As the cliché goes, there are two types of acts at South by Southwest: those who would like to be more famous and those who would like to be famous again.
Except when they were never all that famous to begin with.
Just look at the acts who were playing clubs during the Clinton administration and have come back for this year's South by Southwest: Joan of Arc. Helmet. Fishbone. Marcy flippin' Playground.
And even new bands have a distinctly 1992 flavor (see, say, Yuck, who certainly owe Superchunk a "thank-you," or the Arcade Fire picking up a Grammy). Nineties rock has been all over the film festival as well, with movies about Thelonious Monster frontman Bob Forrest, Hole drummer Patty Schemel (with plenty of Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain footage), Fishbone and Pentagram.
Of course, 'twas ever thus. For years, SXSW, which hits a crescendo tonight, has not just been a showcase for up-and-coming bands, but also a place for older acts to get in front of tastemakers, label-runners, bloggers, agents and the various business cogs who come to party. Nostalgia is a part of that celebration as much as the new, new thing. Acts from the '80s have had a home here for years, from lifers who come back every year (hello, Robyn Hitchcock) to bands playing one of their first American gigs in a long, long time (hello, Stooges).
But in general, '90s band reunions operate a little bit differently from those of the previous decade. While many of the '80s acts playing SXSW had huge hits and their shows can feel like they're milking old glories, '90s band reunions feel like a return on an investment because there were never any hits to retread.
For most fans, to see bands such as Pavement, the Pixies or the Jesus Lizard, all of whom performed in Austin inside of the past three years, is to imagine these acts cashing in a bond they bought a long time ago.
"We put all this time and effort and money and sweat equity into being an underground rock band in the 1990s," the bands seem to be saying. "We didn't get famous, we broke up and went on with our lives.
"Now," they think, "11 years after the last possible time that could have been thought of as the 1990s, we are popular. Our records, which we never made much money on in the first place, might be out of print, but are freely traded on the Internet, building us a new fanbase."
And there is no small amount of nostalgia for the 1990s themselves, when the biggest threat to the republic was a stained blue dress and everyone was making money hand over fist.
The most popular '80s act at SXSW this year is, of course, Duran Duran. In 1985, the Taylors and company were pop stars on a global scale. They had a string of radio hits, groundbreaking videos and insouciant hair.
Then their era ended, as did they, more or less.
Late last year, Duran Duran, now on an indie label, released a digital version of its 13th studio album, "All You Need Is Now"; physical copies hit the shelves next week. The tour supporting this album started Wednesday at Stubb's, right in the heart of SXSW; then the band sat down for an interview the next day with former MTV talking head John Norris.
Even though the album was helmed by popular contemporary producer Mark Ronson and sounds as close to vintage Duran Duran as one could get, it is unlikely to generate a hit single. It is essentially an advertisement for the tour.
The Rolling Stones have been doing this sort of thing even since "Steel Wheels." Nobody except for the hardest-core Stones fan thinks they are making and releasing new music as good (or as capable of mass impact) as "Satisfaction," "Miss You" or even "Start Me Up." But their shows sell out all over the world because people want to hear "Satisfaction," "Miss You" and "Start Me Up" from (some) of the guys who played them first.
Then there's SXSW 2011 band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark: much less popular, still had a few hits here and there ("If You Leave," anyone?). Their new album also sort of functions as an excuse to tour.
And Duran Duran at least has four out of five of the classic lineup (Andy Taylor, we'll never forget you). Men Without Hats, of "Safety Dance" fame, is simply singer Ivan Doroschuk and some hired guns. (Then again, can you name any of the guys in the "classic" lineup?) The "Dance If You Want Tour" started Friday at SXSW.
As you go further down the fame ladder, the reasons for being here this year become more like any other band here. Exene Cervenka, once the mesmerizing frontwoman for X, is playing SXSW to promote an alt-country album, a genre she's been futzing with since her days with the X side project the Knitters. She's also playing a regular show March 25 at the Mohawk, after SXSW.
Fishbone, once considered one of the best live bands of the '80s and early '90s, has struggled for years with two or three original members, just trying to make ends meet. Cow punk pioneers Dash Rip Rock, who played the first SXSW, put out a record last year that probably only Dash Rip Rock fans knew about. Steve Wynn has been here all week with both the Baseball Project, a baseball-themed act featuring R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, and his own band the Miracle 3. I last counted seven shows from him. Bob Geldof, this year's keynote and the man who gave us Live Aid, performed at ACL Live. Don't think that's not a funny sentence to type.
But what if there is no Live Aid in your past?
Take J Mascis, who is here promoting his excellent (and oddly gentle) new solo album, "Several Shades of Why."
Dinosaur Jr., Mascis' trio in the 1980s and very early 1990s, is generally considered one of the greatest indie rock bands that ever existed, perhaps THE Platonic indie rock band.
They were never all that famous, but they were underground legends; Mascis is considered one of the most important guitarists of the '80s. After the classic lineup disintegrated and the band signed to major label Warner Bros. Records, the band scored a minor hit with the song "Start Choppin'."
After years of bad blood, the original lineup of Mascis, bassist Lou Barlow (whose next band, Sebadoh, is going through its own reunion gyrations) and drummer Murph toured to packed clubs and a heroes' welcome. Two albums of new material ("Beyond" in '07 and "Farm" in '09) weren't hits, but moved about 50,000 copies a pop, which is not too shabby considering the ongoing collapse of the retail music industry. By contrast, their band's second major label album "Where You Been" (1993), the one with "Start Choppin'" on it, sold 256,809 copies, rock solid by today's standards and possibly a little anemic back then.
Some acts identified with 1990s alt-rock heyday just kept making albums: Joan of Arc, the Old 97's and ... And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead kept on plugging away.
But for many bands, the Pavement/Dinosaur formula has repeated again and again in recent years: '90s underground cult status, followed by a breakup or further obscurity, followed by 21st-century rediscovery and a solid tour (with or without new material). Screeching Weasel is an even more obscure act, a pop punk band underknown even when Green Day made pop punk huge, but worshipped by other pop-punk acts (Blink-182 covered them). Founder Ben Weasel put out the first Screeching Weasel album in more than a decade this year and performed Friday at Scoot Inn.
And it's not just alt-rock that is experiencing this sort of tolerance, even embrace, of reunion fever. Saint Vitus and Pentagram, two of the most important underground doom metal acts of the 1980s and early '90s ("doom metal" means "Black Sabbath-worship," more or less) are both playing shows, the former touring with Helmet, whose drill-press sound bridged the metal/alt-rock divide and reunited in 2004.
Perhaps fans are just more tolerant of reunion shows in general, from anyone and everyone. Most bands can't live on their back catalog anymore (if they ever could), especially when album sales are either nonexistent or cannibalized into single songs.
The most direct way to support a performing artist is to see him or her live - to pay for a ticket or cover charge and be in the room with them when they are on stage. Strip away the badges, the hype, the parties, and the celebrity sightings, and live performance is what this week has always been about.
You see something you like here, go see it again. From whatever decade.
Blasts from the past
A sampling of the 1980s and '90s bands playing at SXSW 2011 (and parties):Bob Geldof OMD Fishbone Duran Duran Kurt BoDean Dash Rip Rock Dave Alvin World Party Ivan Julian Pentagram Steve Wynn Syd Straw Exene Cervenka Peter Murphy Dead Milkmen J Mascis Old 97's Helmet Saint Vitus Men Without Hats … And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead Screeching Weasel Marcy Playground Hanson Black Heart Procession Joan of Arc Mark Eitzel