AUSTIN, TX — I almost made it through South By Southwest without seeing a strange man's naked ass.
Last year's ass belonged to Mojo Nixon, who was mooning the audience to one-up Louisiana's Dash Rip Rock in a band competition of sorts (see Big In Texas, issue of Mar. 21-27, 2002).
This year it was "Trevor Middleton," the "CEO and President" of the Punk Rock band the Yuppie Pricks, based in Austin, Texas, the home of South By Southwest (SXSW).
Late on Saturday evening, March 15, Middleton offered $20 to the first person in a band to climb on stage and kiss his bare ass. A young woman immediately made her way up next to him, but had second thoughts until Middleton explained he was offering valuable training for aspiring musicians. The lesson? You have to kiss ass to get ahead in music, so you should start practicing.
(This time, I took a picture of the decisive moment without hesitating.)
The Yuppie Pricks are a reverse-psychology Punk band.
They've turned "Anarchy in the U.K." into "Prosperity in the USA," complete with the opening line "I am the next Bill Gates/I buy and sell real estate." Middleton, dressed in a golf outfit, continuously insulted the slacker crowd, sometimes by tossing single dollar bills (real ones) to them, sometimes by hitting plastic golf balls stuffed with a couple of bucks, but most often by calling the audience whiny, poor losers who need to stop complaining about not having record deals, about Republicans and many other typical twentysomething gripes.
When a dreadlocked man up front called him a "fag," Middleton said, "Oh, that's original." Then Middleton leaned over, gave the guy $3, and told him maybe getting drunk will help him think of a new insult. But the Yuppie Pricks are originals, as are the Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players, KaitO, Pong and Calexico.
Out of more than 1,000 bands at 43 clubs during SXSW 2003, they provided many of the moments that will stick with me from Austin's 17th annual, four-day long barrage of live music.
This year there seemed to be more Austin artists — especially Country, R&B and Folk artists — playing non-SXSW gigs and more mediocre Rock and Punk bands on the official SXSW lineups. Late on Thursday, day two of SXSW, I searched Sixth Street — Austin's main drag for clubs — and poked my ears into several venues in a search for just one band doing something unique, or at least sounding unique. I pretty much came up empty. (To be fair, I can't be everywhere at once, and the other three nights were overstocked with talent.)
There was a Web site devoted to chronicling the non-SXSW shows (www.southbysowhat.org) and at least a few flyers and booklets detailing non-SXSW gigs at bars and restaurants. Many included SXSW performers trying to maximize their time here. And there was the usual assortment of in-store mini-gigs at Tower Records, the local cornerstone Waterloo Records and a few others.
The early-bird price of SXSW wristbands climbed about $10 from 2002 prices to $95 this year, but many wristband buyers were shut out of many venues, which filled to capacity early each evening. Conference badge holders — I was one — always received preferential treatment. My badge got me in for a show with Jungle Brothers, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of The Dead and Mexico's Rap rockers, Molotov, when hundreds of non badge-holders didn't.
Predictably, Austin fire inspectors closely watched club capacities, but few of those kept outside openly complained about the noticeably more strict enforcement this year.
The steadily declining cost of CD burning allowed more musicians to hand out sample CDs instead of merely flyers, and therefore take a more active role in promoting themselves. More than once I found myself sympathizing with large-chested women as musicians looked at my SXSW badge before they looked up and handed me something.
But some of the CD slingers weren't that bright. Two bands gave me two-track CDs hours before their gigs — as if everyone carried CD players in their back pockets.
I couldn't stop thinking of SXSW as a Darwinian struggle for survival and picturing many of the bands as dinosaurs. Straight-out rockers like Hot Hot Heat and Sahara Hotnights — who both played Spin magazine's party — are only forgettable carbon copies of existing artists. But there were upright-walking, arrowhead-crafting Homo Sapiens.
Trachtenburg Family Slide Show Players
The Trachtenburg's Tower Records late afternoon in-store performance officially kicked off my SXSW. Few of the bands that followed in the next four days could match papa Jason Trachtenburg's razor-sharp wit.
The three-member family from New York City performs songs based on slide collections they find at estate sales and thrift stores. Jason writes the songs, his 9-year-old daughter Rachel plays drums, and mother Tina handles the slide show.
"We're a real family band. This is the real thing, folks," Jason said.
Their songs include: "Mountain Trip to Japan, 1959," a vacation trip that steadily gets darker as the tourist stops increasingly focus on various forms of public execution; "Eggs," juxtaposing slides of eggs, both in and out of the carton, with Vietnam-era combat strategy slides.
