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2003 South by Southwest Music Festival
March 12-15, 2003

By: Sean Slone -

For a music junkie like me, the annual music industry get together in the city that dubs itself the live music capital of the world is the ideal vacation. For four days you can pretty much live and breathe all kinds of music-- more than 900 acts at over 50 venues. Emo, math rock, bluegrass, techno, acoustic jazz, and death metal could all be sampled to some degree. From the Cure-like synth punk of Hot Hot Heat to the Swedish tough chick punk rock of Sahara Hotnights to the Danish pop-punk of The Raveonettes. There was also the moody, unhinged confessional songs of Chan Marshall aka Cat Power, the Norwegian sophisticated traditional pop of Sondre Lerche, and the southern rock operatics of Drive-By Truckers. In search of the next White Stripes or Strokes, you could compare Finnish garage bands (Flaming Sideburns) with New Zealand garage bands (The Datsuns). I’m betting those garages in Finland are pretty damn cold. Dozens of unsigned bands in search of the elusive record deal rub elbows with established artists on the comeback trail or with a new project in the pipeline. You could even see a band with perhaps one of the greatest names ever: I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness. There’s so much going on it makes your head spin. But you’re better off just plunging in and seeing what you can see because this year, regardless of where I landed, I was usually in for a good show. It almost made me forget all the other cool stuff I was missing. Almost.

Wednesday, March 12th

For our first music of the festival, we landed in the heart of 6th Street at Iron Cactus for a set by the New York band The Rosenbergs. Singer/guitarist David Fagin and company have become the outspoken poster-boys for music industry troubles in recent years. But on this night they seemed content to let their impressive, occasionally falsetto, power pop speak for itself. Showcasing many strong new tunes, the band also threw in favorites from 2001’s Mission: You like “Paper and Plastic” and “In Pursuit.”

From there it was over to Red Eyed Fly for a set by Austin’s The Action Is. The quartet’s jagged post-punk, stop-start rhythms were accompanied by plenty of rock and roll panache. The small but appreciative crowd ate it up.

After ducking into a couple of clubs that didn’t really yield anything interesting (Wednesday is the best night of the festival for this kind of wandering) we ended the evening at Opal Divine’s Freehouse where San Diego’s Bastard Sons of Johnny Cash were plying their agreeable alt-country tunes. Unfortunately the tent that housed the stage seemed to trap all the smoke and none of the oxygen required for actual breathing by humans. A slightly muggy Austin evening only made things worse. So we had to keep our distance a bit. But even from a few yards away, the band's cover of “Viva Las Vegas” sounded good to these ears.

Thursday, March 13th

The cavernous Austin Music Hall is hardly the ideal place to listen to quiet, mostly acoustic music. But Thursday night had a lineup that was hard to pass up. First up was alt-country icon Jay Farrar. His former band Uncle Tupelo has recently seen the re-issue of its records with added bonus tracks. And though Farrar did look back to those years with a nice version of “Still Be Around,” he mostly chose to look ahead with new tunes from a forthcoming record. The new songs for the most part seemed a tad less obtuse lyrically than some of those on his 2001 solo debut Sebastopol and perhaps closer to his work with his other band, Son Volt. Mark Spencer accompanied Farrar on guitar and lap steel, adding color to tunes like Sebastopol’s “Damn Shame” and “Feel Free.” Farrar isn’t the most charismatic performer you’ll ever see but when the songs are as melodically strong and transporting as Son Volt classics “Tear Stained Eye” and the road anthem “Windfall,” it hardly seems to matter.

Los Angeles singer/songwriter/film music composer Michael Penn took the next slot with a quiet solo acoustic set that was occasionally difficult to hear over the din of the audience. At one point he asked the crowd to imagine that the noise was a Yankee Hotel Foxtrot-style production approach surrounding his songs. Penn highlighted a couple of new tunes, as well as songs from 2000’s MP4 (“High Time,” “Bucket Brigade,” and “Don’t Let Me Go”). He also looked back to 1992’s Free-For-All with the opening “Now We’re Even” and to 1997’s Resigned with “Me Around,” which drew a strong response from the crowd. Curiously, his debut album and biggest hit went overlooked.

