SXSW the un-Safeway

South by Southwest redux: Sparking with PJ Harvey, Metallica, codpieces, and buffalo checks
Imperial Battlesnake grinds
Photo by Kimberly Chun

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SONIC REDUCER Sparks. No, not the band, or the caffeinated boozy beverage, toasts of rock collectors' circles and past South by Southwests, respectively. I'm talking about the real dealie, flying furiously off the spot where a sander met the metal-codpieced crotch of what appears to be a Suicide Girl-gone-to-seed, right here at the '09 installment of FXFY — otherwise known in impolite company as Fuck by Fuck You fest. Sparks flew at the Typewriter Museum, far from the heavily trod, pizza plate-littered Sixth Street, epicenter of last week's South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.

I had my doubts when the two bikinied, booted, vaguely She-Devils of the SS leggy ladies entered, hoisting and spinning drill rifles beside bellowing Imperial Battlesnake vocalist West Nile, a petite, heavily tattooed man who describes his instrument/contribution to the Chicago band as one part "throat," another part "Napoleon complex." Goody gumdrops, I thought — that's exactly what underground music needs: more retrograde sexism. Just the tiresome, Neanderthal-pandering ticket to go with indie's ever-tightening embrace of throwback 1990s, alternative nation/X-treme, good/bad taste aesthetics. Goes great with those omnipresent buffalo checks and Jane's Addiction's reappearance at a Playboy party in a boarded-up Safeway.

But then the bikini girls dramatically whipped out the sanders, bringing West Nile to his knees, shielding his eyes and begging for mercy. You couldn't help but grin along with the beer-drinking redneck headbangers — and in the process forget to tweet at the sheer backhanded goofiness of it all. SXSW '09 motto No. 666: get your fun where and while you can — lack of funds, political correctness, and originality be damned. Praise the audacity and pass the ammunition.

Welcome to the terrordome, almost two decades after the first go-around and on the brink of the last recession: this time the enemy is more than public — it's wildly texting witticisms into the Twittering wind while bemoaning the slowness of AT&T, remarking on who isn't here rather than who is, and clearing out early from the Convention Center press room, while word on the street and in the halls is that attendance is 10 percent down though artist involvement is up. The bags of corporate marketing swag are lightening because the fat-cat sponsors aren't swaggering with quite the same gusto. There are no free Saucony kicks and gratis logo T's. Our local landfill keepers thank you.

The SXSW star power dimmed slightly as Quincy Jones — rather than Pete Townsend or Lou Reed — happily free-associated and name-dropped through the conference keynote, though there were some last-minute saves. Metallica made a not-so-secret, relatively intimate, air-tight yet relaxed appearance, courtesy of Guitar Hero, at the 3,000-capacity Stubb's. Neil Young was said to be skirting the fest as manager Elliott Roberts talked up the first installment of Young's forthcoming, meaty archival box set and Jonathan Demme debuted Neil Young Trunk Show. Kanye West was, according to one Twitterer, "pissing off" people and promoting his G.O.O.D. Music artists during a "secret" headlining spot at Fader Fort (now, in its new spot, more like a sweltering interment camp than a luxe retreat). Can't say for sure — though I was wondering if West would be locked to Auto-Tune — because I had a pressing date with the always-riveting PJ Harvey, debuting her new, alternately ethereal and enraged long-player at Stubb's on Saturday.

That said, SXSW wasn't without its charms — between the disarmingly art-geeky Devo, donning those red pyramid hats once more, and Erykah Badu, gathering more than 10 of her native Dallas buds as the Cannabinoids, for an ultra-short, improvised set, truncated thanks to an alleged stalker.

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