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SXSW: FOOD & MUSIC 1999
On the road again to Austin
Note: This long and self-indulgent piece is a journal of an annual road trip I make with my best friend Leland Rucker, to the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference, a music-industry confab in Austin, Texas.
The conference was first held in 1987, and I've attended all but one year. Leland has missed two. We've driven to SXSW most of the years, sometimes with friends David Menconi and Steve Knopper. Once our partners joined us down there, though they drove separately. Once, my wife Kathi rode with us.
We usually take I-70 straight east to Kansas and take I-35 straight south to Austin, and spend the night outside of Norman, OK on the way down and near Wichita KS on the way back. It's not the most direct route by any means, but it's one that allows us to put on the cruise control and talk and argue and listen to lots and lost of music along the way. It's a road trip I've looked forward to and come to cherish over the years, and it's one that has developed its own rituals... the journey itself has become the goal, not the conference.
I'm not sure I'll be returning to SXSW -- I'm not very involved in the music industry anymore, so I wanted to write out some of my feelings about the pilgrimage. I'll be adding a separate page with some of the highlights of SXSW over the years.
Much thanks to John Morthland, who read the journal and caught the dumb factual errors.
Tuesday, March 16
It's all about the food, this Austin trip to the South By Southwest Music & Media Conference.
Leland and I have all these rituals that have developed over the years, like bringing ten times too many CDs and tapes to listen to (I bought a 3 CD-changer boombox a few years ago, and we put the damn thing in the backseat of Leland's boat of a Pontiac Parisienne and blast music the whole way, using the remote control over my shoulder to adjust the volume...), so of course, the music in Austin is important.
But our annual pilrimage to the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference is a framework for other rituals. The trek is really about food. And more specifically, food-related rituals.
For instance, we drove into our regular lunch spot, The Deep Rock Cafe, a diner in Colby Kansas (three hours east of Denver on I-70) about 11:30 this morning and sat at our "usual" table, the second one in from the front door, along the window looking out over the parking lot. That's "usual" in that we've managed to sit there for most of the ten or so years we've stopped at the Deep Rock....
The waitress, Grace, who has served us many times before (she's worked there 22 years), comes up and says, "Hi guys, I was just thinking about you the other week. Is it that time of the year already? Will it be the usual?"
The usual, of course, is we each order the Chicken Fried Steak plate, a greasy, ground round steak flattened, coated with flour and spices and pan-fried until much of the coating is crispy and blackened. The thing is served with a glop of mashed potatoes (fake or real, doesn't much matter) and a slice of texas toast buttered with a packet of honey on the side, and a side bowl of lumpy white gravy. It's sheer heaven and though there are classier (and some larger) Chicken Fried Steaks we'll be eating this week in Texas, Deep Rock is our favorite in the world.
Where else can you go once a year (OK, twice -- we stop there for lunch on the way to Texas and also on the way back the next week) and have people remember you? The current owner asked us as we were leaving if we got the usual, and said she'd see us on our return trip. We also talked with Grace about Arnelle, the former owner, who now runs a fishing resort in Oklahoma with her husband (she pointed to a large stuffed and mounted fish on the wall, which she said Arnelle dropped by when she was visiting during Christmas). Grace said she'd pass along our greetings to Arnelle next time she saw her.
The rest of the drive today was uneventful -- we're in a Days Inn in Norman, Oklahoma, and plan on having lunch tomorrow in Dallas with a writer that Leland works with for his "Blues Access" magazine, before we head into Austin and register for the conference about 4 pm. For the record, we had dinner at an Outback Steakhouse across the highway from our motel, but ate "light" (no big steaks, honest) because we know we'll eat more meat in the next few days than is healthy for even a jungle lion....
This is why we've come to love driving to South by Southwest every March.
It's about the food.
Wednesday, March 17
OK, so it's not ALL about food. But there's a lot of food stuff in a day on the road....
Today we hit the road after I worked for a couple of hours from the motel room, and had breakfast at a "Waffle House" -- cheap eats, a sandwich of eggs, bacon and cheese on toast. My favorite Waffle House story is when my wife Kathi and I had breakfast at one outside Nashville, TN on the way west to Memphis to visit Graceland. Kathi looked over the menu, and asked the waitress if they served Franch Toast. "Honey, this is the WAFFLE House -- we don't have French Toast." So we had waffles.
The drive to Dallas from Norman OK takes about three hours, and it was easy schmeasy, with traffic getting bad only around Dallas. (I used to think Texans were very polite drivers but now they all seem to be jerks infected with road rage.)
We met two writers that Leland works with for Blues Access magazine, at a BBQ joint in a north suburban area of town. We made such good time on the highway that we got there early, so we spent half an hour driving off a few miles away to explore the area around Southern Methodist University, a grand old religious school. Nice pretty campus area surrounded by quiet little well-kept homes. We drove nearby to the requisite college-area shopping district, and parked the car and walked around. We were disappointed to find that instead of the hip shops most schools attract (like record stores and head shops), SMU's shopping district was mostly upscale fashion and artsy-craftsy places, and a lot of very religious shops. I guess that shouldn't have surprised us.... At one restaurant, one diner was intently bent ovber his lunch at an outdoor table, praying before eating. There was, however, one fabulous-smelling hamburger joint, obviously a holdeover from the '50s, which exuded a wonderful greasy scent that hung over one end of the block.
The BBQ was terrific -- the place is called Red, White and Blues, and has a blues motif. It's a chain started by the former Republican Party chairman Lee Atwater, a blues aficionado who died of cancer in the mid-'80s. The food was great; I had a pulled pork sandwich that oozed a wonderful smokey flavor with every bite.
From Dallas, it's about three hours to Austin. Leland and I listened to tapes of ourselves singing and playing guitars over the years (it's sorta cool that we have recorded material from our entire 15-year friendship, and to hear that we've actually improved!) and also blasting CDs as diverse as Gomez, a hip young British band, to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's "Four Way Street," a live album I used to listen to all the time in college, played at ear-splitting volumes.
