turn up the vocals, "it's South by Southwest's" -- the band did its best to sonically destroy the room.
And good riddance. But the punks made it through a set that climaxed with the guitarist donning a bishop's vestments and performing obscene acts on a Barbie doll while holding an emergency light up to his face, all spooky and sataniclike. For their part, Superdrag played only three songs, either quitting in disgust over the sound or because the fire marshal finally put the kibosh on the evening.
Somehow SXSW has been built on so many such rock & roll debacles. The festival has grown to gargantuan proportions, sprawling over two weeks -- taking in film, "interactive media" showcases and softball tournaments -- and somehow cramming in more than 800 bands (if you count the daytime events) in five days. It has taken on a life of its own, fed by the energy of Austin, a city that has always thrived on music and has more venues per square mile than most states and drawing on the nearby metro areas of Dallas, Houston and San Antonio. But SXSW provides no portal to the future of music, no vision of things to come. Even the relatively few DJ and electronica acts slated to perform aren't exactly breaking new ground. SXSW, instead, turns Austin into a dystopia where every genre of popular music communicates, unwittingly or not, with every other genre of music. Although it's impossible to experience even a fraction of the incalculable spectrum, just being in the city when it all goes down, absorbing the maddening multiplicity of music, can restore you to some refreshed, then exhausted, then refreshed again state of wonder.
Every attendee will experience a different shock of discovery, but the 1,000 or so who saw the Albuquerque indie-pop band the Shins, a cross between Pavement and REM or maybe Guided by Voices and the Beach Boys, were certain that sometimes buzz doesn't lie. On Friday night at Stubb's, probably Austin's best medium-size outdoor venue, Bare Jr. pushed his band to the absolute freak-out point, spewing beer across the stage and ending with an atomic medley of the Cars' "My Best Friend's Girlfriend" and the Who's "Baba O'Riley." Pity the band to follow, especially when that band is Marah, which has apparently left more than its native Philadelphia behind. Memo to the band: Oasis is so '90s, and amulets are so Dark Ages. If you're going to sell your soul to the devil, as Marah's matching upside-down pentangles and rock-star smirks suggested, you might at least get some hot guitar licks out of the evil bargain.
Nadine's early-Friday-evening showcase on the back patio of the Gingerman, a cozy downtown pub, was both surprisingly packed and thrilling. New drummer Merv Schrock cut loose the rock, and the band as a whole seemed to find that difficult balance between the growing maturity of their craft and the unbridled spontaneity of a great live band. Steve Rauner channeled his nervous energy through his amp, and Anne Tkach sparred with him, singing the kind of harmonies for which Nadine's melodies have always yearned. Their set focused on new songs recently mixed in Denton, Texas, and even a crowd that didn't know Adam from Adam shut up when Reichman lightly strummed his Rickenbacker and sang "Lead the Way." His voice broke beautifully as if no one was listening, even though, at least for a moment, everyone was.