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Year of the Elephant 

Dead guys, psychedelic pop, and no sober opinions at South by Southwest 1998

Wednesday, Apr 1 1998
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Racy Racine wore fishnet stockings with cowboy boots, dyed red her 43-year-old scalp, and dreamed of working in the music business instead of cabbing the 6,000-some-odd registrants between the Austin airport, their hotels, and the 37 sanctioned clubs that hosted more than 800 bands at the 13th annual South by Southwest music festival. "I'd like to be in A&R," she said with a Texas twang. "How do you get one of those jobs?"

Racy Racine didn't really care about any particular record label -- she just wanted to work in the biz. She said she used to volunteer for SXSW, maybe back when her main occupations were couch surfing and hanging out with a coterie of South Austin-based singer/songwriters that included, most notably, Townes Van Zandt.

Racy Racine -- who is, among many other things, a grandmother -- spends a lot of time in her cab. She's spruced it up with a swath of fake white fur across the dash, some decorative Christmas lights across the top of the windshield, and a set of mini wind chimes dangling from the rearview mirror.

Racy Racine obviously has pronounced taste and a visible aesthetic. Who would she sign if she were at a record label and given the power to contract any unsigned musician? She paused and the chimes tinkled as she turned a broad corner. "Probably Blaze Foley," she said.

Blaze Foley -- a once tireless and broke singer/songwriter with a drinking problem -- christened her "Racy" Racine. Blaze Foley died in the late 1980s.

South by Southwest used to be a place where record labels scouted bands; now the majors see it as a vehicle to pony around their new signees so the press and competitors can admire their nice new teeth. Among both the major-label colts and still indie fillies, the most exciting thing about the conference was that, for the first time in years, all of the bands didn't sound the same. Instead, microgenres of groups ran their own races. As the record companies figure out that slash-and-burn one-hit-wonder-making doesn't pay off in the long run, they'll make some Columbus-style discoveries. This year, post-grunge and what I guess has to be called post-electronica, though it's not clear whether electronica did or didn't happen, we're experiencing a musical downtime, what Brit crit Simon Reynolds called in 1990 "that gap when an old musical order is dis-established but nothing stable has taken its place."

Out of that instability, three bands from the past-forward collective known as Elephant 6 -- the Apples in Stereo, the Olivia Tremor Control, and the Minders -- played three separate but equal shows that proved there's no time like a downtime. Call it the year of the Elephant. At Liberty Lunch, a cavernous venue whose best attribute is that you can hose down the concrete floors at night's end, the Apples bounced through songs from last year's charming Tone Soul Evolution and a couple of covers (one by the Beach Boys, one by an obscure '60s garage band called the Creation). At the end of the set the lovably nerdish Robert Schneider strapped on a two-string piece of shit for about 30 seconds before raising the axe above his head and smacking it against the stage. The sturdy piece of plastic re-fused to crack, even after several wallops. Finally the neck snapped and Schneider approached the mike before shrugging offstage. "Um, thanks for coming, guys," he said.

Schneider and friends were also on hand for the Olivias the following night (also in the audience: Cornelius [more on him later] and Janeane Garofalo.) The trumpet and the trombone were unmiked but audible over the Byrdsian guitars; the Apples, who sat in on a bevy of percussion instruments during one song, were not. The Olivias supposedly have a new quiver of psychedelic pop tunes written at their Athens, Ga., flophouse, but only a few got played. Instead, it was the usual suspects from Dusk at Cubist Castle and a couple of old ones trotted out from the California Demise EP. As Reynolds said, that gap -- for him filled by Throwing Muses and Daydream Nation, for us by a nice guy breaking a guitar and a stage full of grinning weirdos -- is an exhilarating moment.

Nick Lowe -- the renowned Elvis Costello producer and one-time pub-rocker -- delivered a Thursday-morning keynote speech with a wit that could have dried out a hangover. Lowe didn't have much of a point -- he basically spent 10 minutes explaining how nervous he was and five minutes saying that after 20 years in the music business he's stopped really caring about bad bands -- which was a good thing because it gave him more time to play a few songs on his acoustic guitar. In the spirit of self-promotion that seems de rigueur at SXSW, Lowe sang two cuts off his new record, Dig My Mood, and then cut out with the tune Costello made famous for him, back in a time when narcissistic classic-rock behemoths ruled the road. Lowe's light treatment of "Peace, Love & Understanding" sounded wilted and beautiful, like a cut orchid a day out of water, and consistent with his apparent newfound grace. Lowe figures he can ease up on the music industry he once loathed. "Today's musicians have their own Supertramps and REO Speedwagons to contend with," he said. "I declare the bars open."

Austin's an odd town. The hills are pretty and the water pure, but the skyscrapers are lined with neon and the food sucks if you can't subsist on barbecue or Tex-Mex. Like a lot of Texans, the hometown folks spend an awful lot of time reminding everyone how great their town is. Provincial boosterism turns up on billboards ("City of Ideas"; "Live Music Capital of the World"); on Hollywood-style sidewalk stars honoring Sam Houston, Gene Autry, and Tom Landry; and in the slap-happy Austin Chronicle, a whipped weekly with writers who could get work tongue-bathing local acts in BAM or Two Live if they relocated. The Austin American-Statesman is a touch more sober.

About The Author

Jeff Stark

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