We got to Austin in time to check in at our hotel, register at the convention center for the conference, and head on out to dinner at a grand old local Mexican restaurant, Fonda San Miguel. We've had dinner there the first night of South by Southwest for the past few years with John Morthland, a friend who lives in Austin who was a mentor to me in my early days of music writing. John was one of the original Rolling Stone writers in the late '60s, and after we first were introduced in the early '80s when he was editor of New York Rocker magazine, he had me write a few things for him and we've been in touch ever since. In fact he was the one who got me on a panel this year, which he's moderating: Writing for Online Media vs. Print.
Also at the dinner was a couple of friends (including David Menconi, who I think is one of the best music critics working these days -- curretly in Raleigh NC) and Andy Schwartz, a former rock critic who's now director of editorial services for Epic records in NYC. Andy was great, he had wonderful, hilarious anecdotes about how stupid major labels and the music industry can be. And he also ended up paying for dinner, which was nice of him. After dinner, he had to go off to manage a showcase performance by Jeff Beck, an all-instrumental guitar concert.
After we rested a bit, Leland and I walked to the nightclub, La Zona Rosa, which was originally opened as a roadhouse home by blues singer and piano player Marcia Ball, and watched part of the Jeff Beck show -- he did a song from the mid-'70s classic "Blow by Blow" album, plus an incredible instrumental version of the Beatles' "Day in the Life" from Sgt. Peppers. After that, we felt like we'd seen pretty much everything Beck could possibly show us, so we walked to another club for a bit and saw a few minutes of some really boring local band trying hard to impress a listless and dwindling audience. We thought we might run into some people we knew but didn't, so we came back to the hotel.
That's what SXSW is like: A week's worth of wandering in and out of clubs seeing little bits of music. Rarely do we sit for entire sets, and even more rarely do we sit around one place all night. Austin's got too many live venues to not explore a variety of noises.
Tomorrow the conference officially starts, and the panel I'm on is at 3:30. Should be fun.
Friday morning, March 19
So I've just finished my morning work, putting up headline stories and changing promotional headlines on TRIP.com's home page. Leland's still in bed, but I think he's getting ready to take a shower. We have a couple of morning panels to get to today, then lunch planned with David Menconi and a couple of his friends from Atlanta.
Yesterday was the day for lunch at Kreuz', the barbecue joint where true carnivores go to eat meat with no utensils. It was fantastic, as usual.
Our friend John Morthland is the one who introduced us to Kreuz' Market. He's a longtime music critic who's also a folk historian and baseball nut -- he's driving around central Texas next week to ride a handful of roller coasters for an article for Texas Monthly magazine, for instance. And for years, he's been a regional food expert, and someone people come to for tips on where to go for the best Mexican food, barbecue and so on. I think he's eaten at every restaurant in the state at one time or other (but he modestly gives that distinction to another Austin writer and friend, Joe Nick Patoski, a real character in his own right).
He first took us to Kreuz' a few years ago for lunch because he said the barbecue places we were going to were OK, but not the real thing.
Kreuz'is nothing if not the real thing.
It's in a small town called Lockhart, about 45 minutes southeast of Austin out on a two-lane. It's basically a concrete warehouse-looking building that could be a huge feed and grain storage building for ranchers, with a dirt parking lot in back. (There's a meat market selling uncooked meats in the front.) You go in the doorway and find yourself in the smoke room. The line (and there's always been a line when we go, even at 11:30 in the morning) snakes past a gigantic row of four ovens -- giant grills made of concrete along one wall, with openings at each end and all along underneath, where oak wood logs spit smoke for flavor and flame for heat, and the racks above the fire are loaded with tons of meat. Brisket, prime rib, pork chops, ribs, hot link sausages -- this isn't a place for vegetarians. As you stand in line, the flames at the end of the row of ovens is so intense that one side of your body feels singed. The entryway and the oven room, where you order your meat, are so steeped in decades of oak smoke that it smells wonderful, but everything has a brown patina, like the homes of elderly people who've smoked all their lives.
I bet in the summertime, working here is like hard labor in Hell. When it's your turn at the meat counter, a woman takes your order by the pound ("I'll take a quarter pound of brisket, hot gut (which is the term for links, which cannot be ordered by weight -- thoough it's perfectly acceptable to order it as just 'a hot') of links and a chop"), and yells out to the oven handlers what to take off the grills. The handlers lift the steel lids of the ovens and reach in and grab the meat of choice and throw it onto an ancient wooden chopping block. Another staffer then chops it with a cleaver by eyeballing the amount you've ordered, and the woman at the counter grabs it and plops it onto a scale, then barks out the cost to a cashier who then takes your money. The meat is tossed onto two sheets of pink butcher paper. Meanwhile, she asks if you want crackers or bread -- if crackers, she takes a stack of Saltines and places them next to your meat on the butcher paper. If bread she takes five slices of Wonder bread and puts them next to your meat.
There's no barbecue sauce -- in the true Texas tradition, this is about smoked, not slathered, meat. There's also no utensil other than a plastic knife, which John Morthland swears is a recent innovation which the owners grudgingly added after years of people complaining (the old dining section, now in the hallway, still has communally used metal knives on the end of chains fastened to the tables, which was the original setup for those who really needed to be dainty with their food).
Then you take your paper with its stack o' meat through a glass doorway into the dining room, which looks like a cafeteria in a Siberian factory -- old and peeling pale green paint covers the high walls, with years of scuff marks from god-knows-what (cowboy boots four feet of the ground?) that have never been washed off. The floor is a tired tile; the ceiling is the original tin from when the restaurant first opened in 1900, though this wasn't the original dining room. The tables are the long ones you'd see in a school cafeteria, lined up in long rows so everyone sits communally.
The line moves past a counter where you can order drinks (I ordered Big Red, the caffeine-pumped sweet red soda that tastes exactly like liquid bubblegum on steroids), a small bag of chips and such high-class condiments as pickles, peppers, and onion by weight. A staffer reaches into a jar with tongs and grabs as many pieces of pickles as you want, and drops them into a small plastic bag of the sort used to pack separate items in a brown-bag lunch. The onions are served in raw (and pungent) quarters, not neat slices.
