A South By Southwest (SXSW) Recap

By David Glessner, Contributor
Monday, April 1, 2002 @ 12:10 AM

A Review of Austin's Week Of R

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Austin, TX -- In a city notorious for bloodshot 2 a.m. encores, a typical Tuesday night in "The Live Music Capital of the World" can rage like Mardi Gras on the eve of oblivion. Multiply that fact by 1,000 bands at 40-plus venues and divide it by five days, and you get the 16th annual South by Southwest music festival. It's the largest music industry gathering of its kind and is rightfully compared to Spring Break for the guitar- and/or cell-phone crowd.

From big names like Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell to regional favorites like Honky, SXSW draws all genres of music to major venues, smaller clubs and backyard parties. Something is going on 24/7, but it ain't sleep and sobriety, baby.

SXSW badges cost a whopping $600-plus and are given priority admittance when venues are bursting at the seams. Wristbands are in the $100 range and usually get you in with the badges minus the bragging rights. Experienced locals, on the other hand, will dig deep for the extra couple bucks required for cover and snicker at the credential crowd watching the same show.

The prices sound steep, but depending on how much you cram into five days and nights, and considering the cost of concert tickets, SXSW credentials will most likely pay for themselves. Fortunately, my credentials came courtesy of KNAC instead of Krokus, which landed me a media badge. While my musical tastes lean toward guitar-driven hard-rock, metal and punk, it should be noted that every imaginable style of music is presented and there is no way you can expect to see it all. Here's what I remember:

Things got started at an aptly named bomb shelter called Beerland where the restroom reeked of kind bud and the evening's entertainment read like a menu for the maladjusted. The showcase, sponsored by Mortville Records, featured The Ends, Slum City, Teen Cool, The Put-Downs, Ignorance Park and the Riverboat Gamblers. With tallboys served up as dinner, The Ends jump-started SXSW with a no-bullshit blend of Sex Pistols meets AC/DC. One guitarist channeled Johnny Thunders, the other looked like a psychobilly Fonzerelli and the singer must have raided Elton John's collection of sunglasses. It didn't hurt that the bass player rocked like Angus but looked like Pebbles. Drummer Johnny Venom gets extra points for his Saxon patch.

From Beerland it was off to the more corporate confines of the newly opened Hard Rock Cafe. Broken Teeth helped deflower the club's formidable sound and light systems with a set of denim-and-leather hellrock that recalled the badass bravado of Bon Scott and Rose Tattoo. Fronted by former Dangerous Toys singer Jason McMaster (who four hours later would be playing bass at The Metro and fronting his sci-fi metal band, Gahdzilla Motor Company when the cops busted the place for liquor law violations), Broken Teeth was celebrating the release of its second full-length album, "Guilty Pleasure" (see brokenteeth.com). On this night, Broken Teeth rocked out with their collective cock out and an enthusiastic crowd ate it up down front and from the overhead balconies. McMaster gets extra points for sporting a Four Horesmen T- shirt. Also see gahdzillamotorcompany.com

Back on the street, I spotted a crush of gyrating girls and air-guitaring guys sardined into a makeshift patio-type stage. Pushing through the throng, I found Austin's own 50 Mission Crush laying down the type of melodic hard rock that turned Stone Temple Pilots, the Foo Fighters, Fuel and The Cult into jukebox heroes. Onstage, the mix of influences took on a decidedly more metallic energy due to sheer volume and four guys who know how to work a stage. It turns out the guitars weren't the only things amped as the band was celebrating its newborn sophomore album, "Beginning to Unwind." (see 50missioncrush.com).

