Featured Music: Wednesday, March 22, 2006
The heavily mustachioed menfolk of The Theatre Fire set the roof aflame in Austin during SXSW.
Heart of Darkness

Like sex and college, SXSW is really what you make of it.

By Hearsay

Late Saturday night in Austin, as my 900th trip to the SXSW music festival was winding to a smoky, blurry end and Fort Worth’s southern gothics Bosque Brown were slouching toward history, I stood back and thought, “You know. South-by actually wasn’t that bad this year.”

My oddly good mood definitely had something to do with the cases of beer I’d drunk but also with what was going down at the moment. While watching dozens of non-Fort Worthians groove along to homegirl, I finally realized: A.) Contrary to some claims I’ve made in the past, SXSW doesn’t have a bias against us, and B.) even if they did, who cares — there’s a lot of cool music in Cowtown. All we need to legitimize us is the music itself.

I guess, like college or sex, SXSW is what you make of it. Before I began the three-hour drive down on Friday afternoon, I determined to enjoy myself, mainly to test the theory that happiness is a choice! :)

The stars weren’t totally aligned in my favor. I had a major sinus infection. I was strapped even more than normal for cash — two days before departure, I had dropped a couple of hundred bucks on getting the ol’ pickup in shape for the run. (Two new front tires, new valve cover gasket, new “cover rocker” gasket.) And my first three hours in Austin were spent waiting for a damn cab in the hotel lobby on a couch that evidently is home to a very angry spider, which I didn’t realize until I got downtown and noticed that my right hand was on fire.

In the lobby, I also ran into a couple of nice guys, one of whom worked on The Refugee All Stars, a documentary about West Africans who’ve transcended their disastrous, deadly circumstances by making music. The doc had screened the previous week during SXSW’s film festival and was a runner-up for an audience award. The musicians had been invited to participate in SXSW’s music event, and all of them were staying at my hotel.

Heartwarming, right? Sure, until you realize the depths of horror these folks have been through. The guy told me that, in addition to torture (some of the musicians were missing limbs), the rebels had forced one of the All Stars to kill his own infant child. The story made me wanna puke right then but really disgusted me the following day. As I was waiting outside the hotel for a ride, I noticed an African woman carrying what I thought was a small, pretty baby. In actuality, it was a doll — plastic eyes, plastic teeth, the whole deal. I wondered if the woman was the mother of the daughter who was killed by her father and if the doll was some sort of reminder, an emotional compass of sorts. I felt guilty for breathing.

Around 8:30 p.m., as soon as the cabbie had deposited some fare-splitters and me into the heart of Sixth Street, I thought, “OK. Now that all that bad juju’s behind me, it’s time for some fun stuff to start a-happenin’!” Ah, the best laid plans of mice and men ... .

I didn’t have much to cover: Only two North Texas-based bands were slated to perform, experimental wackos Best FWends at some joint called Latitude 30 at 10 p.m. and long-time indie-rockers Centro-matic at Maggie Mae’s at 1 in the morning. I planned on hanging tight at some relatively quiet (read: music-free) and relatively empty bar, down a few brews, burning a few squares, then cruising over to Latitude 30 to catch Best FWends, down a few brews, burn a few squares, then cap the evening at Maggie Mae’s.

Here’s what actually happened: I started out at Maggie Mae’s and ended up throwing in the towel there around 11-ish, way before Centro even went on. See, the great city of Austin recently instituted a no-smoking policy. The only cig-friendly places were the ones with patios, like Maggie Mae’s, and there weren’t many. Unlike just about every other club in town, Maggie Mae’s was also the only joint that didn’t have a huge line to get in, which struck me as weird, considering the club was hosting a showcase by super hip Misra Records. The line to get into Latitude 30 stretched for nearly an entire block. Since I was in no mood to wait in any sort of line, and I knew I had to, um, keep self-medicating, I planted myself at Maggie Mae’s and hoped for the best.

Of the five or six Misra bands I ended up seeing, most of them were just OK, nothing really any better or worse than what you’d find in Fort Worth every week. A possible exception was The Evangelicals, an Oklahoma trio that seriously, ominously rocked but got a little carried away toward the end by shtick. Covering one another and front row fans in Silly String may be fun for y’all, boys, but for us adults, it’s a little Captain-Kangaroo.

Keep in mind that all the while, I tried to stay upbeat. After a lot of noise, beer, and smokes, I was in a cab and on the way back to my hotel before I knew it.