We sat in the dining room and devoured the food -- the pork chops are really really fantastic, though John later said he thought they were merely average for Kreuz' this time. We ate with our hands of course, along with everyone else there -- families, ranchers, farmers, migrant laborers, Austin businessmen and a handful of people you could tell are in town for SXSW (they have that pale, black-clad look of music-biz types about them). We were there with Morthland, John Dunlop (media director for Wolf Trap) and Lisa Shively of Press Network, and we looked positively healthy -- more or less -- compared to the LA night stalkers.
This is the experience we love about Austin -- the uniqueness of dining at a place like this, where traditions haven't changed. It's about to, hough -- the father who owned the place died years ago, and things have been fine until now, but he gave the business to his son and the property to his daughter, and these baby-boomers started feuding last year. She decided to hike the rent to some exorbitant rate, and he balked. There's a new, fancy, yuppie-looking Kreuz' being built outside of Lockhart now, where the son is going to move the business. His sister is determined to keep the original ovens cooking with her husband, who's won amateur barbecue contests but never run a restaurant, as the chef. So Morthland brought us here. He thinks the new Kreuz' food will be OK if the same chefs and staff go along with the move, but he doesn't think the experience will ever be the same.
He's right. It's part of a vanishing culture around here. We're glad we went.
Oh yeah, SXSW is a music and media conference!
Thursday morning began the same way they've begun the past several years -- we ambled over the one block to a great Mexican restaurant called Las Manitas, where Visible Ink Press, the company that publishes the "Music Hound" series of books that Leland and I've written for (and Leland edited the "Blues Essential Album Guide" for), invites all its writers and editors from across the country who attend SXSW for breakfast. There were about 20 people yesterday, and it was good to se a lot of the writers that I only see here, and catch up with everyone's careers.
Las Manitas has been a favorite of ours for years because the food's so good and so cheap. During SXSW it's jammed every morning with black-clad music biz types trying to force their eyes open and shake off the previous night's excesses. It's run by a very two politically active sisters who seem to support every radical cause under the sun, and it hosts some private showcases during the conference.
The keynote speech for the conference was at 10:30, so we all walked to the Convention Center four blocks away. But Lucinda Williams, the hip singer-songwriter who was making the speech this year, was late. Way late. So Leland and I along with the others heading for Kreuz early enough to beat the crowds, left and never heard the keynote. Yes, we had just finished breakfast 45 minutes ago. And yes, we were heading off to lunch. This is Austin, and it's SXSW, we gotta do what we gotta do.
We were back from lunch in time to rest for an hour or so before going to the convention center. The panel we wanted to see, a one-on-one interview by Rolling Stone senior editor David Fricke (who has looked exactly like a member of the Ramones since the first time we met him, ten years ago) of famed record producer/manager Eliot Roberts (Neil Young's only manager, friend of Joni Mitchell and David Geffen, etc.) was canceled with no explanation. So we hung around and talked to friends, until I had to go to the panelists' green room to get ready for my panel, Online Writing vs. Print.
Morthland, the moderator, explained that he got the idea for the panel because I had harped at him about getting e-mail for a couple of years until he did it, and because I was such an evangelist for new media, even though he's still somewhat of a doubter. Also on the panel were Keith Moerer, a writer and editor I first met at SXSW years ago when he was at Request magazine, who's since been music editor at Rolling Stone and is now head of the music content for Amazon.com; a woman named Jaan Uhelzski who's a writer for Rolling Stone Online (she used to be editor of Microsoft's now-defunct MusicCentral Web site, and was an early CREEM staffer) and Claudia Perry, a rockcrit for the Newark NJ daily paper. She's a regular on SXSW panels because's she's glib as hell and very opinionated. She was on this panel because she's never written for any online site, though I know she's bullshitting when she says print's better. It's because she has a shitty computer at home....
The panel went well, full room and lots of good questions. I blabbed a lot because I've been working online longest and have seen trends come and go. Basically I told everyone that the opportunities for writers will be online, the future's there, and except for writing shorter, there isn't a difference between writing for a Web site or a dead-tree publication. Jaan told me afterwards that I should be a teacher, which I thought was very nice.
Right after the panel, Leland, Morthland and I ran back to Las Manitas. We had been invited to a private dinner and performance by a couple of publicist friends of ours Cary Baker and Sheryl Northrop, and it was one of those "SXSW Moments" where the music transcends its locale and sears itself into our memories (we have lots of these moments from over the years). Las Manitas is a funky little storefront diner right on Congress the main Austin downtown avenue that runs right into the state capitol. We usually eat in the back room, which is a patio that's been covered over the years with a makeshift roof and then walled in. You walk through the kitchen and prep and cleanup area at the back of the diner to get to the back dining room. That's where our "Music Hound" breakfast is every year.
The room was jammed with people for this performance, which was an astounding display of local musicians mostly doing various forms of Tex-Mex (kind of a rollicking regional rock style), Conjunto (accordion dance music like polkas) and Mariachi. Members of the ensemble had recorded an album as Los Super Seven. The main stars were Joe Ely, a Texas legend of a rocker and singer-songwriter (I first heard of him because the Clash raved about his music in interviews and had him open for a tour with them in 1979), the country star Rick Trevino (who never sang Mexican music before, because he considered it the archaic music of his father), Rosie Flores (a terrific R&B-rock singer and guitarist who's played in Colorado a lot) and Ruben Ramos, an awesome and cool older singer in all black with black sunglasses who crooned with a soulful, sandpapery rasp (he goes by the perfect nickname "El Gato Negro," The Black Cat). There was also a local Mariachi band in full dress regalia -- 12 members, about half the full mariachi -- crowded on and in front of the stage at various times.
It was an amazing couple of hours -- we spent part of the time talking out front with Morthland and other writers and our publicist friends and the rest standing in the back room grooving to the music.
