Get Your Bearings

Crabby asides from the South by Southwest Music Festival

With more than 700 bands and 5,000 registrants for the four-day South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference March 13-16, the airplanes shuttled between Dallas and Austin, Texas, like water buckets in a fire line. But on Wednesday afternoon, March 12, the mass of black leather jackets and $50 haircuts was still an anomaly to the cabin crew.

Just before she began demonstrating seat belt strategies, a Delta flight attendant who wore a fake pearl in each ear and a long braid that split the back of her blue blazer into hemispheres bent down to a balding man in a black turtleneck. "What the heck's goin' on here?" she asked. "Ya'll look like you're from New York, not Austin, Texas." (J.S.)

My favorite human moment in association with the SXSW Music Fest: the chatty cabbie who, while driving my girlfriend and me into Austin from godforsaken Killeen, Texas -- to where we had been diverted after some majestic ineptitude on the part of American Airlines -- described the finer points of preparing land turtle and squirrel for human consumption. No need to extend the metaphor into Austin itself, where rodents and snakes were abundant, if tasteless. (M.B.)

San Francisco's mood-and-gloom potentate Mark Eitzel worked SXSW like an Eeyore possessed. Eitzel got a jump on the conference with a soundtrack he co-wrote for No Easy Way, which screened at the preceding SXSW film festival. Then he provided a largely ignored solo set at the Matador/Grand Royal party on Wednesday. (News flash: Matador will release Eitzel's gauchely titled Caught in a Trap But I Can't Get Out Because I Love You Too Much Baby in September.) On Friday, Eitzel performed with Giant Sand at the University of Texas Ballroom. The crooner made Everclear frontman and wannabe singer/songwriter Art Alexakis look like a teen-ager with a plastic ukulele after Eitzel's emo-charged Saturday afternoon benefit for Artists for a Hate Free America. Next, Eitzel played a cameo lead on Eddie & the Hot Rods' "Do Anything You Wanna Do" with Trouser Press critic Ira Robbins' live karaoke band, Utensil. Finally, the man put on his own show Saturday night back at the UT Ballroom. With a pace like that, who's got time for Prozac? (J.S.)

The Grand Royal Records showcase on Thursday night, featuring Ben Lee, Bis, and Atari Teenage Riot, prompted one of the longest waits in line during the entire conference. Inside, the club had all the ambience of a Korean Conflict-era Quonset hut converted into a sauna. Glasgow, Scotland's Bis provided truth in sloganeering. "Do you want some cheesy pop to dance to?" asked 19-year-old keyboardist Manda Rin halfway through the band's set.

Berlin-based Atari Teenage Riot killed the house lights, fired up the strobes, and pummeled the sweaty audience with a punk-industrial hybrid punctuated only by bits of techno. The sole discernible screamed lyric: "ATARI TEENAGE RIOT." I have seen the future of rock 'n' roll and both my barrels are loaded. (J.S.)

Here's crossover techno artist Moby (some prefer the prefix "sellout") at the well-attended "The New Wave of Electronica" panel on Friday afternoon: "I live in New York so I see a lot of bad conceptual art. It's like you go into a gallery and you see a banana and a toaster and it's just beyond criticism. ... It's like listening to Stockhausen or a bad Aphex Twin B-side and it's so conceptual that you can't really tell if it succeeds. ... It's like the Emperor's New Clothes in a lot of ways." (J.S.)

Though I am usually fond of Giant Sand, I am not fond of maudlin barfly piano. This was the means by which Howe Gelb destroyed a perfectly good set by Calexico at the Texas Union Ballroom on Friday. Joey Burns and John Convertino, the two other members of Giant Sand (a band where "member" means you service the morose and talented Gelb) were playing under the Calexico sobriquet, and doing a fine job of it, with nothing but drums, guitar, and vocals. The sound was sparse and eerie in the same fashion that Giant Sand excels. But then Gelb climbed the stage, manned the piano, and moped through a couple of numbers. I considered another method for tinkling the ivories, but I kept it to myself. (M.B.)

Verbena, once bedroom popsters with a dewy-eyed single on Merge Records, are successfully reinventing themselves as destructive rock stars, complete with big Southern riffs, drunken stage presence, and fistfights. After the quartet slurred though a Friday night set from an unreleased record that has the A&R army foaming at the mouth, singer/guitarist Scott Bondy made a beeline for the men's room. What happened next depends on whom you ask.

Bondy says he was just smoking cigs with the guitarist from New York's Skeleton Key. Meanwhile, as friends filtered in, the line outside the john swelled. One of the club's bouncers forced his way into the bathroom, and Bondy says the next thing he knew the Skeleton Key axeman was on the floor. The scuffle moved out of the bathroom and soon Bondy had the bouncer's shirt bunched up in his fist while club owner Danny Crooks simultaneously ejected the band and screamed that Verbena would never play Austin again. Rock 'n' roll to the wayside, the question is: What went down in the bathroom? Crooks wouldn't go on record about the pre-bouncer bathroom activity, but Bondy more or less filled in the blank. "Oh yeah, like I'm going to take my drugs out -- if I had any -- and do them in front of a room full of people."

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