AUSTIN, Texas — Complaining that the South by Southwest Music Festival — Cannes meets Sundance for the music industry, plus a touch of spring break — has long since become too big for its own darn good is sort of like complaining about the weather in Chicago.
It’s a fact of life, moaning about it does no good, dealing with the difficulties builds character and in the end it’s more than worth the trouble if you keep your eye on the prize: the chance to be among the first to hear what are certain to be some of the best bands and biggest newsmakers of 2008.
Because the four days of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center and the five nights of showcase performances at dozens of clubs scattered across the Texas capital now start on Wednesday, I decided to make the trip to SXSW XXII a day early this year, beating the long lines to register on opening day by picking up my badge early.
When I got on the plane at 7:20 a.m. Tuesday, I didn’t know if there’d be any music worth catching in Austin that night. But at the airport here, I ran into three-quarters of the legendary and increasingly reactivated Chicago punk band Naked Raygun, and they told me they were playing a pre-SXSW show (though they couldn’t even remember the name of the club) in addition to their official gig on Wednesday at Red Eyed Fly.
Unless a band is on the verge of a national breakthrough and I want to gauge its reception before the assembled tastemakers, I generally avoid seeing Chicago acts at SXSW, figuring I can always see them at home. But hey, the festival wasn’t officially on yet, and I decided that the benefit of being in Austin a day early was that I could warm up for the coming chaos and overwhelming bounty of choices by seeing some bands I wanted to see without feeling guilty about missing some big hype and alleged next big thing.
(This year’s Amy Winehouse-level hysteria centers on preppy popsters Vampire Weekend, who will headline this year’s Pitchfork Music Festival in Union Park July 18-20. I’m already sick of hearing about them, and as I said, SXSW hasn’t even started yet.)
Setting out to see the band that gave us “Home of the Brave” at a new punk club called Red 7 — new venues open up in Austin more often and more easily than potholes back home — I wandered in to some place on Seventh Street just in time to catch a set by a duo called the Pity Party from Los Angeles. Playing their first show in Texas, guitarist-vocalist M and drummer-vocalist Heisenflei delivered half an hour of rollicking, angular New Wave art-punk.
It was so good, in fact, I stayed even after I realized I was at Beauty Bar, the place adjacent to where I really wanted to be. When the Pity Party was over, I finally went next door to Red 7 to catch the under-rated Shot Baker, a quartet working the classic Chicago punk formula.
Shot Baker doesn’t reinvent the wheel: Its sound pretty much evenly splits the difference between Pegboy and Naked Raygun, who’ve been recent tour mates. Yet as with the Ramones’ eternal 1-2-3-4, you just can’t go wrong with a rollicking rhythm and a rousing “whoa-whoa-whoa-oh-oh-oh” chorus, and I’m looking forward to Shot Baker’s second full-length album, coming in June.
Killing time waiting for the night’s headliners and the all-time masters of the “whoa-whoa-whoa-oh-oh-oh,” I saw another surprisingly great set — the mostly instrumental dub-punk-metal of Brooklyn-based Ipecac recording artists Dub Trio — and a just plain loud and generic one: the undistinguished metallic road rage of Toronto’s Cancer Bats, who bragged half a dozen times that they drove 48 hours to play here, and who looked and probably smelled as if they’d been in the van four times that long.
Then there was the Richmond, Va., crossover thrash band Municipal Waste, which wailed away with unrelenting fury as an old-school mosh pit erupted complete with the new-school twist of crowd surfers actually using a boogie board to ride the undulating waves of vibrating metalheads.
At last, it was time for Jeff Pezzati, Pierre Kezdy, Eric Spicer and Bill Stephens to take the stage in Austin for the first time in more than a decade and a half, since they played a thankless opening gig for 40 Butthole Surfers fans back before their long hiatus through the alternative era and into the new millennium.
One could argue that in praising Naked Raygun, I am just reveling in nostalgia for my own earliest clubbing days in the mid-’80s — and it definitely was a bit of a time warp to see Matador Records honcho Gerard Cosloy rush in as the band started its set with “Metastasis.” (Cosloy signed the band to Homestead Records and released what stands as its best album, “Throb Throb,” in 1985.)
But I’d counter that saying Raygun is still great in 2008 is less like a Baby Boomer reliving his lost youth as the Rolling Stones play “Brown Sugar” in some stadium for the 30,000th time than a fan realizing that, though he has undeniably aged, Neil Young is still very nearly as strong today as he ever was.
In fact, Naked Raygun’s music may only be getting better with age — like a fine wine, an artisan cheese or a AAA-rated bond.
Wait, did I just compare Naked Raygun to aging cheese? I’m looking at the clock and realizing I am now entering my 21st hour of work in a 24-hour period. And did I mention that SXSW hasn’t even really started yet? Better quit while I’m ahead.