From there, it was sort of downhill. It started pouring rain while we were at Las Manitas (amazingly it's hardly ever rained during the 13 years we've come to SXSW), and we ran back to the hotel, me with my new suede jacket rolled up under my shirt. After resting at the hotel for a bit, we ventured out to go to Antones the renowned blues club for two performers, Chuck E. Weiss (an LA cult artist who was the subject of Rickie Lee Jones' "Chuck E.'s in Love" and then HoundDog, a band featuring David Hidalgo of Los Lobos. The rain was so intense we took a cab, and then had to stand in the shower for a while anyway because here was a line waiting to get into the club. Weiss was weird, funky like Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart -- hipster jive talking, swingy jazzy boho stuff. Hound Dog was just plain boring, unfortunately -- Los Lobos has been playing for so long I think the members are looking for self-indulgent diversions to mess around with on the side.
So we came back to the hotel (the rain had stopped) and called it a night.
More food and music today!
Friday late night, March 19
Believe it or not, we skipped breakfast this morning. We started the day by attending a panel, What Are Words Worth?, which focused on the importance of song lyrics. There wasn't much to argue about, but the panelists -- Andy Schwartz, Bob Christgau, Paul Williams and Gina Arnold among them -- made it worth seeing. The best moment: Christgau, the self-crowed "Dean of American Rock Critics," staring at the ceiling with a bemused smile, mouthing the words along with the Kinks' "Sunny Afternoon," which was being played as an example of great lyrics steeped in irony (along with a Nirvana song). Ed Ward later pointed out something that most music critics wouldn't know enough to mention -- that "Sunny Afternoon" not only has lyrical irony, but its music, where a bridge slips into a minor key even as the words are at their sunniest, helps create a palpable sense of irony.
During the Q&A segment of the panel, I asked about a period of music I've always liked but critics tend to denigrate: The singer-songwriter movement that came out of the urban folk explosion, the popular style that followed the Kingston Trio and Peter Paul and Mary made by the likes of Simon and Garfunkle, James Taylor, Joni Mitchell in the '60s and in the '70s, Jackson Browne. Christgau acknowldeged that he thought Simon wrote some great music in the '70s, but said he didn't think the singer-songwriter period was that great for rock and roll.
Then we moved over to watch the start of a panel on the MC5, a legendary Detroit rock band that fused the energy and fury of late '60s rock and avant garde musicality of freeform jazz with the political zeitgeist of the times. The band's been revered as a landmark of progressive art and culture, and this panel was a reflection of the critical establishment's respect for the short but striking legacy. We stayed long enough to watch a brief but very exciting demo of a documentary film being made (the filmmaker was there to talk about his efforts to raise money to complete the project). The film intercuts footage of the MC5 on stage in clubs, on TV and even in concert in a Chicago park during the 1968 Democratic convention, with familiar scenes of the anti-war riots that filled the summer streets, with protesters chanting "The whole world is watching." It was a breathless sample of a film I'm eager to see.
But after we left the convention center to meet Menconi's friends from Atlanta for lunch, I started thinking about the relative importance of groups such as the MC5 and performers such as Joni Mitchell. I decided to serve some food for thought over lunch and asked several writers which they thought was more important, or influential. I can't exactly defend the wimpier excesses of arteests like Jackson Browne, but I tried putting up a good fight anyway. At least the artists I liked better were more popular. That doesn't exactly mean those artists have critical cachet, but then as a music writer I've always been more of a populist than most of my peers.
Lunch was at the newer location of Threadgill's, close to downtown just across Town Lake from the Radisson where we were staying. The location is ripe with history: The restaurant is built adjacent to the former site of the Armadillo World Headquarters, the club that helped nurture the outlaw country movement of the 1970s, and gave the unique Texas combination of roots music its voice. To most people in most places, such distinctions would be laughably unimportant. But in Texas, such minutiae can be the cornerstone of legend, myth and mystique. Even better, Threadgill's has its own mystique and place in Texas music history: Kenneth Threadhill, the roadhouse restaurant's founder, was a musician himself, and his diner out on North Lamar away from downtown Austin was the site of a young Janis Joplin's first performance.
We went to Threadgill's for lunch at least once during SXSW almost from the start, and had great memories of many wonderful conversations with friends we made over the years -- other writers as well as friends who work in the music industry. In recent years, one label or other would throw huge media parties with shovelfuls of food and drink, along with intimate private performances with cool musicians (one year we got to see Carlene Carter sing a killer acoustic set). This day, though, the chicken fried steak (what else would we order?) at the newer Threadgill's was sorta bland, and memories of the Deep Rock Cafe in the middle of Kansas overwhelmed the meal. Good thing the conversation was lively.
Roni Sarig and his wife Danielle are very cool -- he's the music editor at Creative Loafing, the dumb-named alternative weekly in Atlanta, and she's a reporter for the Fox TV affiliate there. I first met them last year, when they lived and worked in Raleigh, North Carolina, when I flew down for a colloquium on rock music (and the Internet) at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. This day, they were joined for lunch by her sister Michelle, and we found out that Danielle and Michelle and their other sister have performed all their lives as a family group, singing and dancing Middle Eastern folk music (their father was a famous Iranian folk-pop singer in the early '60s). Roni now also performs with them for their occasional gigs around the country, playing guitar. How cool is that?
After lunch, we skipped the panels. Leland and I had walked over Town Lake from the Radisson for lunch, but David gave us a ride back to the hotel. Then Leland and I went off on our own to shop at Waterloo Records, the fabulous local music haven where we feel compelled to buy stuff every year even though most of it's available anywhere. I picked up the recent boxed set of Bruce Springsteen outtakes and rarities to listen to on the drive back to Colorado, and some traditional Japanese music and Hawaiian anthologies -- not exactly typical rockcrit fare.
We also made our annual walk around the next block from Waterloo, which is at 6th Street and Lamar, to the site of the venerable and tragic Treaty Oak.