Their funniest moment was during "Look at Me," a collection of 1950s- and 1960s-era moments from two then-young nurses. Jason links a slide of a man holding a rifle with another slide of the man petting a small deer with the line: "I'm a lone nut with a gun/But I wouldn't hurt anyone!"
Surprisingly, Tower let the Trachtenburg Family play, even though they have no commercially available CDs. Even more surprisingly, Waterloo declined to host them for the same reason, Jason Trachtenburg said. But that didn't make him yearn for a major-label deal.
"No corporation can contain us," he quipped.
U.K.'s KaitO are a four-member, female-led Rock/Pop band formed in 1998. I can't keep from thinking of their sound as a buzz saw lined in red velvet. It looks cute, but plug it in, turn it on and right as you run your hand across the velvet and — ZZZZZIIIINNNNGGG!!! — there go your fingers.
Dave Lake's guitar buzzes, bounces and vibrates in a way I've never heard before, and Niki Colk can sing as sweet as anyone. But her sudden squeals and shrieks are as punk as they come. During the last of their three SXSW gigs, they had the crowd pumping their fists in the air when the songs shifted from sweet and poppy to razor-sharp and raucous.
"These guys are rad!" said a twentysomething guy next to me.
KaitO's bio Web page says it pretty well: "They never lose the sense of tunefulness, beating down the noise-for-noise sake crowd."
If you dropped David Gray in the middle of the Southwest and ordered him to start a completely new band, you might end up with Calexico. Co-founded by Joey Burns and John Covertino (Giant Sand) in 1996, the band can swing, swoon and sway, but they also soar.
Calexico has the complex instrumentation of Dead Can Dance. They have the brass of a mariachi band, the lap steel guitar of a Texas Swing band, and even the guitar of a Surf act, but Calexico never quite plants one foot firmly in any particular genre.
Their songs, as their name suggests, often dwell on difficult questions about the history between the U.S. and Mexico. The band, based in Tucson, Ariz., could cite the desert as their biggest musical influence.
With so many musicians in town, SXSW is full of surprise pairings and special guest appearances, many of which are one-of-a-kind gems. Neko Case, a "good friend" of Calexico's, according to Burns, dropped in for two songs — but the first was a disaster for her. She only remembered a few of the French lyrics and was completely off her mark. She recovered quickly with a Hank Williams cover and, having saved face, exited and let the band return to its stable base.
They're a little bit Disco, they're a little bit New Wave, they're a little bit psychedelic, but they're mostly a lot of fun. This Austin five-piece band of veteran musicians can cut a hell of a groove — without solo-ing it to death.
They dress as if they just got out of bed on Sunday, but their SXSW performance at Stubb's, a large outdoor venue, was a crisp as a freshly-starched shirt. Bassist Larry Strub was impressed that a lot of SXSW bands travel from around the world to get to Austin.
"I'm playing this show during my lunch break," he said.
Guitarist/vocalist Gary Chester has a penchant for Peter Frampton-style voice effects, keyboarder/vocalist Shane Shelton favors a Vocoder and headset mic, and Strub sometimes likes to watch Pong play from the audience — while he's playing in Pong.
During their Stubb's set, Strub stepped off-stage, played a song, then asked for more bass because he couldn't hear it. He got results.
"Now that's some bass!" he said.
I wouldn't call it a movement, but Pong is one of a few current bands to embrace 1980s-sounding synths with an equally retro name. They even have their own show-closing theme song, "Why You Say Pong?" I dare you to pick up their full-length, Killer Lifestyle, and try to sit still.
The Polyphonic Spree
I loved this 24-piece Pop symphony's show last year at Stubb's; it was probably the best of SXSW 2002. However, I have to mention this band from Dallas, Texas. A year of touring in the U.S. and Europe has made them an even more triumphant, tighter musical force.
Tim Delaughter (former Tripping Daisy) assembled this tribe of robed musicians — think Flaming Lips combined with the Fifth Dimension (remember "Age of Aquarius"?) — and expanded into two dozen members. They have a harp, theremin, kettle drum, flute, French horn and God knows what else up there. It should be a disaster of cacophony, but their Austin Music Hall set leveled the crowd, as evidenced by bathroom comments like "I've never heard anything like that before!"
Until last year, neither had I. But I'm damn well sure going to try to hear it again.
For more SXSW show profiles and photos, go to CityBeat's South By Southwest Bonus Coverage. Check next week for Doug's take on the locals at SXSW.