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

There were plenty of other alternative heavy hitters on display, from a white-haired David Byrne to postpunk's answer to Blind Faith: an assemblage of Dinosaur Jr.'s J Mascis, the Minutemen's Mike Watt, and the Stooges' Ron Asheton, all frantically plucking their way through their collective back catalogue. The end result left a sour taste, however, a sense that these once-vital artists had each become just as much a stale relic as Ray Davies.

If you wanted to hear truly soulful rock, it helped to venture away from the official festival roster, to a series of "Not SXSW" unsanctioned afternoon gigs on Austin's south side, where a slew of country-tinged acts capitalized on the crowds already in town. Beneath a tent behind Yard Dog, a "folk-art gallery" with the paintings of Miami's own Purvis Young prominently displayed, a slew of Midwestern outfits such as Split Lip Rayfield, Rex Hobart & the Misery Boys, and Brit expats Rico Bell & the Snakehandlers satisfyingly sought that fabled high, lonesome sound.

Down the street, in the back yard of a thrift store (at an only-in-Texas intersection of a pickup truck lot, a boot shop, a Hispanic church, and a joint whose large neon sign declared "Just Guns"), Austin's Wayne Hancock dove into a set of stripped-down honky-tonk that evoked the lineage of Hank Williams more authentically than any of that man's actual offspring, yet never seemed retro. Which was the best way to describe the flock of fans in attendance, all decked out in vintage Western wear, their embroidered shirts and oversize cowboy hats providing a surreal contrast to the tiny video cameras they trained on Hancock as he sang.

Hancock himself made it a point to remind the audience that though he's a twanger, he's got nothing to do with Nashville. His passion on that matter only reiterated that Austin itself has become something of an exiled Grand Ole Opry, maintaining the same tortured love-hate relationship with Nashville that Miami's Cuban exiles enjoy with Havana: a longing to return to what's seen as their cultural wellspring mixed with a loathing for a regime viewed as illegitimate usurpers.

Cuban politics itself reared its head during a SXSW discussion panel entitled "Latin Music's Building Momentum," featuring several Miami-based record execs (who were easy to spot even without their name tags -- they were the only festivalgoers wearing suits). Michael Greene, president and CEO of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences -- and the chief honcho behind the Latin Grammys -- provided a chipper introduction to the affair.

As to the site of September's Latin Grammys now that Miami's "no Cubans" law has been effectively stricken down, Greene hoped to hold it in the Magic City, but a few "political hurdles" endured. He promised a final decision soon.

It seemed like a loaded remark. After all, if, as Greene said, both Mayor Alex Penelas and Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) chairman Jorge Mas Santos had "come onboard" and "the Cuban-American community has been amazingly cooperative," then what political hurdles were left?

In a postpanel interview with Kulchur and New Times music editor Celeste Fraser Delgado, Greene allayed any fears that when it came to the uncomfortable intersection of politics, culture, and big business, he would buckle under to el exilio. "If we do this thing in Miami, wewill have Cuban nominees," Greene stressed. Given the island's ongoing caliber of musical talent, "it'd be hard for me to believe there wouldn'tbe Cuban nominees." And would any of these Cuban nominees be invited to perform in Miami? Greene replied that while he wasn't looking to make a provocative statement, it was a definite possibility.

Obviously Jorge Mas Santos's powerful magic hadn't yet kicked in, despite his recent song-and-dance trip to schmooze Grammy officials in Los Angeles, not to mention his ludicrous assertion to the Miami Heraldthat "if [the Latin Grammys] are held in Los Angeles or New York, this community cannot show itself as the bastion of freedom of expression that it is." It also appears Mas Santos conveniently has forgotten the 1992 Americas Watch report that not only cited Miami as having a "repressive climate for freedom of expression" but also singled out CANF as being substantially responsible for that "lack of tolerance." Almost a decade later the human-rights observers at Americas Watch still conclude that in Miami, "the atmosphere for unpopular political speech remains marked by fear and danger, while government officials maintain a conspicuous silence."

Accordingly Greene's primary concern is preventing any "distractions for the nominees" at a Miami ceremony. He wants assurances there won't be masses of protesters waving placards, "threatening to blow up things." But hadn't Greene already been given that very assurance by the exile community's leaders? Or is there another, more recalcitrant, element that lies beyond Baby Mas's muzzle?

Greene slyly raised an eyebrow and made it clear that he understood all too well how Cuban-style street politics played out in Miami. Referring to both his fellow Grammy poobahs and Mas Santos's confederates, he addressed this more fanatical faction of exiles: "We know who they are, and they know who they are."

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