Austin Chronicles

Tales from the Texas music fest: Rock barely survives, honky-tonk rules, and Miami may yet host the Latin Grammys -- but no bombs, please

It's not exactly a page out of the Vidal Sassoon hair-care manual, but it works. "Elmer's glue," explains Karl Michaels when asked for the secret to maintaining his spiky 'do, an array of bright blue foot-high pointy cones. "I leave it in for four or five days, and it holds real well." Indeed. Despite having just spent the past 45 minutes singing with his Miami band the Groovenics, wildly throwing himself around the stage of a club called the Back Room, in Austin, Texas, even spitting out balls of fire at one point, Michaels's hair remains fixed in place. The rest of him, however, hasn't fared quite as well.

His skin glistens with sweat beneath a cut-off T-shirt as he stands woozily in a loading area behind the club, chugging from a bottle of water, casually examining the huge split in his pants -- the result of an over-the-top flying kick. Perhaps anticipating the long van ride back to Florida, one of Michaels's bandmates produces a can of Right Guard, and as Michaels shoots his arms skyward, he blasts each of his armpits.

It seems like an awful lot of work for just one show in the middle of Texas, especially considering the band isn't being paid a dime, and the final turnout appeared to be less than 100. Yet more than 900 other groups have made a similar trek from points all across America and beyond, converging two weeks ago in Austin for South by Southwest (SXSW), a five-day gathering of 7000 music-industry professionals from the loosely defined world of rock. The goal of all these bands isn't so much to be discovered by an A&R man (the Groovenics already are signed to New York-based Spitfire Records; most other performers also have label contracts) but to generate buzz. With hordes of writers from virtually every music-oriented publication in the nation swarming in and out of 48 different venues, the perceived stakes are high. Artists as disparate as the Black Crowes and ex-Pavement leader Stephen Malkmus are performing, trying to generate some priceless hype and critical momentum.

So you wanna be a rock and roll star? Miami's Groovenics head for Austin and hope for fame
Clay Patrick mcbride
So you wanna be a rock and roll star? Miami's Groovenics head for Austin and hope for fame

None of this attention seems to have made its way to the Back Room, however. The sparse and somewhat subdued crowd watched politely as the Groovenics screeched their way through a deafening barrage of Limp Bizkit-style metal-rap tunes. "I think we won 'em over at the end," Michaels offers optimistically. And no matter how much Kulchur tries to deflate his sunny take on the evening, Michaels stays unflappable.

Of course he has reason to be upbeat. The regular audiences of 300 to 400 high-schoolers who enthusiastically turn out for their club gigs from Kendall to West Palm Beach provide reassurance that the band is on to something. And major-label signings of other South Florida outfits mining a similar sonic territory (Endo, Nonpoint) imply that the industry hears gold in them thar riffs, even if the critics are turning up their noses.

In fact South by Southwest is grossly out of touch with the musical trends dominating pop culture at the moment, almost proudly so, as indicated by the festival's choice as its keynote speaker: Kinks frontman Ray Davies.

Not that Davies was unaware of his status as an anachronism. In his speech before a packed auditorium he joked of adding a dose of electronica and an appropriate new moniker to his next album: "MC Ray. Isn't that what the industry wants?"

This disconnect from the pop mainstream was further driven home by the SXSW organizers, even as they wrestled with aesthetic damage control. One figure defended the fest's dearth of hip-hop by citing his ultimately unsuccessful efforts to book Run-D.M.C. as the headliners for a free outdoor show. (Has-been rocker Matthew Sweet ended up as the last-minute substitute.)

It was a telling admission. The only folks who care about Run-D.M.C. anymore are aging altrock fans and academics, the same diversity-hungry booking agents who subsidize the lucrative speaking-engagement career of Public Enemy's Chuck D almost a decade after the actual rap world has written him off as irrelevant.

"What's hot right now is hip-hop, teen pop, and R&B," affirmed Jeff Salamon, who, as arts editor of the daily Austin American-Statesman, has had a front-row seat at SXSW for several years. "South by Southwest doesn't really focus on [those genres]. But if you're talking about rock -- people with guitars, singing -- then it provides a good snapshot of what's happening out there." And what would that snapshot's caption read? "Um, rock and roll's not dead?" laughs Salamon. "Even though the focus in our culture right now is not on rock per se, there's lots and lots of interesting stuff going on in the margins -- and you could see it all at South by Southwest."

True, but you often had to look in the margins there as well. Austin roots rockers Vallejo were named "Band of the Year" for the second year running by the Austin Music Awards (a joint venture between SXSW and the weekly Austin Chronicle), yet the distinction seemed more cautionary than cause for celebration. Highly touted as the first "rock signing" to Crescent Moon, the Sony Discos imprint of Latin pop padrón Emilio Estefan, Vallejo's resultant album was everything a Miami-meets-Austin fusion suggests: generically grungy guitar lines crammed into slick, at times painfully bright, rhythm tracks. In other words absolute dreck. The band might remain hometown heroes with well-attended (and decidedly raw) live shows, but the yawn that has greeted their album everywhere else should serve as a warning for any other guitar-slingers being courted by Estefan.

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