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.
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.
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, we will have Cuban nominees," Greene stressed. Given the island's ongoing caliber of musical talent, "it'd be hard for me to believe there wouldn't be 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.
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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 Herald that "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."