BBB (Big, Bold and Beautiful)
The clouds have parted and the birds are chirping what sounds like Japanese power pop. SXSW being an industry event I attend my first industry panel, "Idiots Unite!" (The idiots, of course, being anyone involved in this crazy business of show.) David Katznelson, president of Birdman Recording Group, moderated the discussion with fellow talking heads who've all either signed, managed or represented artists from Madonna to the Flaming Lips to Silversun Pickups. They tossed around nuggets like "There are 53 million music blogs in this country alone," debated the pros and cons of the Internet, and my what this Myspace has done to the biz. Yeah, snooze city until Seymour Stein – president of Sire Records, and the man who signed the Material Girl to Warner Records – pointed out Geoff Travis (the Geoff Travis, head of Rough Trade records who brought in the Smiths) sitting in the back. Could he really be the years-rumoured Mr. Shankly in the Smiths' "Frankly Mr. Shankly," the "flatulent pain in the arse" Morrissey wrote about? Didn't have the balls.
Friday afternoon had become awfully warm and I foolishly hit Sixth Street, the main vein running through downtown Austin's circulatory system of clubs and bars. This is Vegas on New Year's if Caesar's was imploding; did I forget to mention the entire world has descended here? It's not everyday in Texas you see two Japanese boys in mariachi pants and matching Dutch boy haircuts. Know how to single out the drunk female locals from the drunk, just-visiting female scenesters? The former throw out devil horn signs when walking out of a bar, while the latter scream "Great White! Great White!" The Corinthians-quoting Bible thumpers (the young ones with the Mormon schoolteacher hair are always the scariest) were out carrying "God Loves You" signs, handing out "Why Can't I Be Happy?" pamphlets and yelling into bullhorns, "My friend, if Satan is your friend like you say he is, how come, how come, he hasn't died for you?" Dunno. Does seem rather selfish.
I make a point of catching at least a few of the really oddly-named bands here – Holy Shit!, Les Breastfeeders, my! gay! husband!, etc. So per a friend's recommendation I check out Brooklyn's Say Hi to Your Mom who sound like Silversun Pickups who sound like Sonic Youth. I spend more time admiring rustic Buffalo Billiards' antelope chandelier and woodsy light fixtures. A better tip came from my music editor Kate Sullivan who informed me young British singer-songwriter Mika was the "special guest" (that's handbook-talk for don't be suckered by the handbook) at Eternal. We found a primo spot swiping-distance from the set list on the stage and just stared like smitten kittens as Mika sauntered in wearing a nifty, pin-stripped jacket, pristine Converse with nary a smudge and a riot of curly hair. He's all Freddie Mercury-and-Elton-John camp with a more discernible trace of testosterone than the Scissor Sisters. He was coy and sassy, throwing his arms in Mary Tyler Moore fashion (free, single and independent in the big city) and wiggling his rear in tandem with his bass player. His current radio single "Grace Kelly" is just an exuberant piano charmer and "Big Girl (You Are Beautiful") was his ode to the plus-size. Queen's "Fat Bottomed Girls," the Smiths' "Some Girls Are Bigger than Others" – what is with fey men and lovin' large?
The club's sweltering heat was suffocating, but I had to stick it out for two hours to see Amy Winehouse, the soul and R&B songstress who's gotten a lot of ink for being the British Britney (booze, drugs and anorexia woes, we have heard). That meant suffering through the aggro metal of Fair to Midland; the fact they come from a town in Texas called Sulphur Springs should've been a tipper. Singer Darroh Sudderth was practically airborne, violent shaking his head and flailing his arms like a deranged propeller. It's all fun and games until your frontman has to lie on stage to stop seeing stars, even after the band has left. Tired of squatting in between a girl's tattooed thighs, I found another primo spot on the side of the stage for what I knew was going to be hairy experience. Winehouse is an odd-looking bird – a tiny, wisp of a thing with dark, exotic features, horseshoe tattoos and the rattiest, most magnificent, half-up and half-down bouffant ever coifed after the '60s. She'd self-consciously wipe the bangs from her forehead and nervously chat with her musicians, a nine-piece band in suave suits that included two back-up singers with smooth Motown moves that got us hotter than the club's temperature. Her voice (soulful, brash and deeper than a subway tunnel) is equal parts Billie Holiday, Macy Gray and Lauryn Hill and speaks of woman who's lived harder, and longer, than Winehouse's mere 23 years. She sang of her cheating ways on "You Know I'm No Good" and gave detox the finger on "Rehab" ("I didn't get a lot in class/But I know it don't come in a shot glass"), a song allegedly written after Winehouse's former label gave her an ultimatum. I hope the real Britney and Mel Gibson weren't within ear shot.