It might be shocking to realize that an event bringing in over 800 bands from around the world, 150 films, a barrage of industry bigwigs and many surprise artists would be considered a rip-off by so many Austin residents. Commonly referred to by locals as "South by Southwaste," the annual conference brings in enthusiasts from everywhere to spend a week in Texas' most creative city, yet many of the town's residents spend the whole time trying to avoid the traffic jam downtown.

The lead singer of The Spades - one of Eindhoven, Netherlands' punk-metal favorites that played at Beerland on the first night of the music showcases - even had a few words about it. Right before he poured a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon over his head and hocked a gnarly loogie into the crowd, he snarled quite viciously "What a stupid festival."

As eloquent as his delivery was, this troubadour might have missed the mark on what exactly South by Southwest is - as do many Austinites who dismiss the event. Hardly a festival in the traditional sense of the word, this annual gathering is actually quite different from anything of the kind. It's similar to New York's CMJ Music Marathon, except Austin's version also includes a weeklong independent film festival. The entire conference spanned from March 7th to March 15th, although there was a lot of "unofficial spillover" into Sunday, March 16th as far as music was concerned.

So why don't the locals like it? Because it's really catered more towards industry people than music fans, in all honesty.

Those who are privy to a "badge" for the event get to see all sorts of interesting panels, trade shows and press conferences, along with all the great music and films, not to mention more free crap than you can shake a stick at. But the poor sap who pays $115 for a music wristband thinking he's going to see twenty great bands often feels a lot like someone who ate at The Golden Corral Buffet during the 6-8 spot: angry and frustrated because they ended up just waiting in a long line to take in a lot of little things that don't really go together when they wanted a quick, easy, filling meal. In the end he's left wondering if he really got his money's worth.

If you're hardcore you can do a lot with a wristband, but it's really more like guerilla warfare than a "festival." The music is scattered in clubs all over town, so your wristband doesn't allow you to walk freely from place to place. You're still subject to ID checks, fire hazards when clubs get too crowded, unfathomably long lines and jacked-up drink prices in one of little ole' Austin's busiest bar weekends.

I personally had a blast, but I saw lots of "wristband holders" waiting in lines while "platinum badge holders" filled the clubs ahead of them. Nevertheless, patience and a sense of humor will get you everywhere these days, and if you know what you're getting into it's truly a week like no other.

The music officially started on March 12th, but the film festival had the streets crowded well before that. As a result, local bands not affiliated with SxSW got to play to some new ears earlier in the week.

One such act played at the Flamingo Cantina on March 12th as the promising Austin quartet, Mikado. The band combines a roots/rock/reggae approach with a psychedelic angle, performing ambitiously crafted originals amidst assorted covers. Mikado pleased the crowd with tight versions of the Talking Head's "Heaven" and Bob Dylan's "Man in Me" but also challenged them with original tunes like their original dub exploration called "Igloo" featuring an impressive solo by drummer Shadd Scott.

The first official night of music started without much planning on my part. When there's not someone I know of performing, I try to check out bands from other countries or different genres of music. The "loogie and beer" set I mentioned earlier by The Spades started things off for me, and moments like that always give me a new perspective on musical taste and what all is out there. And that is good.

As the night wandered on, I eventually made my way over to Stubb's to see Particle. Unfortunately, the earlier set the B-52's were supposed to play was canceled, but Particle fans got a treat out of the deal since the band was the only act of the week to get two full sets at this great venue. They stepped up to the plate, and delivered a high-octane dance party, driven largely by keyboardist Steve Molitz's mesmerizing chops and overflowing energy.

Particle's impressive light rig translates well to Stubb's, and the Molitz was quick to express his happiness to be back in Austin. They opened the show with an appropriately placed version of "Launchpad," and proceed to cover Lynrd Skynyrd and Pink Floyd later in the show. Guitarist Charlie Hitchcock's playing compliments Particle's sound best when he keeps it simple, such as the hypnotic riff in "The Elevator," which closed the first set.

Thursday night was when we hit our first snafu. After getting skunked at the Red Eyed Fly because they were not letting anyone else in to see New Orleans-based Supagroup, we wandered down to the Mercury to try to catch the end of Topaz's set. Instead we waited in line for almost an hour, hoping we'd get in before midnight to see Soulive. They finally let in a huge rush of people all at once, but only after many in line stepped away to go sell their wristbands in the street.

Once we got inside, Soulive didn't disappoint. The funky groove trio closed out the Mercury's showcase with a long set in support of their new album, Live. Driven by organist Neal Evans - who handles harmony and bass on the keys - Soulive's set was long and strong, featuring lots of material from the live release. Alan Evans pounded the skins throughout the night, and a guest saxophone player joined the band to close things out. Soulive also played a looser set at The Vibe the next afternoon, taking requests from the lively crowd as part of JamBase's daytime party along with Psychedelic Breakfast, Tea Leaf Green and Maktub.

Friday afternoon, we decided to take a break from live music and check out one of the films at The Paramount Theater. Although we missed "This is Spinal Tap" director Christopher Guest's newest music mockumentary, "A Mighty Wind," we were lucky enough to see a screening of Woody Harrelson's captivating project, "Go Further," which premiered at SxSW directed by Ron Mann. The film covers Harrelson and Co.'s road trip down the west coast in a bus that runs entirely on hempseed oil, and their efforts to spread the good word about organic living, industrial hemp, sustainable development alternative energy and simple adaptability.

