A 2010 documentary that just graduated from the film festival circuit to DVD,Echotone captures the Austin music scene at a moment of transition.  The film is a pleasure to watch and listen to, with great photography, fantastic sound (plus great sound editing, not something I usually notice), and an effective yet easy-going narrative style mercifully free of expert talking-head interviews and other clunky conventions of the rockumentary.

Analytically, however, the film is a bit of a muddle.  From a distance, its three themes are unassailable.  First, Austin has a lot of good bands currently.  Second, Austin is, as the city advertises, the “live music capital of the world.”  (Well, I suppose someone could assail that, but why bother? Austin has more good live music in a week than you or I could see in a year.) Third, Austin’s music scene needs protection from the rising costs of living, incompatible zoning, and residential complaints associated with the city’s prosperity over the last couple of decades.

Echotone aims to document the overlap of these three themes: i.e., Austin’s good new bands are part of the live music scene that deserves protection.  But is that really the case?  The problem comes with the two concepts that the film uses, both on screen and in its marketing materials, to make its argument: indie rock and the creative class.  I’ll address the latter in my next post; here, I focus on the Echotone‘s depiction of Austin’s indie-rock bands.

An opening montage of Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan suggests the direct line of descent from these Austin legends to the current groups featured in Echotone.  But Joe Lewis, frontman of soul revivalists Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears, makes a crucial observation: “There’s not even that many roots bands around anymore, though. Indie rock took over, man — college kids.”  In fact, Lewis’s band provides the only exception to the film’s predominant focus on Austin’s current crop of indie rock bands.  Viewers looking for the latest blues guitar hero or honky tonk sensation will likely come away disappointed.

Furthermore, the ways Lewis is shown making his music — operating out of an established pop-music genre, bandleading a large number of musicians, working toward a record deal, submitting to professional direction in a promotional photoshoot — is held up as obsolete in contrast to the methods used by indie rock groups, like making recording studios out of bedrooms and vacant buildings, incorporating untraditional sound media, and handpainting their CD covers.

(The racial correlate here is awkward, since Lewis seems to be the only person of color in the film’s primary cast.)

Not to put too fine a distinction on this, but Lewis’s soul revivalism can be thought to fit into Austin’s famed roots music tradition, at least insofar as both sustain live music scenes characterized by established genres and repertoires of classic songs that musicians seek to master in order to play with each other.  Stylistic innovation is respected but not a primary concern; virtuosity generally comes from individual mastery, not rejection, of musical conventions.  As Howard Becker (writing about jazz musicians), David Grazian (writing about Chicago blues clubs) and Richard Lloyd (writing about Nashville songwriters) have shown, scenes like Austin’s roots tradition involve the collective, sociable interaction of musicians — in rehearsal, on stage, having a drink or sharing a joint afterwards, exchanging songs, and via the revolving door of membership (often just play-for-hire) in multiple bands.  Through such quintessentially social activities, local styles and idioms develop, circulate among a scene, and are learned by new generations of musicians.

Possibly, with its emphasis on individual expression and continual innovation, rock music stands apart from this social practice of creativity.  And possibly indie rock (in the broadest sense, including electronic music, folk-rock, etc.) most embodies these modernist aesthetics of rock.  But Austin’s indie rock bands are a notable exception, at least until recently.  I’m thinking of the Reivers covering Willie Nelson’s “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” on their 1985 debut album, or Kathy McCarty recording an album of songs local iconoclast Daniel Johnston.  Historically, Austin’s independent rock groups embraced the city’s roots heritage, since it’s the musical source of the city’s cherished ethos, Keep Austin Weird, as a glance at any picture of Willie Nelson will attest.

Echotone has lots of on-stage footage by the new crop of indie rock groups, but more symbolic are its images of these bands’ private settings and mental spaces.  A memorable scene features the group Belaire playing keyboards in their van, jamming out a secret improv for themselves, the cameraman, and the film’s audience (is it me, or is the level of self-consciousness in the van very high?), but not a paying Austin audience.

A recurring visual motif (the film’s favorite metaphor for indie rock’s connection to its local environment) shows the duo Machine hiking through condominium construction sites, hunting for the perfect found sound to sample and mix later into their indie electronic music.  Not that sampling field recordings is an entirely novel technique, but it remains a highly individual, idiosyncratic form of musical practice.  The contrast with roots music is clear: you can’t easily show a fellow musician how to incorporate your signature sampling style into the local style, can you?

It’s not clear whether the problem belongs to these Austin bands or to the film, which is visually indebted to the dreamy, solipsistic aesthetic of indie rock.  Maybe Belaire actually moonlights as a shit-kickin’ honky tonk group with a rousing version of “Jolene” that the filmmakers couldn’t license.  Something like that would shoot down the preceding hypothesis.  But it’s worth remembering that in the sense I described above, indie rock groups in Austin are really no different than their counterparts elsewhere.  And that may be the point: Austin’s indie rock groups are no longer weirdin the sense of that uniquely local, collective tradition.  If that’s the case, then what does Austin really give them?  A place to build a career in; a cool brand (or “moniker,” as a local promoter calls it) to distinguish themselves from other bands; but relatively little of the stylistic influences, performative exchange and “weird” way-of-being that comes from participating in the city’s venerable musical practice.

[For pt. 2 of this review, go here.]