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SXSW 2013 As I Saw It by Brad Houser

brad-houser-biopic-1Empty streets. Light traffic. Strange. Something was afoot this year in Austin for South By Southwest 2013, it seemed. The music part of the event ran March 13-17. Usually bands and musicians start pouring into town on Monday, the music showcases start on Wednesday. This year, starting on Monday I noticed that traffic all over town was a lot lighter than normal. Curious. SXSW is known as a clusterf*+k, with huge crowds, legendary gridlock downtown, and traffic snarls everywhere. What happened this year? I think that Austin rebelled. Residents here have a definite love / hate relationship with the fest, or for many, just a sense of bored resignation. A lot of folks have discovered the trick of renting rooms in their houses out to visitors that week. Or, their whole house. Thanks to the internet it’s easier than ever, and I’m pretty sure this year was a watershed. At times it was like an episode of “The Twilight Zone” around town. It’s jarring to see that little traffic on the streets here in our Most Crowded Town. In the weeks leading up to SXSW, a common sentiment heard from Austinites is: “SXSW? I’m GTF out of town for that”. Downtown, the epicenter of the event, had some crowds and gridlock, but the rest of the city………..**((crickets))**.

Another sea change was that this year, wristband sales for SXSW Interactive (internet/tech) outpaced those for SWSW Music. (!!!!!!! )

Austin is one of the fastest growing cities in the country. It has been estimated that 150 people PER DAY are moving here. We’re crowded. Public transit lags far behind, and we are as car-dependent as ever, although the city has been installing more bike lanes lately.

Our summers are punishingly hot, and we are in a three-year drought. Water supplies are dangerously low, and the city just keeps expanding. And expanding. If you are thinking of moving here…….. I’ll reiterate what I saw 9 years ago on my favorite SXSW poster: (blocks of bright yellow flyers all over town, with big black print) that read: “THANKS FOR COMING. DON’T MOVE HERE. SEE YOU NEXT YEAR”. Austin’s musician/ general public ratio continues to be high. There are a million bands and musicians here, and while it’s not too hard to get gigs, it’s challenging to get an audience to show up. World-class musicians playing to rooms filled with ten of their friends are quite the norm here. Just trying to help dispel the myth that we have a Musical Shangri-La here.   :@)

Once again, some of the most happening music existed outside the fest. SXSanJose is a big outdoor event in the parking lot of the Hotel San Jose. This year, for me, again a musical epicenter. Last year, a chance encounter there with Meshell Ndegeocello (she sat in on MY bass!!!!!) was my personal high point. This year, as I was setting up for a gig down the street, I got a call from David (dah-veed) Garza, saying “there was a cancellation on the main stage at 4, can you make it”? I’m like, “my set here ends at 3:45, I’ll haul ass on over”. I get there, and the band turns out to be Charlie Sexton, BRADY BLADE on drums, me on bass, and David on guitar. We proceed to groove-the-f*ck-out for 45 minutes of sheer bliss. Brady’s pocket is miles deep. At one point Garza leads us through “Golden Years” by Bowie. David Garza, in addition to being a frighteningly prolific songwriter, is the King of Covers. Dude knows a million songs. He’s also an accomplished guitarist/ keyboardist and a fearless improviser. We have had many epic gigs together.

The Austin tradition of peripheral non- SXSW shows continued in full effect. Lots of shows in parking lots. “Let’s have a show!” ‘We need a stage’ “Home Depot’s open” ‘Badass!, let’s go’!  One repeat feature from last year is the bright green Spotify house on the east side. What’s usually a gray house containing an espresso joint, this year and last morphed into the Spotify house, home of many day parties. Bright Green. They spent a small fortune in paint. Now, if they would just raise that royalty rate…………….

In light of that last statement I offer this, from Richard Whittaker’s SXSW wrap-up article in the March 29 issue of ‘The Austin Chronicle’:

“There were four points of consensus [among conference attendees]. Firstly, that the major media corporations have been caught flat-footed by the digital era and are still playing catch-up. Two, their often scandalous business practices have never been more flagrant or transparent. Three, there are more tools than ever available to the creative class to control their own financial destiny. Four, they’d better do it soon: As corporations pull in their tendrils and the social safety net collapses, artists have rarely been in more peril”.

Yikes .The music business has changed for good. Spotify doesn’t pay squat, and the others are hardly any better. People now have access to recorded music essentially for free, with the added bonus of not having to clutter their lives and spaces with CDs. Or their hard drives. One ray of light is that people at shows these days are often more appreciative of the music than in the past, and more vocal about their desire to support bands by buying merch, as opposed to downloads. Still, the shark has been jumped. Good-bye royalty checks………    The advice I’ve heard most often given to artists signing to labels these days is: ‘get as big an advance as you possibly can, because it’ll be the last time you get any money from them’.

It’s become clear that artist-direct-to-audience is the new regime. And it’s not exactly new, either. Wandering musicians/bards/troubadours living on the good graces of those they entertain/teach/inform have been with us since the dawn of humanity. So, the old is new again, and it has a smartphone. And Twitter. The problem is, gas keeps getting more expensive. Perhaps some of us will eventually tour on bicycles, using instruments and backline procured through local promoters. Personally, I would like a device that would shrink all my gear down to matchbox size, suck out all the weight, and then make it big again when I get to the gig. I’ll call the guys at CERN over in Switzerland and have them bust a move on that one.

Last year, thru the wonderful Rachel Miller at Big Picture Media, I interviewed some ‘up and coming bands’. This year we met once again for a much briefer time (I had an hour between gigs). I was able to spend a few moments with LA band “The Material”. At the time I had not clue one as to their sound.  Later perusal of their CD ‘Everything I Want to Say’ reveals a damn good rock band. Strong, strong vocals from Colleen D’Agostino, brilliant guitar from Jonathan Moreaux and Roi Elam, slamming drums from Kevin Pintado, and ‘hot and deep’ (his own description) bass from Jordan Meckley. Jordan, who is actually from LA, tells me that Blink-182 got him inspired at first, then later Flea and Sting. Cool, people don’t often mention Sting’s bass playing. His preferred bass rig is Stingray-Sennheiser wireless-SVT, with a little overdrive. On the CD he plays two different P basses and a ’74 Gibson Grabber. First-rate performances all around. Their self-released and produced CD has fat, analog, major-label sound quality. Examination of their website reveals that these folks are independent and unsigned.

While waiting to do my “official” interview I heard a great band called “Great Peacock” as they were wrapping up their noon (!) set. Great roots/Americana sound. Bassist Ben Cunningham was getting his dull and thuddy on rather handsomely with a Fender Mustang strung with D’Addario flats. This band has a great groove, reminiscent of Levon Helm/ The Band. Now based in Nashville, Ben originally hails from Philly. Side note: these two interviews took place at a bar called “The Chugging Monkey”, my vote for ‘dumbest bar name ever’. This bar sits on 6th street, which used to be THE place for live music in Austin. 20 years ago. Now, 6th street has turned into Austin’s own version of Bourbon St., where the order of the day is to get as loaded as possible on neon green drinks at Club Dumbass. I did enjoy the irony of having deep conversations about music and bass in such a location, however.

In short, real music continues to stubbornly thrive, whilst learning to live on Top Ramen.

Best Regards- BH

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