I MISSED OUT on South by Southwest this year, but I wonder if I missed much.
Don't get me wrong: I'm very much down with a cross-country odyssey to a gargantuan independent rock festival, just preferably sans the proliferation of major-label dicks-with-ears and their cell (out) phone cacophony.
Michigan Fest, touted as one of America's largest fuck-corporate-culture indie hoedowns, seemed to fill my prescription perfectly. Regrettably, instead of hoeing down in an asteroid belt of hip clubs (CMJ Music Marathon) or maybe a cool theater (Yo Yo a Go Go), my dream fest dropped into Midwest armpit Wayne, Mich., in a Knights of Columbus reception hall, sans booze, smoking, and flushable toilets.
Never mind that the 39-band roster was a case study in boutique-label schizophrenia (including Death Cab for Cutie, Arab on Radar, Hot Snakes, !!!, Coalesce, Isis, and the Dismemberment Plan); the stench was at the forefront of my mind—and it was rocking out 24/7.
Upon entering the venue, all with functional nostrils were bombarded by a curious combination of patchouli, Pine-Sol, and unwiped ass. My companion, Andy, immediately nailed it: "Smells like emo."
This from the same guy who bitched about the $55 golden ticket the entire weekend (some profits went to anti- domestic assault programs and similarly worthy progressive causes), then heckled one of the three bands he actually stayed to watch, Seattle's own beloved Death Cab. An excerpted transcript, to whet your appetite for inanity:
Andy: Would you mind if I heckled them?
Me: A little. Just don't.
Andy: How much is "a little?"
Me: Come on, they're from Seattle. They're just doing their thing; they get a pass.
Andy: Hey, just play Built to Spill and get it over with!!!
Death Cab's collective manhood was somewhat avenged when a nearby white belt/black bangs hissed to Andy, "Control your gas! You've been farting the whole show!" His response: "I like your haircut, ma'am. It's very 'now.'" If I'm not mistaken, everyone involved in this exchange was well over 10 years old. Stuttering John, eat your heart out.
This exercise in retardation inadvertently doubles as a microcosm of the event itself, a mad collision of styles and mentalities that was sometimes entertaining (a "water must've been cold" streaker pranced around armed with firecrackers), but more regularly just plain clashed. A three-rows-of-spectators-deep game of Spin the Bottle in the lobby inspired superiority and self-loathing. Was I too old for this shit, or just plain too old?
Michigan Fest typified everything good and bad about the culture I embrace. The frequency of uninhibited dancing was awe-inspiring—let's all take note, Seattle—but the unmitigated D.I.Y. approach has major drawbacks. Nearly every band complained about the stage's undimmable overhead funnel lamps, which further detracted from the stinky, cavernous room's already dubious atmosphere. A little theatricality would've been appreciated.
Thankfully, the static nature of the environment inspired many bands to take matters of entertainment into their own hands. Pleasure Forever played one of their tightest sets ever . . . so tight, in fact, that their drummer split his hand open halfway in, wiped blood all over his face, but completed the show like a trouper, collapsing backstage afterward. Oxes and Crooked Fingers obliterated the fourth wall as the festival wound down; the former chugged away in the audience with cordless axes, while the latter performed an ber-intimate, literally unplugged stand-up-bass-and-banjo set near the soundboard. !!!'s white boy funk (think Dave Matthews Band meets Eminem) elicited such a raucous response that a crowd surfer booted a chandelier, sending shards of glass raining down into the bootylicious oasis.
A funny thing happened. Nobody cleared out. The band kept jamming. The kids kept dancing. Everyone had the time of their fucking lives.
And I stood 10 feet away with my arms folded thinking, "God, does this band suck."