Thursday got started over a tall glass of Shiner Bock beer courtesy of Frapp, a former bass player in Circus of Power who now oversees a goth/industrial club called Elysium. Then it was back to Beerland where I bumped into Frankie Nowhere, lead singer for the East Side Suicides. His band earned loads of local press in the days leading up to SXSW. "I must admit it's flattering, but I don't know what I'm doing," Frankie said bewildered. "It's all new to me. I mean, I'm the (former) bass player for The Chumps, not a frontman." Dead wrong, Frankie. When he later emerged transformed from the bathroom, Frankie was a polka dot-covered trainwreck in a torn striped T-shirt and shell-shocked platinum hair. Onstage, his tumble-from- the-monitor Iggy routine was a kamikaze kiss-off. For a guy who claimed to be pretty vacant, Frankie performed pretty vicious. The whole band had great presence and from the fabulously titled opener, "Panic In My Pants," until Frankie went flailing halfway across the floor, the East Side Suicides lived up to the comparisons to New York's Dolls.

Speaking of New York, I found CJ Ramone standing in line at Emo's two blocks down. He and his new band, Bad Chopper (see acmerecords.bizland.com/badchopper.htm), were trying to get inside to speak to British singer Holly Golightly, who they will soon be touring with. The Ramones are my all-time favorite band and although CJ was not the original bassist, he did serve more than a decade as one of New York's Finest and proved to be the only worthy heir to Dee Dee's black leather and "1-2-3-4" intros. "What's up?" he said, remembering me from a previous Austin meeting. "You got any juice at this place? We need to talk to Holly." Funny, I thought, how a guy who's mere days away from joining his former bandmates at their induction into the Rock'N'Roll Hall of Fame is standing here completely unrecognized and asking me for "juice." Fortunately, I had some pull and got him in even as the fire marshal was taking a strict head count and turning away would-be beer drinkers.

With the Holly business out of the way, we climbed into CJ's van and drove to Bad Chopper's showcase at the out-of-the-way, aptly named Hole in the Wall. The three-piece band took the stage at 1 a.m. and sounded like a cross between the Ramones and CJ's previous, post- Ramones band, Los Gusanos. For the record, CJ is back on bass rather than guitar, but still handles all lead vocals. Less than 45 minutes later, Bad Chopper's muscle-car rock screeched to a halt and I was again riding shotgun and navigating our quest to a talk-of-the-town, after- hours warehouse party where the beer flowed to the sounds of the all-female Hell's Belles and their AC/DC covers. My girlfriend says I got home at 7 a.m. 'Nuff said.

Friday was a lost cause. I didn't budge until 6 p.m. when an excruciating brain swell sent me stumbling for the medicine cabinet with one eye open. I wasn't gonna make it through the night so I scanned the evening's schedule for the one must-see act that could drag me into the streets. The hands-down winner was New Orleans' Supagroup. Led by brothers Chris and Benji Lee, Supagroup bangs out straight-up, blues-based rawk that recalls vintage AC/DC, Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses. Benji is a non-stop headbanger who can induce dizziness if you try to keep up with him. The band played cuts from its new album, "Rock 'N' Roll Tried to Ruin my Life" (see www.supagroup.com). The bass player gets extra points for his Betty Blowtorch T-shirt.

Saturday got started at the Austin Convention Center where Courtney Love delivered her much-hyped speech about musicians' rights and music industry inequities. It was an exclusive, badges-only engagement and as expected there wasn't an empty seat in the house. Many attendees were left standing along the walls of the auditorium. Thirty minutes past Love's scheduled start time, she arrived as promptly as Axl Rose with car trouble. A wave of applause, flashbulbs and forgiveness rushed the stage as Love greeted the crowd and attributed her tardiness to the previous night's tequila consumption. As she settled into her chair, she blew her nose and fired up a smoke as Pulitzer Prize-winning Los Angeles Times reporter Chuck Philips stated the obvious when he said Love needed no introduction. He went on to gush her accomplishments, and thereby effectively introduced her. Uh, thanks Chuck.

For all her admittedly, self-absorbed rock star obnoxiousness, Love's disarming charisma and sense of humor could coax a smile out of Judge Judy. She may have rambled, but she made some interesting points about the industry's collective stranglehold on its artists and she certainly had a knack for telling a story.