Saturday proved to be the day on which all of my positive vibes added up to something good. At noon, I went to a private party that featured indie darlings Augustana and that should have been packed but was nearly empty. Not having to wait in line for either drinks or complimentary tacos? Cool beans. As the opening bands did their respective things, Blood Sport played on a loop on the two plasma tv’s hanging from both sides of the stage. Kick ass.

Afterward, around 4:30 p.m., I headed back to Maggie Mae’s to smoke up. Once inside, I discovered I’d stumbled into another private party. More free food? Heck, yes. I have no idea who played, but I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my belly.

At 7 on Sixth, rock ’n’ rollers Goodwin played a non-sanctioned showcase in support of the Austin Indie Alliance, a teensy-weensy advocacy group and even teensier alternative to SXSW. The 2005 Fort Worth Weekly Music Awards winners for best rock sounded great, as usual, but as if Cowtown doesn’t get crapped on enough, the band went on before an instrumental surf group whose graying frontman/lead guitarist had the body of a 12-year-old boy and the head of Mr. Magoo. Way to go, AIA.

An AIA dude’s explanation for Goodwin’s lousy go-time sounded conspiracy theory-ish, but I still bought it: Austin’s alt-weekly, The Austin Chronicle, owns SXSW and essentially exerts a monopoly over free media near Sixth Street. Sponsors of non-sanctioned showcases are left with no way to promote their shows. Fliers? Sixth Street is literally covered in paper. No one’s gonna stop to read anything that doesn’t say “free beer,” dig?

At 10, The Theater Fire was in action at Latitude 30, the club that the day before had overflowed with Best FWends fans. I cruised right in. Not to say there weren’t a few dozen folks there — there were, and they all apparently dug what The Theater Fire laid down, a noir country groove that fluctuated between dancehall swing and the dank, devilish cloud that forms in Lawrence Welk’s mind as he fantasizes about dunking Johnny Neill’s head in the bubble machine.

Soon as the band wrapped up, I skedaddled a couple of blocks over to Bosque Brown’s gig. I don’t care what you think of the band or its frontwoman and sole songwriter, Mara Lee Miller, girlfriend gets an A in my book for being forced to unfold her delicate, backwoods billets-doux to darkness while sandwiched between booty-shaking rap and obnoxious punk, two mountainous distractions that bled into her space from behind neighboring club walls. She should petition South-by and the club, Zero Degrees, for a friggin Silver Star.

Miller’s voice kind of sounds like stray-cat sex, but her songs are finely wrought, the haunting mood she creates is undeniable, and publicity photos do not do her good looks justice. While her music harks to high-lonesome back-porch jamborees, most of her arrangements and themes form a timeless, hard-to-categorize, distinctly American sound.

Taking in her set, I thought about my first few visits to South-by, lo, these 12 years ago. At the time, the big deal was big-band rip-offs, pompadoured cats in zoot suits, with huge brass sections and slappin’ stand-up bass guitars. What a joke, right? It made me think about SXSW’s real mission: While it may not be to screw over Fort Worth/Tarrant County-based bands, I bet dollars to donuts it does involve turning a huge profit.

Go, daddy, go. (No, seriously. Go.)

While I Was Sleeping ...

Actually, the headline should read “While I was living off Nyquil, Claritin-D, Benadryl, Airbourne, and vitamin C back here in the Fort.” Anyway, while I was unable to be in Austin on Wednesday, the first day of the festival, one of our intrepid music writers was.

Weekly scribe Caroline Collier managed to catch showcase performances by a few North Texas acts, including Collin Herring and Midlake. Alt-country singer-songwriter Herring was in town on behalf of Paste magazine, a really cool advocate of mature music. (Nothing bright and flashy, and everybody who works there must wear brown clothing.) Herring’s show, Collier writes, was “outstanding.” The wiry young buck played “several songs from his upcoming album, dealing with some self-sabotage issues. ... The show was heartfelt and couldn’t have gone any better. The crowd was digging it.”

Midlake, “one of the Flaming Lips’ ‘Top-8’ MySpace friends, an honor no one would take for granted,” played the Fox & Hound on a bill with the aforementioned hipster gods. Midlake’s tuneage, she writes, “didn’t sweep me away, but I think they’re one of those bands you have to become familiar with before you can really appreciate their music. Kinda subtle.”

As for a showcase gig by Fort Worth’s Chatterton, Collier didn’t make the scene, but a reputable source did: Jordan Richardson, drummer for L.A.-based Oliver Future and native Fort Worthian. He assured Collier that Chatterton, indeed, “rocked the house.”

Collier’s entire blog is available at www.myspace.com/carolinecollier.

Contact HearSay at hearsay@fwweekly.com.

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