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South by Southwest '09

Three days in the belly of the beast.

by Tim McMahan










Everything I said in my column about South by Southwest was true.

All true. The good and the bad. It really is a nirvana for "new music" lovers, a paradise, a shrine to what's happening now in music -- be it good and new and original, or regressive, derivative, boring. You'll hear it all here, along a stretch of road that runs a mile beside a dark, flat river surrounded by hotels and restaurants and new condominium construction. On the streets, in the restaurants, in mezzanines, alongside the locked doors of banks and office buildings, on the stairs alongside rows and rows of garbage scows, besides a Jimmy Johns, in clothing stores, outside of convenient marts where the local downtowners stop in to buy a pack of smokes and a $3 vending-machine-quality sandwich wishing it would all go away.

You'll get a chance to see every band that's been written about in Magnet and Pitchfork three or four times over the course of the week. If you missed them at 1 a.m. at Emo's don't worry, they're probably playing tomorrow afternoon at the Urban Outfitters or in a tent at a day-party booze-and-brats give-away.


We got in at 5. Our hotel -- on the opposite side of the river -- is only a $20 cab ride from the airport. We walked to the Convention Center about a half-mile away to get our "credentials" -- a large laminated badge with my photo and an imbedded metallic device that magically gets you into all the shows in all the clubs for the duration of the festival. So efficient was our arrival, we had time to catch a full evening of shows. I checked my list and figured why not try Peter Murphy at Elysium? After all, it was only a couple blocks away.

There's a sense of disorientation upon reaching 6th St., the same blind chaos of Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras. The street is blocked off and every venue is hosting something, but what? After a few minutes you realize that no one else knows, either. The reason this festival works is because people aren't assholes -- people seemed comfortable asking me for directions or advice about bands, maybe because I look like an undercover cop or a club bouncer or someone's dad. Certainly not because I look like a local. This would never happen in NYC. Here, everyone's friendly, maybe because it's 82 degrees and sunny, and those of us who flew or drove in from northern climes -- having suffered through five months of bone-aching cold -- are so desperately happy to be able to casually walk around in a T-shirt and shorts and flip-flops.

We made our way down Red River St. to Elysium and found an enormous crowd that turned out to be the 7 p.m. "hold out line" for Peter Murphy, though no one was sure if, in fact, it was a line at all. It was more of a mob situation. After waiting for about 20 minutes, the guy behind me said, "Dude, you got a badge. You should wait in the 'badge line.'" I was in the non-badge line. In fact every venue has two lines, one for people with badges, one for those with wristbands or nothing.

We moved to the other line, but it didn't really matter. After waiting for 30 minutes and almost giving up, the cattle began to move. Elysium is billed as a "dance club," but it's not much different than, say, The Waiting Room -- a large venue with a decent stage and a side room with pool tables and pinball machines. Murphy already was on stage when we got in. I remembered interviewing him years ago -- one of the toughest interviews I've ever done because of his thick cockney accent -- I didn't understand half of what he said. Murphy speaks quickly and mumbles. I recognized that London mumble telling stories on stage between songs, but I couldn't decipher a single word.

Musically, Murphy sounded as good as ever (solo-wise anyway). He's still in good voice -- that same old deep warble that slides upward into a David Bowie impersonation. "He looks old," said a gothy-looking girl standing beside me smoking a cigarette, and he did. His hair had thinned and he'd starting to comb-over a bald spot, his skin looked drawn and grey, his eyes deeper set, but he still had whatever it is that made him famous in the '80s.


Elysium exterior
Outside the Elysium


Peter Murphy
Peter Murphy at Elysium


Cut Off Your Hands
Cut Off Your Hands at Emo's







The Oh Sees
The Oh Sees at Emo's Jr.

We lasted about 20 minutes before we'd had enough. I wanted to get across the street to what's known as "Emo's Annex" -- nothing more than a tent set up across the street from the actual Emo's. I had called fellow Omaha music writer Chris Aponik in a panic while waiting for Murphy asking, "Is it going to be like this everywhere? Super long lines?" He assured me that it wasn't, and he was right. There was no line for Micachu -- a young UK lady/guy who plays what looks like is either a tiny guitar or a big ukulele, pounding out arch, dissonant pop songs sung in an angry chirp. Her music will either entice you or drive you away. I loved it. Teresa was confused by it. The crowd of around 75 seemed interested, but not terribly drawn in.