Daniel Lanois has been best known over the past two decades for his production of records by artists ranging from U2 to Emmylou Harris. That’s despite two accomplished albums of his own ethereal folk music influenced by his French Canadian heritage. That may be about to change. Lanois is set to release his first new record in ten years and has decided not to accept any production work for awhile so he can focus on his own career. Lanois, who also delivered this year’s SXSW keynote address, was accompanied by the Los Angeles band Mother Superior for a set that featured a strong selection of new tunes including one co-written with Bono. There were also old favorites, like the much covered “The Maker” from Lanois’ Acadie album. For the finale, Lanois and band were joined by Richie Havens for an incendiary, hypnotic version of “Freedom.”

With that it was time to venture away from the Music Hall’s safe confines to check out another Toronto-based artist, Kathleen Edwards. Recently named one of Rolling Stone’s 10 Artists to Watch in 2003, Edwards has been compared to Lucinda Williams and Neil Young. Accompanied by a solid band, Edwards tackled many tunes from her excellent debut, Failer, including the sharply drawn “Six O’Clock News,” “One More Song the Radio Won’t Like,” and the melancholy “Hockey Skates.” Edwards seems to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with her Canadian heritage. At one point she told the crowd that “compared to Texans, Canadians are fuckin’ assholes.” Edwards showed talent and attitude to spare. But good luck getting back home honey.

As the 12 o’clock hour dawned, it was time to wander. We caught a couple of songs by New York’s Mooney Suzuki, one of the contenders for the next breakout garage band.

We finally landed at the Hard Rock Café, taking in part of a set by San Diego’s Convoy, a band that has toured with Coldplay and The White Stripes. Nice harmonies, an easy going country Stones vibe, and a couple of memorable tunes make them a band you might want to look out for.

To cap off the evening, I ventured up to the top floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel for an acoustic showcase by Seattle singer/songwriter Pete Droge. A few years ago his tune “If You Don’t Love Me I’ll Kill Myself” was all over the radio and in the movies (“Dumb and Dumber”) and Droge was opening arena shows for Tom Petty. He’s been keeping a lower profile lately, taking on production work for artists like Pearl Jam’s Stone Gossard and doing a cameo as a Gram Parsons-like character in Cameron Crowe’s “Almost Famous.” But he’s back this year with both a new solo disc and a CD with a pseudo-super-group called The Thorns, which finds Droge harmonizing with Matthew Sweet and Shawn Mullins (unfortunately I couldn’t get in to see the new band’s set a couple of nights later). Droge touched on new material from both projects, including the song he performs in the Crowe flick, which also appears on his solo disc. He also did a nice version of “Electric Green,” which he co-wrote with Kim Richey for her latest album, Rise. Old favorites included “Motorkid” from 1998’s Spacey and Shakin. Looking out on a panoramic view of Austin and the State Capital from the 18th floor and listening to Droge’s easy going music was a nice way to close out Day Two.

