Recollections of a Journey Through the Deep South

copyright 1995 by Monte Nordstrom
from issue # 19 - Cosmic Debris Musicians Magazine - July '95

The Convention: TEXAS Style

Every year in the month of March there is a music conference akin to a tornado touch-down in the picturesque college town of Austin Texas. The fact that it occurs during spring-break and St. Patrick's Day only add to the experience. Up to 400 bands are showcased in 25 venues over 5 nights in a downtown area about the size of Victoria's.

At the convention centre there is a musical trade show featuring state of the art equipment, vintage gear and related music business kiosks. Upstairs are a dozen rooms featuring panel discussions, demo critiquing, seminars on publishing, recording contracts, D.I.Y. tips and other related information sessions. On the main floor is a stage hosted by BMI, featuring acoustic groups and solos. A concession stand selling all the CD's and tapes of the showcase acts is set up next to a bar and food fair beside the stage. This is where you come to pick up your passes, goody bag, wrist band and name tags. You immediately get the impression that the SxSW people know what they're doing. 3000 to 4000 delegates bent on inhaling a heady mix of information and cutting edge music over a five day period would agree.

I had booked a room 2 blocks away at the Radisson On Town Lake. I knew that I would be walking a great deal so a central location was crucial. Even so I wore out my boots (and feet) over the next week of extreme conventioneering in the land of the blue yodel.

I arrived the day before the conference to the sight of thousands of students converging on the Sixth Avenue nightclub district. Many of them looked a little green and a few were wobbling in doorways or snoring on curbs. You might say the attitude was intensely relaxed. As I wandered down 6th I stepped into the various clubs sampling the rich and diverse musical offerings of the cool Texas night.

The majority of the bars are small - 50 to 100 seats. Some resemble a kind of honky tonk theatre with tacky, frayed curtains fringing dusty stages while others have the ambience of a rural garage. Tube steak vendors on the street are selling beer between the bars and some of the bars are not much larger than a phone booth. The thing you notice is that there are bands everywhere. Rockin Texas Blues, cowboy thrash, acid yodel, tejano ensembles and soulful singer/songwriters all pour their wares out into the chaos of the street where between the vendors are the buskers. Did I say intense?

Most clubs have a normal cover charge (if you don't have a festival wristband) and I noticed that the bands all had tip jars prominently displayed on stage . Yes that's right. They're playing for tips. Of course show-casing acts get an honorarium but the locals are scuffling for beer money and the competition is fierce.

The conference opened with the Austin Music Awards, highlights of which were performances by a lubricated Lucinda Williams, Alejandro Escovedo's beautiful orchestra, an 89-year-old pianist called The Grey Ghost backed by the BAD LIVERS with Steve James; SOULHAT featuring Frosty on drums (of Lee Michaels fame), and Gibby Haynes of the BUTTHOLE SURFERS in a truly awful thrown-together band but the crowning moment of the evening was a successful set by 13TH FLOOR ELEVATORS' lead vocailist Roky Erickson. He, in years past, had shuffled up to the mic, yawned and walked away. This year with the aid of a very quick vocal spotter (the bassist), he was carried through a stunning set of his hits showing a clear powerful voice capable of transcendance. This was a long awaited performance from a home town hero and drug casualty of the 60's which brought the house to it's feet. Then he yawned and shuffled off the stage in his sweat pants and institutional slippers. Don't try this at home kids!

Other highlights of the festival: "Bad Girls Upset By The Truth" written by Jo Carol Pierce. A truly hilarious 2-hour musical that I hope has been videoed. This heartful performer is going to hell for her humour. Wow...

At one point, hungry and footsore I decided to try a club called the Liberty Lunch where I thought I'd arrive early, get a good table, eat and stay put for the evening's show. Wrong. I arrived to find a rough concrete floor, no kitchen, no tables or chairs and one wall was hinged up to the stars. The lineup was promising so I dined on Rolling Rock at two dollars a bottle. Right.

A local band, THE BEAT-O-SONICS opened with a jet propelled set of surf music. I was in Mosrite heaven. This was followed by a band from Tucson that had just got off the road with LYNRD SKYNRD. It was a family band with the dad sitting in an easychair to the side playing rhythm guitar. His boys did the rest. A 13-year-old front man wailed strat licks and sang well beyond his youthful years. His 11-year-old brother rocked on bass and backup vox. A 9-year-old drummer laid down the fatback with confidence and fills that proved his chops were offical, and rounding out the ensemble was a 7-year-old on keyboards (who traversed the stage to the front mike to announce that "This band is called "Lil'Willie" cuz it's named after our baby sister, Lil'Willie, thainkyew"). This band was so good that I saw bikers weeping through my own astonished tears of joy. Southern fried boogie!

DASH RIPROCK from New Orleans followed. A high energy rocking trio. The guitarist threw a half-full beer can at the bassist's cowboy hat to signal his solo. The bassist responded with a powerslide on his back across the frothy stage where the guitarist grabbed the slider's up-stretched foot and scorched a howling solo using the prone'n'pumping bassist's bootheel for a slide. Didn't miss a frantic beat. Try this at home kids!

SOULHAT closed with their masterful drummer, the beatific Frosty. This was just one show in one club. At any time there were twenty-four more shows going and probably twenty more in town that were not part of the festival!

- Best cover tune heard: a bluegrass version of PINK FLOYD'S "Brain Damage", tapping in 2/4..."the lunatic is in the grass... Yee Haw!"
- Best panelists: Robin Hitchcock, Giggy Haynes and Mojo Nixon, SARDONIC TWITS.
- Best club: La Zona Rosa.
- Worst Representation in the Exihibition: Gasp! Canada... Intrepid Records and the Canadian contingent from Toronto were the most arrogant, poorly presented exhibitor in the show. Bad form boys and girls. This mindless mob also organised a "game" of floor hockey against an American side and proceeded to draw blood and win at all costs against a bewildered U.S. team. "The Ugly Canadians" proceeded to high 5 and gloat the so-called victory! Tsk, Tsk.. I turned my I.D. badge over in disgust.

Apart from that, it was a sterling fete with much more going on than I can mention here. I look forward to attending again, Zeus willing. Too soon, I had to leave this mind-warping mayhem. I gathered my goody bag, stuffed my newly acquired Silvertone Danelectro in my suitcase and hopped a bus to San Antonio where I would catch the morning train to New Orleans.
Next Month: "The Alamo to the French Quarter by Train!"

Note: Monte Nordstrom has produced over 75 demos and has recorded 8 albums to date (Nov '99). He performs regularly at numerous venues on Canada's West Coast.
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