Treaty Oak is a tremendous giant of a 500+ year old tree, with a marker in front proclaiming its important as the site of a historic treaty signed within its shade. But in recent years, its significance -- and the reason we make our pilgrimage to it -- is that it was poisoned in 1989 by a vandal, and is still recovering from the horrible act. Over the years, about half of it has died off and been cut away. I imagine it must originally have been maginificent -- the kind of tree you'd dream about, with its branches flowing out from its thick, sturdy trunk, which must be at least 15 feet in circumference, in a perfect mushrooming canpoy, and leaves shimmering in the sultry summer sun, inviting passersby to relax under its peaceful shade. Now, with its dead limbs removed, it leans somewhat drunkenly to the left, even though many of its branches still do reach dizzyingly into the sky. It's shored up and tied down here and there for support, and surrounded off with a simple, respectful fence.
I think it's been stable and maybe even improving the past couple of years, but for the first few years we came to visit, the tree was noticeably shriveling, and made us aware of how stupid people can be towards the earth.
Every year, we've seen touching tributes to this tree attached to the fence. This year, there was a plain sheet of note paper with a message written in a child's scrawl: "Dear Treaty Oak, I have been reading a lot about you in school. I hear you are a very brave oak tree. I'm hoping you'll get better soon. Love, Amanda." (Once, somebody left a can of chicken soup there....)
I started getting a headache, which I hoped a latte from a nearby coffeehouse would help ease, but it was still nagging at me as we left the hotel after a nap. Leland had rsvped for a dinnertime record label party for media at the Continental Club, one of the more notorious local stages where we've seen a number of great performances during SXSW. Unfortunately, when we parked the car and crossed the street to the entrance, a burly and surly doorman said he didn't care if our name was on a list somewhere because he was told no one could come in without their invitation -- a plastic pass that had been sent out in the mail. Since we didn't have them, we didn't push our luck. In previous years, I may have been obnoxious enough to demand entrance or scam some way to get in but for what? Some free barbecue, mexican food and booze and phoney conversations? It wasn't worth it (it probbaly never was).
So, we decided to drive out to the suburbs to a place called Satay for dinner. For the past few years, Satay has been our getaway meal, someplace we've gone to usually on Sunday nights after all the conference hubbub is over. This year, we were leaving Sunday morning so we hadn't planned on going to Satay, but here was our chance. It's an Asian restaurant with monthly themed menus that cover a specific cuisine -- this month it was Malaysian. We discovered it one year when we were moaning about how sick we were of Mexican and barbecue, and happened to see a small ad for it in a local dining guide included in our registration packet. It's in a strip mall out in the north Austin -- the antithesis of all the hipster havens we hang out in during SXSW. That's become one of the great attractions, since we've never seen any other conference attendees there when we've gone.
That, and the food, which is incredibly tasty and exploding with exotic spices and flavor combinations. We had a feast of dumplings and grilled meats with enough Thai iced coffee to keep us buzzing for hours. Unfortunatelty, the caffeine didn't help my headache.
After we got back to the hotel, we split up because I wanted to go to "Japan Nite," a showcase of Japanese bands at one of the clubs off of 6th Street. Leland wanted to go across Congress Avenue to the troika of famed nightclubs, Antones (famous for blues), the Austin Music Hall (a giant open space of a hall where the audience stands) and Liberty Lunch (another standing-club, but smaller and much funkier, and also about to move due to urban renewal).
I first made a cursory pass through 6th Street -- it's an amazing place, and I'm always struck at how it exemplifies for me the spirit of Austin's music scene. We've heard that 6th Street's never as magical during the rest of the year as it is during SXSW, but since we've never seen it any other time, it's easy to assume that Austin has the world's most appreciative music fans (and drinkers).
6th Street is at the heart of Austin's downtown district, just a few blocks away from the Texas state capitol. Every Thursday-Saturday night, the police cordon off a section of the street -- I think about ten blocks -- and create a pedestrian party scene like I imagine New Orleans must be like during Mardi Gras. There's a tremendous cacophony that rises up off the street like heat rising after a hot summer day, from what seem like hundreds of bars and nightclubs, all featuring live music of one sort or another. Not all of them are officially involved in SXSW as showcase clubs, but the SXSW badge will allow you entry into all of them for free. It's a great way to graze a variety of music and sample sounds from everywhere. Amidst the throngs crowding the streets and sidewalks as if it were St. Patricks Day on 5th Avenue in New York City, you can hear vendors hawking everything from bratwurst to "fine" jewelry, and buskers banging away for attention and a few coins. This night, there people on variouscorners also handing out free samples of Pepcid AC, a heartburn medicine -- very appropriate for the throng of partiers.
I walked the length of the strip, popping into clubs at random and listening for just a few minutes before moving on. Not much sticks out, which is probably a combination of the state of the music industry and my own increasing indifference towards it.
This noisy celebration spills over onto the side streets, where clubs both established and makeshift host bands for the conference. Japan Nite this year is held in a room called Copper Tank Main, a brewpub that probably features Stevie Ray Vaughan cover bands the rest of the year instead of the cross-cultural weirdnes of Japanese punk and pop bands spitting back American culture with a demented twist.
Missile Girl Scoot sounded like a fairly normal rock band when I got there, but they were just finishing up so I couldn't make much of a judgement. Unlike last year, when I first attended a Japan Nite showcase, there was a big crowd, and a long line waiting to get in. Somehow, Japanese underground music had become a trendy commodity. I found a spot near the left speaker, put my earplugs in and waited for the next band, Ex-Girl, to start.
A large Japanese flag hung behind the stage, next to the banner for SXSW. Cigarette smoke swirled in the orange spotlights as I looked over the crowd, and I wondered if there was more smoking here than other showcases because Japanese still smoke a lot. The audience was mostly comprised of curious Americans, not sure of what to expect. Sprinkled here and there were Japanese fans, some looking like any college student might, but others dressed for the event with shiny plastic outfits, spiked hair and supercool sunglasses. One Japanese girl near me had bleached her hair platinum blonde and topped it off with fuzzy kitty-cat ears sticking up. The house sound system was playing a Japanese band singing the words "Okashi Dansu" -- "Strange Dance." Another pre-show song over the sound system had me laughing to its chorus: "Blah-Blah-Blah Cha-Cha-Cha."
