Southern Exposure

South by Southwest welcomes some St. Louis acts that merit the spotlight -- and one that doesn't

If you're reading this, you're probably not at South by Southwest, the music industry's biggest, baddest and most overrated annual clusterfuck, which goes down this week (March 12-16) in Austin, Texas. This year, like most years, a handful of St. Louis-area musicians are performing at the official festival. (The "official" qualifier is necessary because of all the showcases and impromptu performances by various glommers-on who aren't endorsed by the SXSW corporate entity; it's supposed to distinguish the real prospects from those benighted souls who drive down to Austin, stake out a spot on the sidewalk and hope against hope that some wayward A&R doofus stumbles on their genius.)

Don't get us wrong: We're not buying into the SXSW hype, although, judging from some of the "talent" represented, we suspect that those who can afford to buy into it may be doing just that. Once it meant something to say you were playing at SXSW: Either you'd generated a little buzz or had the air of someone who might become buzz-worthy someday. If you're from St. Louis, so far from either coast, the opportunity to play for a handful of tastemakers -- a Spin freelancer, a PR flack, a label dude's drunken girlfriend -- could mean the difference between having a career in music and living out the rest of your days in your mom's basement. Yeah, maybe it's delusional to assume that some important person's gonna rescue you from obscurity and take you to the next level, but at least it's more likely to happen at SXSW than at the Creepy Crawl.

That's what we used to think, anyway, before we noticed that Pinkeye d'Gekko made it into the festival this year. Despite PdG's impressive trademarked lizard mascot, Pinky(they call this "branding" in the biz); its expensive, full-color press kits with stickers and T-shirts; and its shiny professional-studio sound, the fact remains that this band is never going anywhere. Fortysomething frontman Steve Richards Mahoney does, however, own a deluxe recording studio (Four Seasons), where the band's thoroughly underwhelming debut CD Rhythm & Westrn was recorded, and he owns the label (Force MP Entertainment) that released the damn thing. He's hired Kupper Parker Communications, a glitzy local "fix it" firm, to handle his publicity, what there is of it. Wouldn't it be swell if all aspiring rock stars had rich daddies?

But not to worry: St. Louis does have some worthy ambassadors. 2002 RFT Music Award winner Jay Farrar (who's mysteriously identified on the SXSW Web site as a "country/bluegrass" artist from Jersey City, New Jersey), Radar Station darlings Grand Ulena (a "pop/rock" outfit from Edwardsville, Illinois -- the second part is true, anyway) and Nadine (who played at SXSW last year) will be doing us proud. Also on the roster are the Living Things, a new band that just signed to DreamWorks, and the Lyndsay Diaries, a vaguely Christian, kinda emo, sensitive-folky-type group.

But far more exciting than any SXSW hoopla is the news that Grand Ulena are playing their second hometown gig, two days after their SXSW appearance. (Unlike a certain other band under discussion, GU does, in fact, play out with some regularity -- just not here.) On Saturday, March 15, the trio celebrates the release of its debut CD, Gateway to Dignity, at Radio Cherokee. Though some local music fans grouse that GU is too snooty for St. Louis, nothing could be further from the truth. From the band's name (two St. Louis City streets that don't intersect) to all the song titles ("Between Tholozan and Oleatha," "Gravois Means Rubble," etc.) to the album art (a gorgeous painting of a brick two-family on Lemp), Grand Ulena is right up there with Nelly when it comes to representin' the Lou.

"All three of us have lived in (or near) St. Louis our entire lives," guitarist Chris Trull explains by e-mail. "We love it. Long before we had played a show, chosen a band name or even finished a song, we decided to make our band an engine of civic pride. Musically, we want to portray the simultaneous beauty and decay that St. Louisans know so well."

"St. Louis has been a huge inspiration for us musically," adds drummer Danny McClain. "The building on the front cover is where we practice. On the one hand, it's looming and even majestic, and on the other it's a disgusting abandoned shithole, now devoid of its former grandness. This building says a lot about St. Louis, I think, a town with a legacy of near-success and stunted glory. We try to incorporate this dichotomy of success and failure into our songs and feel like they're only really finished when we manage to pull this off."

 
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