Bay area bands face the SXSW music showdown in Texas. At stake: getting notice for themselves and the music scene back home.
By GINA VIVINETTO
Published April 8, 2004
[Times photos: Carrie Pratt]
Though the crowd is sparse, BC gives it his all as Red Tide hip-hops in the Flamingo Bandango, a special venue for Florida artists at the South by Southwest music conference in Austin recently. Red Tide members 2%, left, and Lazy, right, traveled with BC for the show. Click to hear Red Tide
JoEllen Schilke, second from right, talks with the band Mercy Seat after their performance in the 2nd Annual Flamingo Bandango in Austin. Mercy Seat includes bass player Johnny McCarthy, far left, singer-guitarist James McFarland, second from left, and drummer Jesse Martin.
Singer/songwriter Rebekah Pulley plays music at the State Theatre in St. Petersburg recently during a benefit for Tampa Bay bands playing in the second annual Flamingo Bandango in Austin. Pulley and her band, the Reluctant Prophets, performed in Austin at the Florida showcase during the SXSW music conference.
Laura Keane talks with a caterer before the Flamingo Bandango at Club DeVille in Austin. Keane and a few others from Tampa traveled early to Austin to help set everything up for the performances the next day.
Mercy Seat bassist Johnny McCarthy, wearing his lucky cap, performs with the band in Austin. I think that was one of our top three sets ever, he said afterward.
Hear samples from CDs by other bay area bands who played at South by Southwest: Listen to the bands
AUSTIN, Texas - Crippled Masters, a garage punk band from St. Petersburg, are on stage far from home, playing their guts out and hoping somebody will notice.
It's early afternoon on St. Patrick's Day. The audience under the tent outside Austin's Club DeVille is small - a few revelers wearing green floppy shamrock headsets and enjoying free beer and alligator chili.
One listener stands out: Jaan Uhelszki, a well-known music journalist who got her start writing with the legendary Lester Bangs at Creem in the 1970s. She has only popped in for a minute, and she doesn't plan to write anything about Crippled Masters, but she's bopping to the band's punk beat.
For the musicians who come from everywhere to play here, the annual South by Southwest music conference is all about getting attention. Headliners like Liz Phair and the B-52's get it just by showing up.
Not so for unheard-of acts like Crippled Masters, who have played mostly for beer money. Even now lead singer Pete DeLong has a nasty black eye, the result of a fall from a bar stool in New Orleans.
Uhelszki turns to someone and shouts, "They're good." Then she steps out, on her way to participate in a panel of rock journalists.
Later, when someone tells DeLong what she said, he lets loose a happy expletive. After all, Uhelszki used to write about Iggy and the Stooges back in the day. When you're at the bottom, even a single word of encouragement means a lot.
* * *
Each spring, more than 1,000 bands flock to Austin to try to get the music industry to notice them. Old-timers perform to remind folks why they're relevant. Newcomers try to ignite a buzz. Savvy record labels and PR firms sometimes pair the old and new together, spending small fortunes on showcases at Emo's, Stubbs and Antone's.
One good gig here can launch a career. Folks still talk about the stellar SXSW set John Mayer played in 2000, the one that resulted in a record deal and hits on the radio.
But lots of bands go to SXSW with little more than hope. With no flacks to hype them or record labels to get them an official showcase, they simply show up and play, thinking maybe somebody will make them stars.
This year, six Florida acts got a boost from a group of music enthusiasts from the Tampa Bay area. The South By Southwest Music Lovers Group, or SMLG, traveled to Texas and put together a showcase of Florida talent. The group rented space at the Club DeVille, got Skipper's Smokehouse in Tampa to donate some gator chili, and did its best to drum up some press coverage - all so local players could get a shot at the big time.
The group called the event the Flamingo Bandango. It drew visitors from Spin magazine, NPR, the Austin American-Statesman, the San Jose Mercury News, the hip DIW and Paste magazines and several label and promotion reps. In all, 387 folks attended.
"I knew so many Tampa area bands that had applied to SXSW and had not been accepted," said SMLG co-founder Flee, a deejay at community radio station WMNF-FM 88.5. Along with a small group of volunteers, Flee, whose real name is Lee Courtney, organized the unofficial showcase, like many he has seen during his trips to SXSW over the last decade.
"The bands were eager to pay their own way to Austin," Flee said, "if SMLG could pay for the party and rent the venue."
This year marks the second Tampa Bay area showcase the group has hosted during SXSW. Now, Flee wonders which band will be the first to be noticed in Austin and shine a light on the rest of the local music scene.
"Did anyone notice Seattle before Nirvana?" Flee says. "Athens, Ga., before R.E.M.?"
At this year's Bandango, no band got famous. But they all got heard.
* * *
Oh, the lengths they went to just to get here.
The members of Crippled Masters and Mercy Seat, another St. Petersburg band, traveled to Texas together in a 1995 Ford Econoline van owned by Mercy Seat bassist Johnny McCarthy. The van doubles as McCarthy's home, which says a lot about the lifestyles of unknown rockers. Before he lived in his Ford, McCarthy, 33, shacked up in a cheap St. Petersburg motel.
Musicians in the Tampa Bay area don't get rich playing in bars. Bar owners usually charge patrons around $3 for a night of live music, with the proceeds divided among several bands. Sometimes a whole band might split $50.
Day jobs are imperative. Mercy Seat singer-guitarist James McFarland tends bar at hipster cafe and nightclub Cafe Alma in St. Petersburg. Ronnie Elliott works at the Music Spot, a record store in Tampa. Singer-songwriter Rebekah Pulley works full-time at Seminole Music Warehouse. She also plays covers at bars two nights a week. She would rather play her own music, but the gigs help her pay for gymnastics lessons and baseball equipment for her daughter Jasmine, 9.
