Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Excess = Success at SXSW

By Mitch Myers

MARCH 30, 1998:  Austin, Texas, is a nice place to visit during the ides of March. The weather has yet to become blistering hot and most of the kids who attend the University of Texas are gone for spring break. Add to that the five-day extravaganza they call the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference and you have the makings for a mighty festive holiday, replete with all the food, booze, parties and entertainment one person could possibly endure. Of course, SXSW is still a convention above all else. That is, an organized gathering devoted to the celebration, examination and exhibition of the trade. With this particular trade being the notorious music business, excess and success often go hand in hand.

Now I enjoy a good schmooze as much as the next person, maybe more. It's just that so many industry-sponsored fiestas tend throw me off the task of reporting the various trends, high points and misfires of a conference that includes keynote speakers, sundry discussion panels, workshops, interviews, an awards ceremony, softball games, barbecues and about 1,000 musical acts performing at more than fifty venues.

Still, I was not alone in my struggle with the forces of corporate temptation and felt greatly comforted by the presence of many other revelers from Chicago. Thanks to an amusing succession of outdoor parties thrown by Schubas Tavern, Bloodshot Records and Sugar Free Records, there were certain moments when I felt I had never left the Windy City. I did get a little too much sun in Texas, but damned if I didn't look out in back of the Yard Dog Folk Art Gallery and encounter the likes of the Black Family, The Handsome Family, Mount Pilot, Sally Timms, Chris Mills, Edith Frost and Andrew Bird's Bowl of Fire. Chicago folks all over this festival like flies on sherbet. Jonboy Langford (above) pulled one of his typical magic acts and performed a half-dozen times with the rotating support of his Skull Orchard band, The Pine Valley Cosmonauts and The Waco Brothers. Some people insist that Jon actually performed at two different venues simultaneously, a claim that is still being investigated by the authorities.

While my faulty Zen barometer kept me from attending much-lauded shows by Sonic Youth, Robyn Hitchcock, Junior Brown, Liquid Soul, Buddy Guy, Giant Sand, Billy Bragg and Soul Asylum, I did manage to witness a wonderful, unadvertised gig tucked away in the back of Las Manitas Mexican restaurant. There, crowded onto a small, makeshift stage, country folk singers Nanci Griffith, Guy Clark, Rodney Crowell and David Ball took turns serenading an enthusiastic audience for two solid hours. Most of the sanctioned SXSW showcases cram five or six artists into forty-five-minute slots, so this show was a blessed relief on several levels.

In effort to keep things real, I also went to see two skinny bluesman in the same evening. While Chris Whitley's powerful acoustic set evoked the spirits of both Robert Johnson and Jimi Hendrix, it was the return of Texas' favorite son, Johnny Winter, that sticks in my mind.

Playing at an outdoor venue for a huge crowd of beer-drinking hell raisers, the legendary albino guitarist looked far older than 52 and the trademark roar was completely gone from his raspy voice. Nearly blind and tottering on emaciated legs, Winter still managed to put together a sparkling set of amped-up electric blues before being gently escorted from the stage. It is sadly ironic that he has become so very much like the decrepit old blues singers he emulated back in the late sixties.

My two favorite performances at SXSW were by Austin singer-songwriters who transcend the realms of hardcore honky-tonk and folksy excess. Michael Fracasso played forty beautiful minutes from his new album "World in a Drop of Water" (Bohemia Beat) that touched my soul. Fracasso and his band, Horse Opera, gloriously integrated a countrified Texas twang with Beatlesque popisms and a rocking enthusiasm. Accompanied by Charlie Sexton on drums (Sexton also produced and mixed the record as well as playing every instrument you can think of), George Reiff on bass and Mac McNabb on lead guitar, Fracasso's evocative voice floated through the room and charmed the audience with heartfelt sincerity. Neither fish nor fowl, Michael Fracasso's sound is surprisingly radio-friendly and his record deserves to be a great success.

SXSW ended with singer Alejandro Escovedo's traditional Sunday gig at La Zona Rosa. There were a surprisingly large number of people still in town for the conference and between the conventioneers, local musicians, college students and other Austin folks, the barn-like facility was packed to the rafters. Alejandro's career in music spans twenty years and encompasses punk, roots-rock and powerful acoustic balladry. His set of original material was enhanced with covers of songs by The Velvet Underground, John Cale, Iggy and The Stooges and The Rolling Stones. Two years ago, Alejandro's SXSW performance celebrated a new recording contract with Rykodisc. Last year, the conference coincided with Escovedo being dropped from the very same label. This year, Chicago's own Bloodshot Records has put out "More Miles Than Money," an album of Alejandro's dynamic live performances. He may not be a major-league recording artist in terms of sales, but Alejandro Escovedo is a survivor and prime ambassador of the Austin music scene. It is only fitting that his Sunday-night gig continues to close out the long, intense week they call South By Southwest.

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