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SXSW review, Boston Phoenix, 2007

No reason to complain, Escaping corporate rock — and the panel discussions — at SxSW
By BRETT MILANO, March 20, 2007 2:34:53 PM

There are at least two ways to approach the South by Southwest festival in Austin. You can attend panel discussions about the future of digital downloads and the best methods for selling songs to movies and commercials. Or you can witness a death metal band that performs nothing but educational songs about obscure science fiction authors.

That would be the Seattle group Blöödhag, for my money the week’s best reminder of why indie rock is still necessary. Introduced at SxSW by Jello Biafra — whose spoken-word set was the usual mix of cheap shots (he’s still mad at Tipper Gore) and a few nuggets of real insight — Blöödhag proved to be something else again. They wear respectable white shirts and ties (the hulking lead singer looks a bit like the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher) and run their set like a very hip classroom: “Okay, our next author is James Bish. He had the world’s coolest day job, which is of course collecting urine samples from racehorses.” Then they’d play a 45-second song about Bish, cookie-monster vocals and all, and move on to the next author. The brilliance of the concept was reinforced by their t-shirt slogan (“The sooner you go deaf, the more time you have to read”) and by their habit of throwing books into the crowd — something nobody’s done well since Stryper. And it prompted one burning question: if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then what do you call music about writing?

If this year’s SxSW was about anything, it was the disconnect between the music industry and the pockets of creativity that are still out there. As Rounder staff producer Scott Billington (who recently won a Grammy for his production of Irma Thomas) told me, “I’ve seen more good music this South by Southwest than I have in years, but it’s becoming more difficult to figure out how to do business with it.” Ironically, Billington made this statement just as Texas soul/blueswoman Barbara Lynn was about to begin a set. The writer and performer of the ’60s hit “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (covered by the Rolling Stones and many others), Lynn played as part of the Ponderosa Stomp, a record collector’s dream show that New Orleans resident Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos throws annually in his home city and lately in Austin as well. Along with Lynn, last week’s event featured the likes of Texas soul hero Bobby Patterson (“How do you spell love? M-O-N-E-Y!”) Crescent City funkateer Willie Tee, and rockabilly original Ray Sharpe — in short, the very kind of artists that Rounder used to sign before it went after the adult-contemporary and kiddie-pop markets.

There was no shortage of mediocre major-label fare in town over the week, whether it was quick-shot Internet sensation Lily Allen or Bloc Party, who are being groomed as a major English band for the second time in two years. But while the majors were hyping their respective next-big-things, the crowds were lining up to see the likes of the Stooges, Pete Townshend, and Booker T. & the MG’s. Not all of those sets were necessarily earth-shaking: the Stooges delivered the same bratty good time that frontman Iggy Pop has provided, year after year, with whatever band he’s carrying. And Townshend played the most high-demand show of the week: at the Austin Music Awards (which, unlike Boston’s, had a lot of unbridled music fandom and no corporate presence whatsoever), Townshend sat in with his old friend and current Austin resident, ex-Small Faces/Faces keyboardist Ian MacLagan. The two played a scrappy, spirited version of the Small Faces hit “Whatcha Gonna Do About It,” which was just about as good as the versions the Prime Movers play every two weeks at the Abbey.

The MG’s, on the other hand, were untouchable. They played the blues club Antone’s as part of a 50th-anniversary Stax Records celebration and were joined at different times by Isaac Hayes (sadly unable to sing much as he’s recovering from a stroke), Eddie Floyd, and William Bell. The latter were fine if a bit rote; but the MG’s’ opening set seemed untouched by time or anything else. Original members Booker T. Jones, guitarist Steve Cropper and bassist Duck Dunn (joined by drummer Steve Potts, cousin of the deceased original Al Jackson) have the perfect sense of what to leave out: Cropper works the maximum sting out of every note; open spaces are everywhere; the extended “Time Is Tight” was all tension and release. Nobody better embodies the lost art of giving samplers something to sample.

For fun between sets, you could walk down the main streets and see how many times you could run into Robyn Hitchcock. In addition to playing a few shows with Peter Buck in tow, Hitchcock appeared at the one panel discussion I saw, about the life of the late Nick Drake. Although there were few major revelations there (unless you count his sister Gabrielle, who looks so much like a female Nick Drake that it’s spooky), it was interesting to hear producer Joe Boyd recall how upset Drake got over the strings Boyd put all over his second album Bryter Later — proof that artist/producer squabbles are about as timeless as Drake’s music.

It took the garage-rock maniacs at Norton Records to put on the week’s best label showcase, one of the few that erased the generational lines. Warming up were genuine ’60s punkers the Alarm Clocks (whose “No Reason to Complain” will be familiar to Lyres fans) and Sam the Sham (yes, that Sam the Sham, who didn’t do much more than lead a singalong of “Woolly Bully” — but that was enough). But the show was really about the collaboration between current Detroit garagers the Reigning Sound and Mary Weiss, the Shangri-La’s lead singer who’s now performing and recording for the first time in 40 years. It was a comeback that worked precisely because it wasn’t a comeback: it was an older singer doing modern music. Weiss looked smart, if not quite rock-and-roll, in a button-up dress and glasses, and the voice was raspier but still recognizably hers, with that catch in the throat that broke hearts the first time around. (The cigarette breaks she took onstage may explain the raspiness.) Most of the songs were typically punchy Reigning Sound originals (though one came from another Norton fave, Real Kids leader John Felice) and the sound of a ’60s heartthrob singing “Kids today don’t know shit” was a payoff in itself. “Give Him a Great Big Kiss” was the encore; but when she did an oldie (or a “Shangs song” as she called them) it came off as a special treat, not as her sole reason for being there.

Perhaps the ultimate kiss-off to corporate music was a rare live show by Jandek, the indie oddball who’s released 40-odd albums of intensely personal and intensely off-key confessions since 1978. For decades he didn’t show his face or reveal his identity; it took an enterprising Texas Monthly writer (and lately, the indie film Jandek on Corwood) to identify him as Sterling Smith of Denton, Texas. He’s done sporadic live shows since 2004, and the one in Austin was held at the Central Presbyterian Church — appropriate enough for the reverence shown by three quarters of the crowd (the other quarter walked out). But it sounded less claustrophobic than Jandek’s records, with the reassuring sense that his back-up band was at least playing all those wrong notes and dropped beats on purpose. Though he stood in the dark for the entirety of the set, Jandek was indeed the thin and clean-cut guy with the blank expression who appears on most of the album covers. Fronting an unlit stage, reading off a music stand and only facing the audience when he had to sing, Jandek built 10-minute incantations out of skeletal lyrics; whose pleading quality suited the introverted tone of the music: “Can I walk into your house and be where you are? Can I enter your door and get lost in your love?” Hell, it sounded just like emo.
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