No one cashed in on the way to Texas, either. Along the way Crippled Masters and the Mercy Seat played a few gigs, blew money in poker games and lost a roadie in New Orleans.
The guy went on a drug- and alcohol-fueled bender and passed out naked in the lobby of a five-star hotel. The authorities locked him up in a psych ward.
"New Orleans, man," says Mercy Seat drummer Jesse Martin, puffing on a Camel Light. "You can't go to New Orleans without something weird happening."
Pulley and two members of her band, the Reluctant Prophets, loaded six guitars, several amps and luggage into a Volkswagen GTI and drove the 1,200 miles. The three were in the car together for 20 hours.
All of the Tampa Bay musicians made financial sacrifices to come. Add up hotel rooms, rental cars, food, cell phones, cab money and plane fares (for some), and the dream got pricey.
Singer and instrumentalist Anna O. winced and put the whole trip on her Visa. Her band couldn't afford to come. So she borrowed Pulley's backing band.
* * *
On showcase day, Red Tide takes the stage after the Crippled Masters' set. "Y'all ready to rock?" shouts front man BC.
But the crowd, such as it was, is gone. Save for a small group of Japanese journalists, Red Tide's audience is mostly fellow musicians from back home.
Worse, deejay Lazy is experiencing turntable malfunctions. He can't scratch his vinyl. Lazy makes up for it by getting out front and engaging in wordplay with BC.
what me and my affiliates
We facilitate debates
Four people from San Diego walk into the club. They had heard Red Tide's sound, booming with beats and vintage jazz bass line samples, as they walked down Red River Road.
"They have that smart Def Jux sound," says Chris Kramer, 34, one of the San Diego bunch who have been attending SXSW together for several years. Kramer is referring to Definitive Jux, the hip-hop label known for a roster of forward-thinking artists like Aesop Rock, El-P, and Mr. Lif.
"Their sound was so different," Kramer says, "it literally stopped us in the street. One of my buddies was saying, "Well, this is a nice, unexpected thing to stumble on at 3 in the afternoon.' It got us in here. It kept us here until they were done."
"But they have a tough road ahead of them," Kramer says."MTV doesn't play intelligent rap. People don't want to be challenged like this."
After the set, the guys in Red Tide console each other behind the venue. When a friend tells them about the San Diego four, Lazy hugs the young woman, saying, "Man, thank you so much. We need to hear anything good right now."
* * *
The Mercy Seat's members don't expect anything grandiose out of this SXSW trip. They're realists. Last year, singer McFarland and bassist McCarthy - drummer Martin hadn't yet joined - drove to Austin to "busk" on street corners, playing for whomever would listen.
They know SXSW is a crapshoot.
Yet, the Mercy Seat's Club DeVille set is electrifying. McFarland slouches in front of the mike, strumming his guitar, singing alternately into it and into a bull mike to create the creepy vocal effect that adds nuance to the band's sound. McFarland's lyrics, which detail the lives of junkies in dark bars, are an odd contrast to the happy revelers in the sunbaked patio.
McCarthy, wearing his lucky Pabst Blue Ribbon ball cap, hugs his upright bass from behind, delicately plucking its strings, a cigarette stuck to his lips. Martin bashes his set with fury.
So what if nothing comes of this set? The band is juiced by it. It represents the trio's growing closeness, their ability to read each other musically.
"Phenomenal," McCarthy says later. "I think that was one of our top three sets ever. We were so passionate, the sound was perfect. It felt great. We were so jacked up from all the gigs on the tour before it. Everything we wanted to happen, happened. All of our kinks were worked out."
John McNicholas plays to the day's largest crowd, which enjoys the singer-guitarist's jangly pop. McNicholas' tunes chronicle his losses in love. Two young women in the crowd laugh at his stage patter. He gets the audience to sing along on Alright and parodies an arena rocker, joking about dividing the "stadium" into right and left sides to see who can scream louder. One young woman steps to a quiet spot in the venue to make a cell phone call.
"You should come," she tells whomever is on the line. "There's free food and beer and the bands are pretty good."
Rebekah Pulley is the last performer to take the stage. Her sound, steeped in the roots of blues and country music, is tailor-made for Texas. The singer-guitarist has told her pals she's viewing the trip as a vacation, that's all. No big hopes.
Something in her voice suggests the trip has done her good. Always a sweet soprano, Pulley's voice today could crush hearts; the singer is trying new tricks with it, as if being in a strange place is making her brave.
Pulley has found at least one new fan in Glenn Thomas of Dallas. "She's just so great," Thomas says, amazed. "Her voice, her lyrics."
"That's why I love stuff like this," Thomas says of the showcase. "I've never heard of any of these people, but now I'll be looking for her name, because you know something's going to happen for her."
* * *
Flee says the wheels are in motion for Flamingo Bandango 2005. SMLG is considering ways to lure more media and industry types. It didn't occur to SMLG until they were in Austin that they might have tried to persuade the Washdown to play at the Bandango. The Tampa punk band has a deal with Lookout records and performed at an official SXSW showcase.
Flee sees the Tampa Bay area as a hotbed of talent. "It just takes one act to break," Flee says, "and before you know it every record company is looking for the next Tampa Bay band."
McCarthy, of the Mercy Seat, notes all the diverse sounds the bay area brought to Austin: Red Tide's hip-hop, the jangly roots rock of Pulley and McNicholas, Anna O's sweet, melancholic pop, the Master's punk, his own band's alt-noir rock.
"I was proud to play with these people," McCarthy says. "We represented."