Following the Love fest, I hit the bricks to Room 710 where local rock maven Wendy Nelson booked a free daytime show featuring Honky and Dixie Witch, among others. Belly-up to the bar were the guys from Supagroup and Alice in Chains guitarist Jerry Cantrell who just finished soundchecking across the street at Stubb's where he would showcase later that evening. Unwilling to speak for himself, Jerry politely deflected all questions to his publicist who said his new album, Degradation Trip, will be released by Roadrunner Records on June 25. The first single is "Anger Rising." As for a future Alice in Chains album, Jerry said, "I dunno." His exasperated tone suggested I leave him alone and continue my interview with his publicist. A friend later told me, he too encountered Cantrell and found him to be as personable as a jar of flies. Whatever.

Getting back to the music, Honky looked and played like the Satanic siblings of ZZ Top. Bassist Jeff Pinkus is a crazy quilt of tattoos who used to play in the Butthole Surfers. Guitarist Bobby Rock moonlights in Gahdzilla Motor Company and drummer Lance Farley handled the majority of Honky's lead vocals. In their own words, Honky plays "dirty white boy rock'n'roll," and as if to prove their point, they finished with a cover of Skynyrd's "Simple Man" featuring Dixie Witch drummer, Trinidad, on the skins and Honky's timekeeper on the mic. The Supersuckers would've tipped their hats. Pinkus gets extra points for his Flying-V bass.

Dixie Witch followed with a bruising brand of barefoot stoner rock a la Fu Manchu, Mountain, Sabbath and other greats of the ilk The band's latest release is "Into the Sun" available through www.brainticket.com.

The band that earned my vote as the most promising SXSW was the intentionally lower-case pete. Hailing from Newark, N.J., pete has been touring relentlessly in support of its excellent self-titled Warner Bros. debut (visit www.petenoise.com). The four-piece specializes in muscular, atmospheric metal that recalls Tool, Cold, and Soundgarden. The music is radio ready without sounding forced, and frontman David Terrana is a fireplug who doesn't so much sing as erupt. Watch for pete to break big. Meanwhile, Terrana gets extra points for great stage presence and appreciating his audience.

Next up was the spitfire garage rawk of San Diego's The Dragons. This band slays every single time with a brink-of-disaster live show and Stones-on-speed swagger. The Dragons' 1999 album, "Rock Like Fuck," did just that and the latest release, "Rock'n'Roll Kamikaze" is another woo-hoo-riddled shout-along that crushes the fuck out of most everything currently defined as rock'n'roll. For a crash course in bottle-smashing barroom rawk-n-roll, dial up www.thedragons.com or www.junkrecords.com. Korn fans need not apply.

The Dragons left me torched, but I headed back to Stubb's anyway to see if Jerry Cantrell was more likeable on-stage than off. He was. In spades, even. Playing material from his platinum solo album, Boggy Depot, along with newer material, the grunge guitar god displayed a dynamic range of fretboard finesse undercut by swampy, redneck blues. He also kicked enough ass in the vocal department to make a Cantrell-led Alice in Chains three-piece reunion seem as feasible as it sounds outrageous. "What the Hell Have I?" "Angry Chair" and "Man in the Box" brought chills and "Down in a Hole" conjured up wrist-slitting heebie-jeebies. But all the tricks weren't yet out of the bag. Standing in the wings shooting the shit with fans were Pantera brothers, Dimebag Darrell and Vinnie Paul who soon climbed onstage for a rip-roaring rendition of "Them Bones" complete with Ozzy/Suicidal Tendencies/Infectious Grooves bassist, Robert Trujillo. The place went nuts and it was clear why Jerry would rather let the music (and his publicist) do the talking.

Once again, my wallet, ears and liver were happy to see SXSW come to a close. It is definitely a music-lovers mecca that, despite the economy and/or lack or marquee names, deserves its status as the most anticipated event of its kind year in and year out. Thank you Austin! Goodnight!

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