Ditch the Fest Fest
Cheer Up Charlie's, 10/9
It's been almost exactly a year since Anna C. and I left Boulder, Colorado to move to Austin. I remember, because it's now the second October in a row that I've been disgusted by the degree to which corporate entities control the agendas of music fans in the "live music capital." Austin's reputation among outsiders does not line up with the reality. We're supposed to have the most discerning, open-minded music fans anywhere, respecting tradition but not bound to it, eager for new sounds, driven to be the first and not the last on a rising new act's bandwagon. Fans like myself and Anna. Unfortunately, the town's receptivity to music is being manipulated by entities that do not have the advancement of art and culture first and foremost in their minds. For an unwitting Austin music fan, the concert calendar is a constant stream of "must-see" imports, attached to steep ticket prices and promoted unceasingly by a crappy, slothful local press who are complicit in the booking agencies' scheme to suck in every last dollar of disposable hipster income.
If you're just a tool with a trust fund, it doesn't matter to me if you want to spend forty-five bucks on Strokes tickets... knock yourself out. But what really bothers me about Austin's cozy hype industry is the way that it sucks in local musicians. A lot of people move here intending very seriously to give making music their lives a shot. The less self-aware ones get stuck on the merry-go-round. They have to go to the Pixies show. They have to buy a three-day pass to the festival. They have to spend a month's salary to get the shiniest plutonium wristband (or whatever the hell) in March.
As a class musicians tend to have inflated opinions of their own importance and a deep-seated need for approval. All they see talked about in the local press is the big-time shows, so they get brainwashed along with everybody else into thinking that there's no other game in town. They don't see any point in going to see other local bands. They feel the only path to success for their own projects is getting written about by some blog in Brooklyn and ignore promoting to local fans and working together with other bands in the same community. They post lists of all the out-of-town buzz bands they hope to open for to Craigslist, ignoring the fact that the majority of big shows shut out local bands entirely.
Explain to me how else some 40 of Austin's finest acts were free this Saturday for Ditch the Fest Fest. We weren't able to stay at Cheer Up Charlie's for the entire day, but in about three hours' time we saw an impressive variety of music, from Pataphysics' comedy garage to Missions' Euro-tastic vintage electro bleeping. Megafauna brought blistering solos, Agent Ribbons whispered spooky poetry, and Hatchet Wound just rode an ugly, screaming, noise-bass groove until it somehow turned pretty. As we walked in A Giant Dog's Sabrina was out-howling the entire Happen-Ins. Everywhere we looked, there was someone cool we had met before during our yearlong immersion in Austin music -- Zorch's producer Evan, the Sour Notes' bassist Amarah, KVRX folks, local writer and impresario DIY Danna. And also there was a guy dressed as a pirate.
My point is, if you want to be a bigger part of the Austin music scene (whether you're a musician, writer, filmmaker, promoter, or all of the above), you need to put yourself in places where fans and supporters of local music are going to be. Judging by the all the idiots with out-of-state license plates driving the wrong way on South Lamar last night as we were coming home from another awesome free show at the Rockin' Tomato, those folks weren't at Zilker Park this weekend.
Let me a take a moment to recognize the band Red Leaves. I've written about them pretty harshly in the past. We saw them at the first show we ever went to at Beerland last fall and they sucked. We encountered them a few times after that and they quickly became a band that we would avoid at all costs. At the time they seemed more conscious of image than musical coherence, with their guitarist, bassist, and drummer all grinding away oblivious to one another and their token female member plunking away ridiculously late on guitar or bass. To Anna they became the go-to example of a local band where a woman was used as a prop to increase visibility rather than a creatively engaged member. Well, we saw them yesterday and although it was the same lineup and same setup, we have to change our attitude now. They killed it. The bass and drums were far more involved in developing the songs, those late guitar and bass parts are right on time now, and since they've gotten their musical issues in line the thing that always made them appealing, really melodic male and female vocals and even harmonies, pop out in a brand new way. The boy singer could stand to quit imitating Thurston Moore's vocal mannerisms so closely, but they have gone from unwatchable to maybe the best band we saw yesterday. In the nick of time, too, because with the proliferation of local No Wave bands in the wake of Casual Victim Pile, there's a need for a band like this that has the ability to bring real songwriting to the table. There's another lesson in there somewhere. Keep playing!
Quickly: The Happen-Ins are great dressers, but they really need to find some sort of modern twist to their Stones-Band-Dylan 70's rock sound, because they bring nothing new to the table and it's obvious to a lot more people than just me.... Missions have a little bit of that static science-class feeling a lot of all-electronic acts have as a live band, but their songs progress and are distinguishable from one another. Pretty sure one of their members is also in Love at 20, only she actually showed a pulse and some personality playing with this band. Hatchet Wound remind me of PiL, and their super-basic bass and drums setup works well for what it does. I suspect though that if one of the two of them weren't female, they would have trouble booking shows with this stripped-down and repetitive a style. Lead guitar would be nice. Agent Ribbons are new to Austin but arrived with a ton of hype. I can see why people praise their songs, which are warped and twisted while still having really simple rockabilly underpinnings. They play very quietly, which is nice because their lyrics are great and you can hear them clearly. Still, I think they'd benefit as a live band if their drummer would go ahead and hit the drums like they're not going to hit back.