Escaping corporate rock — and the panel discussions — at SxSW
There are at least two ways to approach the South by Southwest festival in Austin. You can attend panel discussions about the future of digital downloads and the best methods for selling songs to movies and commercials. Or you can witness a death metal band that performs nothing but educational songs about obscure science fiction authors.
That would be the Seattle group Blöödhag, for my money the week’s best reminder of why indie rock is still necessary. Introduced at SxSW by Jello Biafra — whose spoken-word set was the usual mix of cheap shots (he’s still mad at Tipper Gore) and a few nuggets of real insight — Blöödhag proved to be something else again. They wear respectable white shirts and ties (the hulking lead singer looks a bit like the Willard Grant Conspiracy’s Robert Fisher) and run their set like a very hip classroom: “Okay, our next author is James Bish. He had the world’s coolest day job, which is of course collecting urine samples from racehorses.” Then they’d play a 45-second song about Bish, cookie-monster vocals and all, and move on to the next author. The brilliance of the concept was reinforced by their t-shirt slogan (“The sooner you go deaf, the more time you have to read”) and by their habit of throwing books into the crowd — something nobody’s done well since Stryper. And it prompted one burning question: if writing about music is like dancing about architecture, then what do you call music about writing?
If this year’s SxSW was about anything, it was the disconnect between the music industry and the pockets of creativity that are still out there. As Rounder staff producer Scott Billington (who recently won a Grammy for his production of Irma Thomas) told me, “I’ve seen more good music this South by Southwest than I have in years, but it’s becoming more difficult to figure out how to do business with it.” Ironically, Billington made this statement just as Texas soul/blueswoman Barbara Lynn was about to begin a set. The writer and performer of the ’60s hit “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” (covered by the Rolling Stones and many others), Lynn played as part of the Ponderosa Stomp, a record collector’s dream show that New Orleans resident Ira “Dr. Ike” Padnos throws annually in his home city and lately in Austin as well. Along with Lynn, last week’s event featured the likes of Texas soul hero Bobby Patterson (“How do you spell love? M-O-N-E-Y!”) Crescent City funkateer Willie Tee, and rockabilly original Ray Sharpe — in short, the very kind of artists that Rounder used to sign before it went after the adult-contemporary and kiddie-pop markets.
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