South by Southwest underwhelmed -- again -- but a few fab moments shined through the product placement
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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 ... the fest generally underwhelmed this year," and 2006's description  of "the ground-level, vaguely dissatisfied vibe at this year's fest one studded with sentiments ranging from "there's too many people here" to "everyone I've talked to is complaining about working too hard and not having any fun.")
Sure, there were plenty of free shows and oodles of guest-list jockeying, but when the most talked-about soirees were Perez Hilton's hush-hush hoedown, Rachael Ray's bid for day-party indie cred ("There better be good food!" one warily groaned), and natch, the Playboy after-hours warehouse rave complete with more empties and Porta-Johns than you can shake a Hefty bag at you can just toss the teacup and throw up your multi-wristbanded hands. The truth: do these brands, celebs, or marketing pipe dreams have anything to do with music? The sonic sustenance of SXSW has become secondary to product placement, relegated to background noise amid a recession-jittered hard sell. No surprise that my extremely random sampling of music lovers were uniformly disgruntled. They weren't hearing the sounds that made it worth braving the yeehawing and puking hordes, risking podiatric agony for five whole nights.
Sure, there were revelatory moments: the grinning electro-diva Santogold, the crowd-entrancing the Whip, and teased blonde soulstress Duffy (dimpled Kate Bosworth-like everygirl to Amy Winehouse's trouble-lady) were fab, as were Sightings and Evangelista. Lou Reed cracked mordantly wise even while hawking his new concert doc recreating Berlin (RCA, 1973), shades of Neil Young and Heart of Gold two years ago. SXSW organizers oughta take a cue from the packed "Vinyl Revival" panel, the teeming unofficial shows off the beaten Sixth Street path, where Monotonix raised the roof and drum kit at the Typewriter Museum, and where experi-punks screeched under sunny skies at Ms. Bea's at shindigs hosted by Brooklyn party-starter Todd P, who was given his own official showcases this year. You can already make out signs of the next-gen underground filtering into Moby's Girl Talklike Playboy finale and folkie Liam Finn's noise climax on DirectTV. Is the life-support-via-corporate-sponsorship worth the tourist buck, South By? Next time bring the focus back to the truly smokin' sounds.
Also glad I saw: Black Moth Super Rainbow (spewing glitter and piñata), Joe Lean and the Jing Jang Jong (let the nouveau-mod boy-band revolution begin), Ra Ra Riot (kids love Arcade Fire!), High on Fire and Motorhead, Blitzen Trapper with Adam Stephens on harmonica, Justice and Moby's DJ sets, Torche, High Places, Half Japanese (with a wiggly David Fair and Yo La Tengo's Ira Kaplan on sax), Deer Tick, Scary Mansions, Inca Ore and Grouper, a musically unimaginative but enthusiastic Carbon/Silicon, Goat the Head, Lightspeed Champion, Sons and Daughters, the Kills, "Body of War," Yacht, Does It Offend You, Yeah?, Smalltown Supersounders Lindstrom and Kim Hiorthoy, Naked Raygun, the Dicks, the Ting Tings, Paper Rad, Samara Lubelski, and Black Helicopter.
Regret I missed: the Rascals, the Wombats, Barbara Mason, Jaymay, Bun B, the Bo-Keys, Game Rebellion, These New Puritans, Robyn, Pete Rock, Ruby Suns, Napalm Death, the Touch Alliance, Snowglobe, Kayo Dot, Ola Podrida, Bowerbirds, Dark Meat, White Rabbits, White Rainbow, El-P, Herman Dune, Holy Ghost!, Digitalism, Arp, Juiceboxxx, Supagroup, Daryl Hall, Meneguar, Black Ghosts, the Mirrors, Van Morrison, 17 Hippies, Afrobots, Working for a Nuclear Free City, Boyz Noize, Peggy Sue and the Pirates, Death Sentence: Panda!, Christian Kiefer, Megafaun, Salvador Santana Band, Psychic Ills, Devin the Dude, Passenger, the Morning Benders, the Tennessee Three, the Switches, Sera Cahoone, Little Freddie King, A-Trak, Kid Sister, the Clipse, Headlights, Los Llamarada, Pissed Jeans, Rob G, Wale, Dax Riggs, Neon Neon, These Are Powers, WILDILDLIFE, Clockcleaner, Look See Proof, the Cynics, Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, Rahdunes, Stars Like Fleas, and Cheveu.
Pigeon vs. Fuck: Pidgeon, the Pigeon Detectives, Pigeon John, and Woodpigeon go up against Fuck Buttons, Holy Fuck, and Fucked Up, umpired by CunninLynguists.
BLACK MOTH SUPER RAINBOW
Wed/19, 9 p.m., $12
Bottom of the Hill
1233 17th St., SF