The Critical Mass

Live at SXSW: On line with the homeless

You bump into all kinds of interesting people at the South by Southwest Music Conference, in Austin Texas. Yesterday, it was Thomas Dolby.

Dolby…? Dolby…? Yes, the fellow with the huge ’80s MTV hit “She Blinded Me With Science.” I had just stepped out of a club called The Dogwood after an afternoon with Jon Dee Graham, Susan Cowsill, Freedy Johnston, Ruthie Foster and a comeback by the ’80s college radio favorites The dB’s. I’ thinking about Tex-Mex food. And the breeze must be blowing in the right direction, because I smell barbecue on every street corner. Sun. Green trees. I hear grackles and mourning doves in the trees. I see a city skyline that’s growing, and an economy that feels prosperous. Dogs are everywhere, walking their people. People who aren’t afraid to, as the T-shirt says here, “Keep Austin Weird.” Is that The Scooby-Doo Mystery Machine in the parking lot at Curra’s restaurant? Yes!

I hope Shaggy and the crew left The Mystery Machine windows rolled down for Scooby.

I hope Shaggy and the crew left The Mystery Machine windows rolled down for Scooby.

Dolby was standing next to a shiny, art-deco trailer hooked to the back of a rental truck parked in front of The Dogwood. “You sit in the trailer and it videotapes you as you make your predictions for the future,” he explained.

“You mean, so we can see how wrong we were?” I said. “I thought we’d all be flying around in personal jet cars by now. What are you going to do with this?”

“We’re going to put them on YouTube,” Dolby said. “Come by tomorrow and we’ll record your prediction.”

Well, we’ll see. I never really know what I’m doing tomorrow, let alone beyond. I have thousands of acts to absorb over the six-day event. Wednesday night, how do you choose between Unknown Mortal Orchestra and Lost and Nameless Orchestra?  And a wave of ukuleles – well, two, anyway. I chose both. Jake Shimabukuro making his ukulele sound like rock and Flamenco, and turning Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody,” Leonard Cohen’s “Halelujah” and George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” into crescendos of tinkling notes that made everyone feel just, well, good. And Fairport’s Julia Nunes playing Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” on her uke, then going out into the lobby to meet her fans, including a young girl with a yellow ukulele.

I heard Ian Moore rocking till he’d sweated out his shirt. Todd Snider musing on  the poor rising up to kill all the rich. A blond-haired Okie named John Fullbright who looked like an Oral Roberts grad but sang and played piano like Dr. John. Brooklyn’s Clare and the Reasons, inventing a genre I’d call New Age Parisian Cafe for the 21st Century. Massachusett’s Winterpills singing beautiful harmonies about burying someone. And Oklahoma City’s Stardeath and White Dwarfs taking the stage to an over-exuberant smoke machine that completely obscured the band and had people coughing as though they were breathing asbestos.

You can see the future from the sidewalks here. I was standing in line outside Skinny’s Ballroom as the venerable (as in ancient) state legends Joe King Carrasco & the Crowns went through a late sound check on their 40-year-old songs. The guy next to me starts telling me that homeless people are now being paid to work as human WiFi hotspots. All you do is go to the park, find a guy, sign on, then pay him for the time you use. They accept PayPal.

As I battle my way through a new computer system at work and try to learn a handful of new technologies, including an iPhone and a laptop and how to answer texts, with the intrusive threat of Twitter on the horizon, I’m thinking that’s just perfect: I can can see myself pleading with some homeless guy, “Dude, what do I do if I can’t remember my access code?” That’s how I envision my 21st century.

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