Ex-Girl turned out to be a hoot.
The three women who make up the group sauntered out in flourescent vinyl ultra-mini skirt dresses with colorful flowers plastered over their chests, and huge foam headpieces shaped like 1960s beehive hairstyles. The drummer stood at her small kit, pounding precisely at it like a taiko drummer. The guitarist and lead singer wore a bored expression at the right side of the stage, and the bassist stood just a few feet from me. A Japanese man muscled his way right next to me with a small video camera that had one of those viewfinders that folds out so you could see what you're filming even if you have the camera held away from you. He seemed to especially enjoy focusing on the bass player's face, whenever she stepped to the microphone to sing a harmony. He faithfully recorded Ex-Girl's entire performance, but I felt sorry for him, because he didn't have earplugs in, and he was right in the line of fire of the speakers. I could feel every bass note and drum beat rattling my teeth, but my earplugs saved my hearing.
Ex-Girl's music was a wacky combination of ear-shattering avant-garde noise with campy pop-culture sensibility. They echoed the silly innocence of '60s American "girl groups" such as the Shirelles, Shangri-Las and Ronettes, but added the cutting-edge wit and self-awareness of post-punk groups sych as the B-52s.
During the first song, each woman shimmied and shook until their foam headpieces fell off, then during the bridge, stopped playing their instruments and picked up various toy flutes and noisemakers for a few measure before tossing them to the side. The songs were mostly short, funky pieces built around a chanted lyric, mostly in English. And like many Japanese rock groups that seem to gain attention in the U.S. (such as Pizzicato 5, Shonen Knife or Chibo Matto), this threesome liked to write songs about bizarrely mundane subjects. One of the songs was about a brown frog -- the bassist explained to the crowd that Japanese hear "kero! kero!" instead of the "ribbit" sound Americans use for frogs.
Ultimately, no matter how loud -- and this was a very loud band -- and strange the presentation and some of the unison singing and Yoko Ono-style screeching, Ex-Girl is a pop band in the solid tradition of rock and roll. In "Upsy Daisy Ramsy," which combines a menacing beat and atonal guitar slashing, the bubblegum-sweet chorus was the refreshingly unaffected "Every day, walk in the darkness but I don't care, you are my sunshine."
Unfortunately, after Ex-Girl, my head was pounding despite the earplugs, and I made my way back to the hotel, only to find Leland about to head over to hear a singer-songwriter I like, Terry Allen, at Liberty Lunch. I was going to call it an early night but he said another writer had told him there was a rumor that David Byrne, the former head of Talking Heads was going to perform with Allen (Byrne was scheduled to be on a panel the next day about the role record label A&R, or Artist & Repertoire). That got me steeled for another shot at club-hopping.
As we left the hotel and walked across the street, I noticed a group behind us also heading towards Liberty Lunch. I heard a soft voice asking if this was the way, and another member of the party muttering a reply about following us. I looked because I recognized the soft voice -- it was David Byrne. After two blocks, I couldn't help myself. I stopped, turned around, held out my hand and told Byrne I admired what he was doing with his world music label, Luaka Bop. He thanked me and shook my hand, and asked if we were heading over to Liberty Lunch. We said yes, and I asked him if it was true he was going to perform with Terry Allen, who's a former Texan now living in New Mexico, but who also is a visual artist of some renown. Byrne dead-panned, "No, I hadn't heard anything like that."
We lost Byrne and his friends as we entered the club, and though I like Allen's countrified songs, I left after just a few songs because I just didn't feel that well. Later, when Leland got back, he said Byrne did indeed play with Allen, along with Lucinda Williams.
Truth to tell, it didn't bother me that much to have missed the cameo.
Saturday, March 20
Another day, another breakfast. This time, instead of Las Manitas, we met Lisa Shively and Tracy Mann of Press Network with a bunch of other folks at Sol y La Luna, which is a larger Mexican restaurant farther up Congress, across the lake and just across the street from the Continental Club. The Sun and the Moon is owned by three women, including a former manager and a former chef from Las Manitas, and like the original, most people seem to order "Migas con Hongos" -- eggs with mushrooms -- for breakfast. It was a very large group, because both Lisa and Tracy had been inviting people to join them. David Menconi and Steve Knopper showed up, and so did David Millman, the wonderful and witty publicist who we'd known for years with labels including IRS and Giant (he handled Big Head Todd and the Monsters' early pr).
Millman and Tracy were on a panel later in the day along with another woman at breakfast, Nanci Stern, about how to start your own business after getting laid off from a label job. Since the recent shakeup in the music industry, the word was out that SXSW would be as much of a job fair for unemployed industry folks as it would be a showcase opportunity for young hungry performers.
After breakfast, we found out that the "Amy" sitting across from us was Amy Rigby, a really talented singer-songwriter who was performing a showcase during SXSW. Tracy is her publicist, but to both their credit, they weren't trying to get any press, they were just having breakfast. There was another Amy at breakfast, Amy Salit, the producer for the NPR show "Fresh Air." We met Amy last year over breakfast, and it was great to see her again. She had just finished reading "Memoirs of a Geisha," so we had a nice conversation about how much we enjoyed the book.
Leland was on a panel Saturday afternoon, so after breakfast broke up, we went over to the convention center and wandered through the trade show. One pass was enough -- I've never gotten a lot out of the trade show exhibits, and this year, the companies with booths seemed to not even have fun tchochkes to take away. When Leland went off to the green room to prepare for his "Roots Music Demo Session," I wandered in and out of several panels.
I slipped into the "A&R The Way We Work" panel, which featured David Byrne along with other record-label A&R reps, but Byrne didn't say anything for 15 minutes so I left.
