South by Cynic

South by Southwest underwhelmed -- again -- but a few fab moments shined through the product placement
High on Fire's Matt Pike

By Kimberly Chun

SONIC REDUCER Date night, March 15, the closing Saturday eve of the South by Southwest music conference, and I swear, the biggest thrill around is my offroadin' pedicab ride on my way to the Diesel:U:Music bash atop Mount San Jacinto, through the remains of the Mess with Texas 2 music-comedy day-party in Waterloo Park. How sad is that?

"I do yoga, so that helps," explains my "driver" Liam (his name changed to protect the innocent). The spines of his spindly, highly waxed mohawk shiver like excited mushrooms beneath a forager's greedy digits and his wire-rimmed spectacles gently mist as he steps up and pedals hard, climbing the park's slopes as the Texas Capitol shines reprovingly above. "Hopefully it's not all blocked off — this is my favorite shortcut."

Some shortcut: we career down too-tight paved paths, nearly get decked by a hat vendor stand, then head off onto the grass and through the woods, plunk down a curb — with minimal lady-passenger spillage — and then get back on a path and through a parking structure and finally, somehow, we're on San Jac. Saint Jack 'n' Coke be praised. Liam glances back, mildly beatific: "Wanna smoke a bowl?"

Hey, I've only downed a few gratis cans of Lone Stars and a tall sweet tea 'n' vodka so far tonight — and with only a giveaway energy bar to absorb it all. Welcome to Austin, Texas, and SXSW, the now unfailingly polite, organizationally fine-tuned, and increasingly disappointing group-grope-n-grip for the increasingly somber, not-so-extravagantly partying music biz. Sure, the numbers are there — the fest appears to be doing well, with more than 123,000 attendees and 1,500 showcased acts, while pouring more than $77 million in expenditures into Austin coffers, according to 2007 stats — and the nontoiling gawkers and stalkers still filled the streets for what has become the nation's fave musical spring break. But how to quantify the new wave of malaise? Roughly parse the leavings in the tea cup: where were the conference heavies when Dolly Parton bowed out due to health issues, as did, ahem, the Lemonheads? Was 60-ish ex-Oakland R&B elder Darondo's much-talked-of Ubiquity appearance the best of the fest — or was it Yeasayer or Vampire Weekend? Does Ice Cube really wanna forsake Friday for the rap game? Can all the Euro and overseas showcases sub for the dampened-down US major label presence due to layoffs and cutbacks? At the troubled heart of 2008's decentralized music biz, few could be heard whooping it up or mourning over at the fall of New York Governor Eliot Spitzer, who as the state's attorney general oversaw the uncovering of $50 million in unpaid royalties to musicians and served subpoenas against labels while investigating payola. Is it true, as so many I spoke to at SXSW have said, that "everything I've seen that I've liked, I've already seen before"? My, South By, how lame you were this year. (Can this trend bottom out? See Sonic Reducer's 2007's judgment: "But for a three-time SXSWhiner like myself ...

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