Friday, March 14th

Friday afternoon, I had the opportunity to head down to the Austin Convention Center to check out a couple of panel discussions that were part of the conference. The highlight was one featuring Tony Wilson, the founder of Factory Records (Joy Division, New Order, Happy Mondays) and Manchester’s Hacienda Club and the basis for the film “24 Hour Party People.” Having just recently caught up with the film on DVD, it was interesting to hear Wilson compare the movie with real life. Seems there’s a lot of myth intertwined with the truth.
At 8, I was off to La Zona Rosa to check out one of the festival’s most buzzed about acts, New York’s Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players. In case you missed their appearance on “Conan,” feature articles on the band in numerous publications, or their opening sets for the musically similar They Might Be Giants, here’s the skinny. They buy up strangers’ old slides at estate sales and write randomly goofy pop music suites about the lives of the people seen in them. On stage, Dad Jason plays guitar and cheesy keyboard and sings, Mom Tina runs the slide projector, and their 9-year-old daughter Rachel plays the drums and adds backing vocals. As one reviewer put it after the show, you haven’t lived until you’ve heard a 9-year-old girl say “I need more vocals in the monitors.” Rachel also throws in the occasional rim-shot to punctuate her Dad’s bad jokes. The Trachtenburgs sang about a “Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959” and about retired military nurses Kathy and Jean on “Look At Me.” It was hard to stop laughing during their all too brief set. The Trachtenburgs would be a hard act to follow.
From there it was back to the Austin Music Hall where the Lost Highway records showcase was in full swing. Raleigh, North Carolina’s Tift Merritt was on stage with her road-tested five-piece band. Performing new tunes as well as songs from her debut Bramble Rose, Merritt showed off a pretty Sheryl Crow like voice. She could use a few stronger songs to punctuate her set but she looks pretty good slinging a Telecaster and shows a lot of promise.
Minneapolis’ The Jayhawks took the stage next. After several defections over the last few years, the band is now down to original members Gary Louris, Marc Perlman, and Tim O’Reagan plus ex-Long Ryder Stephen McCarthy on guitar and pedal steel. When Mark Olson left the band after 1995’s Tomorrow the Green Grass, Louris steered the band in a more pop direction for the next two records. But if new tunes like the sunny “Save It For A Rainy Day” and the O’Reagan penned “Tampa To Tulsa” are any indication, fans can expect their upcoming Rainy Day Music to be closer to the classic alt-country sound of early gems like Hollywood Town Hall. The band recently had to postpone a series of dates due to Louris’ health problems but he appeared to be back in the saddle for this set, although he may have looked a tad bored at times. And while recent Jayhawks shows have been mostly acoustic affairs, the band was in full rock out mode with Louris brandishing his Gibson SG for the opening “Real Light.” There were quieter tunes as well like “Blue” and the pedal steel tinged “Break in the Clouds.”
I also stuck around for a set by Lucinda Williams and her three-piece band. Although she opened with a strong version of “Drunken Angel” from 1998’s Car Wheels On A Gravel Road, she spent the rest of her set previewing tunes from her forthcoming World Without Tears. Williams is at her best when she sticks to strong melodies and country and blues- styled musical settings as on the new “Ventura” and “Those Three Days.” She was less successful on several songs that feature almost Eminem-like rapping that comes off as self conscious and in the case of “American Dream,” a tad pretentious and heavy-handed. She also seems to have decided that her recent singles have to include a few sexually suggestive lines. But as she has proven in the past, she doesn’t have to “work-it” to be sexy. Put that voice against some snaky guitar lines, a strong melody, and some lyrics about life in the south and that’s all we need. Williams and band also threw in the ZZ Top-inspired “Atonement” before someone came out to give her the hook because she had overshot her 45-minute time limit. In a diva-like display Williams said something about the “music” and “business” sides of the music business always seeming to fuck each other before storming off in a huff.
With what would be for most folks a full night of music already behind me, there was still much on my radar screen that lay ahead as I ventured back up toward the 6th Street main drag. But at South By Southwest, sometimes it doesn’t hurt to just stop and smell the roses. Just across from the Driskill Hotel, I ran into a small crowd gathered around listening to a familiar voice. Salem, Massachusetts’ Mary Lou Lord was busking on the street, as she is often known to do. Her last album Live City Sounds was recorded in the T stations of Boston. As I walked up she was tackling a cover of The Clash’s “Straight to Hell,” in honor of the late Joe Strummer. While I was there (she reportedly played a staggering four hours or more) she also did nice, if ragged, versions of Springsteen’s “Thunder Road,” Big Star’s “Thirteen,” and Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle,” as well as her own “His Lamest Flame.” When she needed to take a break, she invited a fan to come up and play a couple of songs. Later, when Chris Ballew of the band Presidents of the United States of America ventured by to say hello, Lord invited him to do a number as well, which he did after commandeering an upright bass player who just happened to be walking by. It was one of those only in Austin moments. The British buzz band The Coral was also seen busking during South By Southwest.
By the way, when I caught up with friends later, I was informed that due to my lollygagging, I missed the “show of the festival,” a set by New York-based Gogol Bordello. Described as gypsy punk music, they sound like sort of an Eastern European Pogues. Or so I’m told.

Saturday, March 15th

Saturday afternoon included a stop at one of the many day-side unofficial, extracurricular SXSW parties, this one hosted by the New Times, the company that owns several alternative weekly newspapers around the country. We got there as Denver-based Elephant Six band Apples In Stereo were half way through their set. Although I’ve enjoyed their poppy psychedelia on record in the past, I must say their performance seemed woefully amateurish with head Apple Robert Schneider’s whiny voice wearing out its welcome quickly. Much better was an early evening set from the reunited Camper Van Beethoven. The group’s first four records have recently been re-issued in a box set. Singer David Lowery (also of Cracker) and company touched on all phases of the band’s career, starting slowly with “O Death” from 1988’s Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart before working up a good head of steam as the set moved along.