I then sat in an Internet panel, "How Has the Internet Changed the World of Publicity" because a friend, Cary Baker, was on the panel. But I hated the pompous, egotistical moderator (some self-important editor from Seattle) so much that I had to leave quickly. It didn't seem like he would let anyone else say anything. I wandered over to Leland's panel, where he and two other panelists were listening to demo tapes submitted by erstwhile musicians hoping for their big break. These can be fun panels, but after one excruciatingly boring tape of a flashy guitar player pulling out every blooz-rock cliche ever recorded, I could tell Leland was searching for ways to be constructive.
He said the right thing: That hearing a three-minute segment of blues in a demo tape where the rest was hard-rock soloing didn't give him enough context to make a judgement. The other panelists were much more effusive, urging the axe-murderer to focus on playing one style and make the rounds sitting in with LA club bands to get his name spread around. I realized if I had been on the panel, I would have just been nasty, so I left.
I then caught the end of a great panel I wished I'd seen all of, a one-on-one interview by Philadelphia Inquirer critic Tom Moon with producer Joe Boyd, who's worked with a ton of wonderful folk artists from Richard Thompson and the McGarrigle sisters to such acts as R.E.M. and 10,000 Maniacs. Boyd was soft-spoken and told great stories, and ended his talk with his latest project, Cubanismo, a latin group.
After the final panel, with SXSW starting to wind down, we met Morthland at the hotel for dinner. This time the group was just Leland, Menconi and me, with John driving us out into the Texas flatlands.
The destination: Catfish Hill, a place John had found by following a sign advertising a catfish restaurant. About 20 minutes east of Austin, we turned off the highway at the decrepit sign, which promised catfish Fridays and Saturdays. We drove on a two-lane for a ways, and turned right onto a dirt driveway leading onto a ranch, at another sign. This sign was even more decrepit, and had so many letters missing from it that there was no way to decipher what it once said. We figured out later that part of the sign once read "catfish farm."
The driveway wound around a ranch home and past a muddy little pond -- where, it turns out, our dinner was caught -- and up to a gravel parking lot next to a ranch out-building lit inside with flourescent lights. Two dogs barked furiously at us as we got out of the car, though one turned out to be friendly enough when he came up and sniffed at us. We entered the building at one end, into a large open room with a smooth concrete floor, and a big wood-burning stove against one of the plain, painted cinderblock walls. It was like a community center dance hall, and you could almost imagine a '50s polka dance being held in the room, though it was hard to figure why a community center was plunked right down in the middle of someone's ranch.
A handful of tables were scettered over the floor, and a handful of red vinyl booths against the wall opposite the stove. At the other end of the room from the screen door entrance was a counter where a youngish black man awaited our order. Above him on the back was the menu -- catfish for $8.50, all-you-can eat catfish for $11.50, and various condiments and side dishes including some chicken nuggets that I thought of ordering as an appetizxer but didn't. We all ordered exactly what John ordered -- catfish dinners, which came with cole slaw, hush puppies, beans and fries.
It was heavenly -- the catfish had a kind of corn meal breading I had rarely had (the closest was at a long-gone Denver joint, Foucher's) that had a distinctive taste and crunch, and the fish itself was wonderfully meaty without being the least bit greasy or "fishy" tasting. I ate every crumb of the breading I could, picking the bones clean. We were the only ones there for most of the dinner, though a family of regulars came in and filled up one of the booths towards the end of our meal. A lonely TV was aimed from the counter out into the room, showing the gloomy 1992 Clint Eastwood western "Unforgiven."
We were very satisfied and ready for a final night of club-hopping.
It began promisingly, with a performance at Antone's by a young bluesman, Alvin Youngblood Hart, who wears his hair in dreadlocks and mixes touches of rock and reggae to his music. He was a lumbering bear of a man on stage, and played both acoustic delta-style blues and electric music with a small combo of just drummer and bass player. We stood close to the stage so we had a great view.
After his set, Leland and I walked over to an outdoor stage set up in back of the Waterloo Brweing Company and watched part of a set by an up-and-coming young band of native Americans who called themselves Indigenous. Good name, bad music. Actually, the sound was eerily like the Colorado band Big Head Todd and the Monsters -- so much so that I had to do a double-take. The lead singer/guitarist even looked like Todd Park Mohr of BHTM, and seemed to mimic Mohr's affectations. That seemed silly, given the fact that BHTM weren't exactly huge superstars... and worse, Indigenous' music was completely one-dimensional. The singer played balls-to-the-wall guitar solos several times during every song, and he threw in every guitar-hero lick and riff he knew each time. After several songs, we had to escape the stunning sameness of the sound.
We went over to the Austin Music Hall, hoping to catch the end of the set by Los Super Seven, which promised to be a replay of the Thursday night Tex-Mex and mariachi blowout at Las Manitas, because Joe Ely, accordionist Joel Guzman, Rick Trevino and Ruben Ramos were in the group. Then, we figured we'd stay there for Jimmie Vaughan's performance, because it was his birthday and the big rumor was that Eric Clapton would be joining the all-star cast on stage.
We wait... and waited... and stood there... and waited. There weren't that many people in the huge hall, which was unusual, so we were right up against the stage. It took a while to find out that Los Super Seven had already played a short set. There was nothing else scheduled for two hours until the midnight start of Vaughan's set. So we waited... and stood... until a group of roadies set out their equipment in front of the amps and drum set on stage and then after a few minutes reappeared with instruments. These weren't roadies, they turned out to be musicians.
They played an energetic set of catchy pop-rock songs but they never once said their name (they mentioned they were from Dallas), and they weren't on the conference schedule for the hall, so we never figured out who they were. Faced with the prospect of standing and waiting some more just to see if Eric Clapton was going to play with Jimmie Vaughan, we called it quits. I'd had enough. We never found out if Clapton played that night.
Instead, we watched a show on the Discovery Channel about bears. The times, they are a changin'
Sunday, March 21
Sunday morning, we packed quickly -- if nothing else, Leland and I know this routine by heart. We've become incredibly efficient at packing and setting up the boombox in the car, arranging all our stuff for the road trip. We picked up Steve Knopper at the La Quinta by the capitol, and had breakfast at Katz' Deli, another regular spot for us every March. Leland had his usual scrambled eggs with lox; I had my usual corned beef hash and eggs. Over breakfast, we talked and argued about the Internet, a topic I'm much more passionate about these days than music.