It's a diverse group aboard "The Mothership," but the film focuses largely on Steve Clark, the token jester who illustrates that you don't have to be a hippie to benefit from sensible lifestyle changes. And you don't have to give up all of your guilty vices, either. In addition to being engaging, thought provoking and hilarious, the film also features scattered acoustic performances by Bob Weir, Natalie Merchant, String Cheese Incident, Anthony Kiedis, Dave Matthews and tons of other great music. My favorite moment shows Medeski Martin & Wood laying down a swampy Motown groove, plugged into a generator powered by four people on stationary bicycles alongside the band. If this film makes it to your town, you'd be a fool to miss it.

Later that night we ended up at the Elysium to check out a band from Santa Cruz, California called Estradasphere, who played at SxSW as part of a mini-tour through Texas supporting their most recent album, It's Understood. This insanely talented band has come up with a sound that blends, twists and defies any sort of classification the music industry would like to pin on music.

Like a schizophrenic whirlwind, these guys will move from classically-composed thrash-rock, to a pop cover from the '80s, to Middle Eastern trancejam, to throwback jazz grooves. Saxophonist John Whooley proved to be quite the showman as he was seen jumping into the crowd, stripping down into a one-piece leotard and even picking up Tim Smolens' bass so that the low man could take a spin on lead vocals for a song. Guitarist Jason Schimmel ripped throughout the set, all the way to the closing number that started with the line from The Offspring's "Keep it Separated" but morphed into a high-speed Russian Klezmer jam instead of the lyrics. This innovative band is definitely worth checking out.

We decided to forgo Willie Nelson's midnight show after seeing the long lines at Soulive the night before. Instead, we stumbled into The Mercury's "Japan Nigh" for quite an unusual treat, Papaya Paranoia, a trio from Tokyo. I don't know much about this band and most of their lyrics were in Japanese, but these girls put on a great electro-dominated show and treated the predominantly American audience to an raging original tune called "I Like Sushi" to close the set.

On the last official night of SxSW we started at Austin Music Hall to check out Keller Williams, and got there early enough to catch some of local favorite Bob Schneider's set. Having not seen Williams' solo act since 1998, I was absolutely blown away by his performance, and definitely consider it one of the week's highlights. His "traditional" guitar work and songwriting is very impressive, but his technique of looping and layering acoustic/electric guitars, bass, percussion and vocal effects is nothing short of astonishing.

Keller Williams is a master and pioneer of his craft, and what he does as a single musician shows an amazing amount of devotion to the art. He carries himself onstage with grace, and his genuine appreciation for the fans that come to see him comes out through his performance. Amidst the course of his set, he treated the Texas crowd to a tease of "Deep Ellum Blues" with modified Austin lyrics, and closed the set with "Freaker by the Speaker." I raise my glass to this truly unique and talented musician, and I urge anyone who has never seen his solo act to check it out at your next opportunity.

Aside from the long lines, the only bad thing there really is about SxSW is that it's impossible to see everything. With over 800 bands spread across town, tough decisions must be made. While watching William's set, we missed the Drive-By Truckers at Cedar Street , and both OM Trio and Hobex during JamBase's showcase at The Vibe. We arrived just in time to watch Tea Leaf Green ripping through the tail end of its set, with guitarist Josh Clark working the crowded porch into a frenzy during the band's final number. This marked the second of three appearances that this great California band would make at The Vibe over the course of the weekend.

Next on the stage was the Dallas-based quartet, Olospo. The band stuck mostly to its repertoire of quirky originals, including an energetic version of "Beans and Franks." But they also dipped into a supply of Brit-rock covers, along the lines of The Beatles' "She Said She Said," and the opening instrumental section of Led Zeppelin's "The Song Remains the Same." The band kept a steady dialogue with the crowd, which was offering rounds of shots to the four musicians throughout the set. About 45 minutes after the club's normal closing time, guitarist Chris Holt led the band through The Rolling Stones' "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'" to end the night.

The next day, after SxSW had officially ended, The Vibe hosted a heady crowd in Austin to one more day of music. Billed as a benefit for Austin SoundBoard (www.austinsoundboard.org), the event offered several traveling acts from throughout the week as well as a handful of local acts, including Dimorphodon (New Orleans), The Harmony Theory (Austin), Heart of Gold Band (Austin), Tea Leaf Green (San Francisco) and Groovin Ground(Austin).

The week ran as smoothly as could be expected, and there was always something good to see as long as you kept an open mind. For locals weary of attending the event next year, I'd offer two suggestions. First of all, don't buy a wristband in advance unless they are much more reasonably priced in the future. You can get into many of the shows for a small cover charge early in the night, and if you stay in one place you'll get more than your money's worth. You can also get into most of the films without a band for a very small price.

Secondly, if you have the means, I'd recommend taking a bicycle downtown instead of a car. Parking throughout the weekend is a debacle, and the people on bikes seemed to be able to cover ground between the clubs most easily since 6th Street gets blocked off at night. Groups of fans that rolled up in convoys of bikes looked like they were having a pretty good time, (I was jealous as I fought for a cab).

If it's a "lawn chair and cooler" experience you're looking for, hold off for the Austin City Limits Festival in September. However, if you're up to check out a lot of great bands in a downtown Austin club setting, or have any interest in getting involved in music or film, South by Southwest is a great time and an excellent opportunity to meet people in the biz.

I'll see you there next year.

Words by: Travis Langdon
Images by: Marcy Molitor
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[Published on: 3/31/03]

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