For the four days of the South by Southwest Music Conference, it seems that every barroom patio, restaurant deck, and vacant lot within walking distance of downtown Austin has been commandeered as a live-music stage. Some of these were the sites for the conference's official showcases, but many more are for the unofficial shows and parties that grow more numerous with each passing year. It was on one such patio behind Joe's Bar on Wednesday that I was listening to the Silos play the ragged but terrific songs from their forthcoming album during the Guitartown/Conqueroo Party. Nearby, two mid-teen girls, all dressed up as the supermodels they'll never be, were whining that this band was old and weird: "What is this?" One flustered mother stammered and then replied, "Well, it's an acquired taste." The mom was right. Few people are born with an "Appetite for Deconstruction," a predisposition for the collision of melodic hooks and broken notes, of youthful hopes and adult disappointment, that marks the best rock'n'roll. Those young girls have every right to harbor normal teenage dreams of uncomplicated sex and romance and to prefer the bands that feed those dreams. And there were plenty of indie-rock bands at SXSW willing to provide that service. But those who have acquired a taste for the complications of adult rock'n'roll also found plenty of rewards at this year's conference. And it wasn't just older acts such as the Silos, Alejandro Escovedo, Buddy Miller, Jon Dee Graham, James McMurtry, Spoon, and the Drive-By Truckers; it was also newer acts such as Kasey Anderson, Lucero, and Low Anthem. It wasn't their age that was important; it was their willingness to strip away the romanticism from rock'n'roll and allow the music to reflect the lives that listeners actually live. These may well have been the 10 best shows of the week. No one hammered the nails into the coffin of rock-n-roll fantasy as ruthlessly as Graham, who has just released what may well be the year's best album,
It's Not as Bad as It Looks
. An hour before the Silos, Graham and the Fighting Cocks began their set with the same song that begins the record: "Beautifully Broken." Wearing a copper-colored straw fedora and a blue-plaid flannel shirt, the hulking singer-guitarist took issue with Neil Young's comparison of drug addicts with the setting sun. Only one of those two, Graham sang, is strong and beautiful and comes back each day. By contrast, alcoholics and other drug users are not beautiful, he continued, not even "beautifully broken;" they're "just broken, that's all." The song could shatter every bohemian illusion about self-indulgence only because it gathered such galloping momentum. Backed by longtime guitarist Mike Hardwick, Son Volt bassist Andrew Duplantis, and Fastball drummer Joey Sheffield, Graham led his quartet as if they were, well, Neil Young and Crazy Horse. As grim as the story was, the signature guitar riff was chiming with resilience and determination. And if it seemed odd that a song could accommodate such bleak lyrics about self-destruction and such buoyant, hopeful music—that's one reason it's such an acquired taste.