After dropping Steve off, we were on the road again. We drove straight through Dallas (Fort Worth, actually), Oklahoma City and Wichita, and stopped for the night in Hutchinson, Kansas, where Leland wanted to do some research about his family.
This leg ended up being one of the best parts of this year's trip.
I expected Hutchinson to be a tiny farm town -- a main street with a post office, a feed store and a hardware store, and a few block of quaint frame houses right out of "Wizard of Oz." It's a farm town, all right, with grain silos poking up on the outskirts of town and railroad tracks criss-crossing it. But Hutchinson's a lot bigger than I thought. There's a nicely defined downtown area with buildings that don't quite qualify for skyscraper status, but definitely \constitute a serious business district; several levels of residential areas from the low-income homes I had expected right up to majestic mansions where the wealthy of their day settled. We circled the city to get our bearings, and checked into a motel on the outskirts before driving into town in search of a restaurant for dinner.
Just off the main street near downtown, we saw a diner that Leland immediately recognized as a former Sambo's, now named Chelsea's, with lights blazing and people inside. Since this was Sunday night in Kansas, there wasn't much else open, and this looked like a popular local spot. It was popular, but with an interesting mix of people -- everyone seemed to know each other, and everyone (except for the kids there with their parents) smoked. We got the expected stares when we walked in and seated ourselves but it wasn't unfriendly.
Our waitress, an ancient, mummified woman named Cleota, was a scream. When I asked if the fried chicken was good, she said, "Well, it's dead (pronounced 'day-ed')... and plucked. But, it does have bones." She seemed pretty pleased with this description, as she chuckled at her wit. Leland and I took it to mean a warning not to order the chicken. He got a cheeseburger and I got a house special that turned out to be a chicken fried steak sandwich. It was fine, but we didn't linger after eating -- the smoke, which was as visible in the room as any nightclub, was choking us.
On the way back, we drove by the spot where we thought Leland's grandfather must have lived -- he had an address, but there was a business now in the location.
When we got back to the motel, the desk clerk -- who mentioned she was a cop during the day -- was surprised to find out we ate at Chelsea's and said conspiratorially, "I bet you won't be going back there again." We assured her the smoke was enough to keep us out, but wondered what she meant by her comment.
We finished the evening watching the Oscars (and being surprised that "Shakespeare" beat out "Pvt. Ryan" for best picture), and I copyedited a bunch of columnists for the week.
Monday, March 22
We got up early to explore the city. Leland had several addresses he wanted to check, where he might be able to connect with his past. Leland was born and raised in Kansas City, but when he was 10, his parents were killed by a tornado, and he was eventually adopted by one of his uncles, in Kansas. He has vivid memories of visiting his grandparents in Hutchinson, and also remembers some of the bitterness of the custody battle over who would adopt him and his brother and sister. He hasn't been back to Hutchinson in 40-some years, and we wondered what his life would have been like if he had been adopted and raised by family here. All he has now are old photographs -- some of him as a child visiting his grandfather's house, and a handful of prints of family including his parents visiting the same house in the 1930s -- and, thanks to the Internet, maps to the various addresses he had for his grandfather and an uncle, and even a list of Ruckers who live in Hutchinson today (we didn't call on any of them, though he's planning to send letters to see if they're relatives).
First, we went back to the intersection where we were last night, but parked the car in a Wal-Mart parking lot and crossed over to where we figured his grandfather's house must have stood. It's now the site of several businesses, including a garage right on the corner.
When we stood in the garage parking lot, it dawned on both of us that this was indeed the spot, because most of the pictures of Leland's family show the house on a big corner, with businesses in the background, and the front porch built on the corner of the building, at a diagonal to the house itself. Many of the family photos show members sitting on the porch enjoying the view. When we turned around and looked out at the view they would have seen 60 years ago, we realized why this had to be the place: Leland's grandfather, who was a handyman around Hutchinson who had built the house himself, had built it with a clear view directly down Fourth Street into downtown Hutchinson. The porch would have been the ideal place to sit and watch the traffic coming towards what must have been at the time the outskirts of town. This must have been a grand old house in a grand location, the pride of the family.
It was a striking revelation and one we understood immediately to be true, because in a flash we had gotten into his grandfather's mind and felt what he was thinking all those decades ago.
From there, we drove to another location where his grandfather lived just before he died, from an address Leland got off a postcard. The house was in a much poorer section of town, in a crowded residential neighborhood, but it still stood -- white frame in need of painting and a dog glaring at us from behind a chain link fence. We also went by the home where one of Leland's uncles lived, in an even poorer part of town right off the highway by the railroad tracks (Leland remembered visiting there when he was a kid). Leland's grandfather had boasted in a newspaper article that Leland remembered that he had built the dutch ovens in one of the city parks, so we explored Carrey Park, and though most of the picnic areas now featured newer grills, we found two of the huge brick-and-mortar dutch ovens. It was weird to think Leland's grandfather had made these long ago.
We pondered history and family and the possibilities of the past over breakfast at Village Inn (reliable, if boring). Leland decided he'd come back to "Hutch" as the locals call it, to do some real research and perhaps look up any relatives in the area.
We hit the road again, and though we were on a two-lane for the first part heading northwest from Hutchinson to I-70, we made great time. We hit Colby right around 1 pm for lunch at the Deep Rock, and had the usual again -- though truthfully, by this point I had had so much food, especially meat, in the past week that I didn't enjoy this chicken fried steak quite as much as the first.
But rituals are rituals, you can't shirk your duty.
We zipped along on the open highway, and were home before rush hour. This may be our last SXSW (or mine, anyway), but it turned out to be one of the better trips. The detour to Hutchinson was a revelation and it was nice to be on a panel again. And of course, it's always great to see friends from the music biz, when everyone's on spring break and having a good time.
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