My first stop on Saturday night was the outdoor venue at Stubb’s Barbecue. Although the place would be packed later for sets by British bands The Coral and Supergrass, the crowd was just filling in as London singer/songwriter Ed Harcourt took the stage. Accompanied by a trumpet and vibes player, Harcourt performed romantic, sophisticated pop tunes from 2002’s Here Be Monsters and the upcoming From Every Sphere. Harcourt is a passionate performer and an undeniably talented musician but a few of his songs could use some better hooks. The upbeat set closer “Apple of My Eye” could be a model for his future musical adventures.

Later it was time to make the walk back to the Austin Music Hall for a solo acoustic set by Toronto singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith. I got there just as Austin favorite Bob Schneider (not the Apples in Stereo guy) was finishing his set with a faithful cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.” Unfortunately most of the large crowd cleared out at that point and didn’t stick around for Sexsmith. Those who did were singularly impressed by his stellar songwriting and engaging warble. The choirboy-featured Sexsmith made his way through tunes from his latest and most musically eclectic effort Cobblestone Runway as well as older songs like “Cheap Hotel,” “Clown In Broad Daylight,” and “Secret Heart.” He also tossed in a cover of Cat Stevens’ “Peace Train” as impending war with Iraq was on the minds of everyone.

Making the mad dash back down to the 6th Street corridor, I ducked into the Pecan Street Ale House where a Saturday night, Texas roadhouse style crowd had packed in to see, um, sophisticated pop singer/songwriter David Mead (what, you were expecting ZZ Top?) Amidst much rowdy hootin’ and hollerin’, Mead and a cellist tackled theatrical sounding tunes like “She Louisa” and “Landlocked” as well as some brilliant new ones from a delayed but forthcoming disc. Mead even had a great new song about making the move back to Nashville after spending the last few years in New York (he joked about Music City not being on the same high alert status the Big Apple is). About ten minutes into Mead’s set who should walk in but old pal Ron Sexsmith. Unfortunately there were no on-stage duets. Mead wrapped up his set by inviting the crowd to sing along on the poppy, upbeat, suicide attempt referencing “Girl On the Roof.” But as he finished the song’s last notes and pretended to smash his guitar, ripping the chord out, somebody told him he could play another song. So he came down into the audience and led the crowd in another sing-a-long on “World Of A King.” Mead received a pretty strong reaction for a guy who thus far hasn’t gotten much radio play. With the success of like-minded pop sophisticates like John Mayer in recent months, 2003 may just turn out to be David Mead’s year.

Hearing that Stubb’s was impossibly jam-packed for the Supergrass show, we made our way back down to the Austin Music Hall to catch Joe Jackson. He recently reunited with the band he recorded three classic albums with in the late 70s and early 80s: Look Sharp, I’m the Man, and Beat Crazy. Guitarist Gary Sanford, bassist Graham Maby, and drummer Dave Houghton all bring considerable chops to the party. And Jackson is the consummate entertainer even when he’s losing his voice, as he was on this night after playing another set earlier in the day. The band revisited old classics like “Sunday Papers,” “One More Time,” and of course “Is She Really Going Out With Him.” Jackson tacked part of “For Your Love” onto “Fools In Love” (come to think of it the new Yardbirds had performed at the same venue a couple days earlier) and took the solo spotlight on piano for “Be My Number Two.” But it was the new songs from the recently released Volume 4 that were the best surprise. Tunes like “Take It Like A Man,” “Awkward Age,” and the ska-inflected “Thugs R Us” made it sound like those twenty years (and all those dodgy Jackson albums) hadn’t really gone by at all.

Jackson’s set ran a bit late so we were late getting to Mother Egan’s where the Bloodshot Records showcase was wrapping up with a typically raucous set by the Jon Langford-led Waco Brothers. As it turned out though, we were just in time for the climax of the Saturday night party. The band sandwiched George Jones’ “White Lightnin’” and Johnny Cash’s “Big River” around a cover of “I Fought the Law,” in honor of Joe Strummer naturally, before bringing down the house with Neil Young's “Revolution Blues.” It was the perfect way to bring the four-day party to a close.

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