Twilight on Brazos Street in Austin, Tex. A stylish A&R executive flicks on a walkie-talkie to discuss what to do with her country-star client after he finishes this outdoor concert. ”No,” she yells, using the singer’s self- assigned code name, ”I think Satan should stay in the building!”
Elvis is indeed dead. But here at the eighth annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (sponsored in part by Entertainment Weekly), the trappings of what rock has become drip from every cigarette, cellular phone, and Celis beer. For five days beginning March 16, 4,200 record execs, musicians, writers, and fans usurped the dusty streets of this perennial next- Seattle, ostensibly to sit in on industry panels with titles like ”Corruption: A Tradition,” and to evaluate the more than 500 up-and-coming bands playing at showcases that last far into the night. What they really came for was to discover what’s hip, and the overwhelming scope of this year’s SXSW-thankfully tempered by Austin’s laid-back spirit-provided plenty of that. A sampling of the high- and lowlights:
Best Performance: Hands down, the unbilled half-acoustic, half-electric set by Johnny Cash. Five new unplugged numbers balanced humor and portentousness, and a rockabilly backup band transformed the elder statesman into a whooping cowpunk, playing the jaded-yet-rapt crowd like a revivalist preacher.
Winner of the Punk Cliche Award: Beck. After spending much of his sloppy, engaging set kneeling before a monitor-madly twisting dials to produce ear- splitting feedback-the L.A. Xer sensation spazzed out and destroyed the drum set on his next-to-last number, which meant he had to perform an abridged version of his hit single ”Loser” to the backing track from another song.
Most Inspired Encore Chant: ”Loser! Loser! Loser!” at the Beck show.
Worst Headliners: Babe the Blue Ox, whose dissonant avant-rock reduced ”cutting-edge” to an annoying, pretentious, chain saw whine.
Coolest Homegrown Performance: Well-loved Austinite Lou Ann Barton’s late- night set added a fiery touch of soulful blues to the feedback-heavy festival.
Soon-to-Be MTV Darlings: Lucy’s Fur Coat, which proved its marketability with a proto-Pearl Jam show.
Unsigned Bands Most Likely to Be Signed: Tie between Austin alternative blues band the Ugly Americans and Seattle’s country-rockin’ Picketts.
Gig Most Like a Telethon: Jimmie Dale Gilmore’s bash, which featured appearances by Michelle Shocked, Joe Ely, Rodney Crowell, Mudhoney, and others.
Most Poignant Symbol: Former Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap, who crashed in the Hyatt Regency parking lot because he couldn’t get a room, complained about not getting into overcrowded clubs, performed two songs about not being a headliner, and ended one set with a tune called ”No More (Rock-and-Roll).”
Most Ubiquitous Celeb: Butthole Surfers frontman Gibby Haynes.
Longest Line: Morphine/Spinanes (tie).
Most Entertaining Panel: ”Junkie in the Band.”
Lamest Panel: ”Bad Girls on Top,” which turned into a smug, preaching-to-the- converted gloss on feminism.
Sign of the Times: America Online bulletin board devoted to the event drew heavy usage from go-with-the-herd A&R execs trying to discover what everyone else thought.
Best Overheard Comment: ”I’m a drummer, man. But I suck. That’s why I’m watching.”
Fashion Statements Ready for Retirement: Men-baggy shorts, goatees. Women- combat boots, vests.
Silliest Rumor: That Farrah Fawcett was turned away from the Beck show.
Weirdest Name-Dropping: ”See that guy? He’s the brains behind Tiffany.”
Best Unintentional Credo: From loopy Giant Sand frontman Howe Gelb, who announced before one of the last songs of the festival, ”If anyone hasn’t played yet, just plug into anything at anytime.”