North by Northwest Comes, Goes; Free World Survives By Skin of Its Teeth
BY ZACH DUNDAS ,firstname.lastname@example.org
"The music business is a cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway where thieves and pimps run free, and good men die like dogs. There's also a negative side."
Hunter S. Thompson
The Russian in white shook like a seizure victim, vibrating in place on the Green Onion's stage. Tall, ostrich-thin and awkward, he sometimes leaned to the microphone to flap his tongue and hiss. Mostly, he let the off-the-rails momentum of Auktyon, his eight-member post-sane carnival from St. Petersburg, drive him further into the quivers.
Auktyon's music put a hot iron to most of the hundred or so crowded into the narrow Persian-themed club as the final witching hour of North by Northwest 2000 passed. Spirals of maniacal horns, a thunder of drums and guttural vocals spun from the stage. Auktyon first formed in the days when deviant music was anathema to the rusting Empire that still believed it was Building Socialism. After decades of fighting like blood-hungry pitbulls for the right to shriek, these eight guys turned everything loose in a cacophonous victory rite.
If Auktyon's ecstatic, volcanic Saturday night coup de grace captured everything right with the annual gathering of bands and music industry types, it was because it was far, far removed from the shop-talk and schmooze that mars the festival. While this year's conclave at the Embassy Suites offered a few moments of genuine insight into an industry that currently has its collective panties in a twist over technology, it mostly provided a reminder that the music business crawls with glad-handers, gizmo merchants and ten-percenters eager to squeeze a living out of other people's art.
But it's just like anything--it's all in how you look at it. Every day of trade-show hawkery and meandering talk evaporated into a night of music, and in just enough cases, the music was good enough to redeem the whole affair.
I began my NXNW immersion Wednesday night at Berbati's, in the fierce barrage of scattergun emo-agitation of At the Drive-In. The Texans survived the curse of "industry buzz," blistering an opening-night crowd with a display of unfeigned intensity. I could have done without lead singer Cedric Bixler's silly between-songs poetry--though not without his throat-ravaging fire. Careening around the stage with animal abandon, ATDI spared no quarter in a show that was clearly too over-the-top for some in attendance, but just fine by me.
Thursday night at Ground Kontrol, I caught the precocious yearlings of Seattle's The Vogue dealing a hard-to-swallow set of stripped-down, glam-filtered rock to a half-befuddled crowd. I went back and forth between loving and hating these ambitious kids about six times, which is probably just how they planned it. Their songs radiate a cold and mysterious menace, and lead singer Johnny Whitney is a one-man spectacle, vamping and preening as he spits his upper-register venom. At the same time, their studied preciousness can get annoying--and as for the reedy back-up vocalist occupying space at the back of the stage, well, he must be toting an awful lot of gear to justify his presence. Still, by the time the last wiry guitar line and poisonous keyboard crash went down, I was converted by their inventiveness and aggression. Yes, they're young--but so what? Pete Townshend did some of his best work before he hit 22, and while I wouldn't want to curse the Vogue with that fate, they carry promise beyond their years.
It took a sweat-box set at Meow Meow by Olympia's The Gossip to really set the festival rolling, though. With the fresh-faced indie-rocker crowd fervently clapping along, the three transplanted Arkansans hammered out an authoritatively vicious fusion of blues, punk and soul. By the end of their all-too-short Friday set, the stage was crowded with revelers dancing and grabbing a few seconds of mic time apiece. In a weekend overflowing with soulless industry jockeying and talk, it was a moment of pure pleasure, the kind that can't be packaged for sale.
Saturday night came Auktyon's uprising, along with a gorgeous set by Portland's Braille Stars. The Vue, a shaggy San Francisco contingent, were completely unchained at Berbati's, nearly hitting the feral energy levels of At the Drive-In. They do need to lose the boring retro fashion and fourth-hand Stones hooks and really live a little, but anyone looking for a cleansing jolt of passion got it. Finally, I ducked out of the Green Onion in time to finish the night with Black Angel at Dante's. The soul band practically owns that stage, and it defended its claim with a set as smooth as it was steeled.
As this year's NXNW faded into gilded memory, it's safe to say that it changed very few lives. From some angles, it showcased all that is and will continue to be warped and wrong with the music industry. But from others, it proved that music is often where the last fragment of our cultural Id not yet annihilated by focus groups, therapy, pharmaceuticals and television comes out to play rough.