Showcase Showdown

Local bands seek exposure at Austin's big music fest

Hey! Have you heard? WMNF is sponsoring a Tampa Bay local-band showcase stage at legendary Austin, Texas, music festival South by Southwest! They're holding fundraising shows all over the Bay area as we speak, so they can fly the bands out, put 'em up in a hotel and even pay them for their time!You may have heard some variation on this hyperbolic bit of local scene scuttlebutt.

It isn't true.

Well, not exactly, anyway. What is true is that a handful of current and former 'MNF affiliates who also happen to be habitual SXSW attendees have found an admirably inventive way to afford six local bands some of the festival's exposure, without actually participating in it.

The annual industry confab/conference/ showcase known as SXSW has a storied tradition of extracurricular parties thrown by various labels, PR companies, radio stations, etc. While not technically affiliated with the festival, the soirees fill the gaps, keep pundits happy, draw intrepid locals into the fray and generally occur with the main event's unofficial blessing. AND, it just so happens that some Tampa Bay boosters have secured a venue that just so happens to be right in the middle of downtown Austin's live-club fray, for a party that just so happens to be scheduled for the afternoon and evening of Wednesday, March 12 — which just so happens to be South by Southwest's opening day.

"Flee and I were on the plane on the way back [from SXSW last year], and we asked ourselves, 'everybody else has all these parties, why don't we have our own?'" remembers Jennifer Hollowell, the DJ behind Monday's alt-country-centric The ND Hour. "It didn't start out as a showcase of Tampa talent. We started with the idea just to have a party, the first party of the week. That's why we chose Wednesday afternoon."

Over the ensuing few months, Hollowell, fellow DJs Flee and Norwood Orrick and a cadre of co-conspirators fleshed out the idea. It evolved from a party, to a party featuring a set by some well-known WMNF-friendly national act (names like Alejandro Escovedo and Slobberbone were kicked around), to a bill of unsigned Tampa bands headlined by some well-known WMNF-friendly national act.

"Then we decided that our bands are as good as anything else out there, and that we didn't want to shorten anyone's time by having anyone else play," Hollowell says.

With virtually all of WMNF's money earmarked for their new building program, the group decided to take things into their own hands. Calling Austin clubs, they found a place for the party at downtown venue Club DeVille, across the street from the renowned Stubb's Bar-B-Q.

"They didn't have an official party booked that day and were very gracious about donating the space," Hollowell says.

(Ironically, Club DeVille has since become a host for several official SXSW events, linking the Tampa party even more closely with the goings-on.)

The planners also started making wish lists of the Bay area bands that might be asked to participate. They flirted with the idea of some sort of open-call elimination process — balloting, a series of shows where audience response determined the bill — but due to time constraints and an overwhelming number of other intricacies to deal with, the group simply picked acts they knew, respected, and were sure would deliver.

"That was a long discussion. We talked and talked and talked and talked about this," says Hollowell, who wasn't at the meeting where the final lineup was decided. "It got to the point where we were running out of time, and a decision had to be made so the bands could make their plans. I think they made the decision based on which bands had appeared the most often on the lists, or who they thought of that night."

At press time, the party's lineup consists of Ronny Elliott, Barely Pink, The Gita, Urbane Cowboys, Pagan Saints and Damon Fowler, a bill running the gamut from power-pop to alt-country to blues. All of these bands have also submitted for inclusion in a proper SXSW showcase; as of this writing, only Elliott has been confirmed.

"I'm thrilled that these people are doing this, because I feel like we've never done anything as a community [at large] to support the music community. I can't help but have a twinge of guilt about the fact that they can't bring everybody," says SXSW veteran Elliott.

Of course, some acts are guaranteed to be rankled by the selection process, and there are those who will feel that the lineup is nowhere near varied enough to adequately represent the Bay area's original music scene. Orrick accepts that as inevitable, and hopes scenesters realize that this thing was put together on the fly.

"This was a spur of the moment thing," says the man who brings you Tuesday's early-a.m. Morning Wood show. "If this goes as well as we hope it will, there will be even more planning next year. I would like to see some female groups represented. I would like to see some urban music. We could certainly display a bigger diversity of styles. I would definitely like to be able to put the word out, so bands that are interested in joining next year can make their interest known to us, so we'll have a pool of bands to draw from. But I think we're doing fine for our first time out."

The proceeds from a current series of fundraising shows go to such expenses as lights, sound, food, beer and promotion — not to the bands, who will get to Austin on their own dime. And those who may choose not to attend a fundraiser because of sour grapes would do well to remember a concept that gets a lot of lip service: that when good things happen to any Bay area band, it generally can't help but be good for all Bay area bands.

"We're trying to dispel the myth that the Tampa music scene is somehow not equal to other places' scenes," says Orrick. "We've got lots of really good talent around here, and it's time we started thinking of ourselves as part of a higher tier."

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Music critic Scott Harrell can be reached at 813-248-8888, ext. 109, or by email at [email protected].

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