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The first sign that something dramatic was unfolding was the eerie quiet. About 200 young hipsters had poured into Austin, Texas's Urban Outfitters store for an impromptu afternoon set from Iron & Wine, better known to his Miami neighbors as Sam Beam.
The sidewalk outside was abuzz with the frenzy of activity that is mid-March's annual South by Southwest music business convention. More than 6000 attendees (and perhaps twice that many Austinites) were flitting between shows from over 1000 different artists from around the world: record company staffers, trend-spotting journalists, and excited fans, all trying to take the pulse of pop culture. And for those seeking extra-musical clues, a large antiwar demonstration was noisily under way just a few blocks east in front of the massive state capitol building.
But it was a different world inside Urban Outfitters. No ringing cell phones. No chattering. Not even a stage whisper. The rapt audience, mostly local college students, had crammed into every square foot of free space, sitting amid an array of "vintage" Puma T-shirts, "Jesus is my Homeboy" caps, prefaded jeans, and kitschy glassware -- items once lovingly hunted for in dusty thrift shops, now mass-produced to evoke the same effect. Yet if the crowd here perfectly embodied the Martha Stewart-ized Alternative Nation that Urban Outfitters aims for -- all ironic poses and knowing dishabille -- the soundtrack in the air was jarring.
Sam Beam stood still, slowly strumming his acoustic guitar as his voice rose ever-so-slightly to a gentle croon. To his left, his sister gently harmonized on melodies that seemed lifted from the Carter Family. To his right was another guitarist, deftly finger-picking his way through the Appalachian-styled lullabies. There wasn't an ounce of angst on display, just the winsome tunes from The Creek Drank The Cradle, a collection of songs originally performed and recorded solely by Beam in his Miami Beach living room.
If the appeal of this music to this particular crowd appears unlikely, so is the outlet for its release -- Seattle's Sub Pop Records. Best known for shepherding Nirvana to stardom in 1991, and indelibly identified with Seattle's feedback-drenched grunge music scene thereafter, Sub Pop would seem an odd home for Iron & Wine. Yet The Creek Drank The Cradle has become one of the label's recent successes, steadily selling over 15,000 copies in the last few months to a growing body for whom this purchase is likely their first electricity-free album.
"Kids want something that feels real, whether it's hard rock or Sam," explains Sub Pop publicist Steve Manning, himself barely older than the twentysomethings he's referencing. In February Beam performed live on the morning show of Los Angeles NPR radio station KCRW-FM -- just himself and his guitar. The next week saw the L.A. sales of Beam's album jump fivefold to 1000. "There's a certain warm quality in the songs which people respond to," Manning muses, wondering what would happen if other powerful stations across the country followed KCRW's lead.
It might be a stretch to call these stirrings a movement. But it's worth noting that for all the presumably disaffected youth visibly wandering Austin, only a sliver headed for that city's massively publicized antiwar protest. True, several thousand heeded the call, but thousands consciously opted to spend their time hanging out just a few minutes away -- a fact not lost on Austin's antiwar organizers as they rallied their troops.
"The turnout's good in light of South by Southwest," argued David Jinright, a leader of the Austin Against War collective. He busied himself with a stack of petitions as a barely audible PA system droned overhead -- something about Iraq -- and two middle-age women strode past with signs proclaiming Another Dixie Chick Ashamed of Bush.
But shouldn't this demonstration be a natural draw for the thousands of countercultural types visiting Austin for South by Southwest? "There's a lot of competition today," Jinright countered with a frown, turning back to his paperwork.
Closer to home, you could see that same disconnect. Thirty thousand trance and breakbeat fans were expected to swarm into downtown Miami's Bayfront Park for March 22nd's fourteen-hour-long Ultra Fest concert. Anticipating a fertile recruiting ground, local antiwar groups were energized, calling for a gathering there. Yet while tens of thousands did indeed surge into Ultra Fest, none chose to spend their time voicing their opposition to the war. In the end, despite some urgent pleas at the park's entrance gates, little more than two dozen protesters manned this antiwar vigil.
You could call that dismal number dispiriting. Or you could look at it as encouraging proof that while antiwar advocates are busy resurrecting Gulf War, or even Vietnam-era, analyses, most folks remain ambivalent, sure that something has irrevocably altered out there since September 11. This critical mass -- ravers and seniors alike -- may regard the pronouncements of the president with skepticism. But however they view the ongoing war -- as imperial adventure, quest for oil, or a chance to foment a liberal revolution in a region where such change is desperately overdue -- the "peace" marchers inspire even more distrust and alarm.
In his new book Terror and Liberalism, Paul Berman addresses this inchoate understanding, taking aim at the willful blindness of antiwar forces and their philosophical patron saint, Noam Chomsky. He writes, "The notion that, in large parts of the world, a mass movement of radical Islamists had arisen, devoted to mad hatreds and conspiracy theories; the notion that radical Islamists were slaughtering people in one country after another for the purpose of slaughtering them; the notion that radical Islamists ought to be taken at their word and that shariah and the seventh-century Caliphate were their goals, and that Jews and Christians were demonic figures worthy of death; the notion that bin Laden had ordered random killings of Americans strictly for the purpose of killing Americans -- all of this was, from Chomsky's perspective, not even worth discussing."
Needless to say, they are matters that antiwar groups also deem irrelevant. But were President Bush to heed the angry slogans screamed at him and withdraw every U.S. soldier from the Middle East tomorrow morning, none of the threats Berman describes would disappear. In that light, the womblike space created by Sam Beam's music starts to sound awfully inviting.
Back at Austin's Urban Outfitters, a postperformance Sam Beam was uncomfortable with his newfound role of generational pied piper. "The first time people started singing along, it threw me for a loop," he recalls of a just-completed series of West Coast shows.
One song in particular, "Upward Over the Mountain," struck a chord with its bittersweet images of a young man writing home. "Mother, don't worry," Beam aches as each verse opens up, flashing on teenage episodes from the family dog giving bloody birth to a brood of pups on the kitchen floor, to an old girlfriend who Mom never quite approved of. And then the chorus:
So may the sunrise bring hope where it once was forgotten, sons can be birds taken broken up to the mountain.
Not exactly "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah."
"Those words coming back at me!" Beam marvels with a shake of his head at the memory of several hundred strangers standing together in the dark, their voices all chiming together. "It sounds like an anthem now: 'Hooray! We'll make it through!'"