We left and got a slice of pizza from one of the countless pizza windows located about every 40 yards down the street. Pizza is quick and easy. No one wants to sit down for a normal meal. I wanted to catch The Warlocks, but somehow misread my pocket guide and wound up at Stubbs, an enormous outdoor venue located behind a famous barbecue joint. The stage was large, topped by a huge tent-like canopy.The feature attraction -- The Meat Puppets. I've never been a fan of the band, though like everyone else in America, I enjoyed their guest spot during Nirvana's MTV Unplugged gig. It was so loud that I wondered what the diners were hearing inside the restaurant. Meat Puppets sounded pretty dead-on in front of a crowd of at least 500, maybe more. Teresa thought they sounded Brookes and Dunn. I thought they sounded like gritty swamp rock.

It was 10 when we left. Teresa had had enough and I was beginning to fade after too many Shiners. Sixth St. had turned into a drunk noise carnival, exactly as you would imagine it -- noise (mostly drums) echoing out of every venue. Street crazies and people on bicycles mixed in with the badge-wearing crowd and locals trying to get into free shows. Everywhere, all the time, an ambulance was either parked in front of a venue -- cherries ablaze -- or rushing through an intersection. Odd.

Despite cops at every corner, I walked Teresa back to Congress Ave. and headed over to Emo's where I spent the rest of the evening. Like Slowdown (but really, not like Slowdown at all) Emo's has a main stage and "Emo's Jr." The diff from Slowdown is that both go on at the same time, divided by an outdoor passageway that makes up most of Emo's excess capacity. I wasn't sure what I was watching and then found an order sheet taped to the wall. On stage was Wild Light from Manchester, NH, a commercial-sounding indie band that reminded me of shit like Dexy's Midnight Runners. Meanwhile, over at Emo's Jr., The Homosexuals were doing their thing. Formed in 1972 as The Rejects, the trio is the real deal, like a slice of Brittany when the barricades were still in the streets, and they looked like they lived through it.

Back on Emo's big stage was Cut Off Your Hands, who I originally was drawn in to see. They played in Omaha just a few weeks ago and I missed them -- high energy indie rock from New Zealand that sounded like a rougher version of Tokyo Police Club. I mentioned this to Saddle Creek's Robb Nansel afterward and he gave me a look like I was nuts.

The best was last. Thee Oh Sees from San Francisco -- amazing garage rock to the extreme. The lead guy looked like a young (short) Marty Sheen straight out of Badlands, and was magnetic on stage -- the best garage rock I've heard in years, covered in reverb and noise. Easily the best band I heard on my Day One, or maybe it was the Shiner talking.

There was talk of a secret Jane's Addiction set at a local Playboy Club, which I'd heard about before I left. Nansel was going, but I was dead tired.

By the time I got back to the hotel at around 1, my back felt like it'd been crushed in a vice from standing up for five hours after spending five hours smashed inside a jet. Pure agony. The part about having nowhere to sit down at SXSW was true, so was the part about doing lots of walking. I would need a vacation from this vacation by Sunday.

Day 2

The goal was to figure out the ins and outs of the so-called "day parties" at SXSW.

In the end, I never really figured them out, or I never actually found them. All the performances I had logged into my schedule were at the same clubs where I'd been the night before, with a couple exceptions. The only difference about day parties is that they're absolutely free -- no badge needed for entry. A person could have a good time at SXSW without ever buying a wristband or badge, as the best show of the night for me also was free-entry.

First stop was at noon. We hustled over to Mohawk Patio, an outdoor venue with multi-tier concrete and steel decks that wound around a stage below on the floor. Stairways led up and up (but only VIPs were allowed to the very top, where someone grilled an assortment of meats. Needless to say, we weren't VIPs.

It was a hot, burning sun -- nothing to complain about after this past winter -- but still, sunblock was needed, or shade. We watched from the center tier next to a guy filming the entire performance. The Wrens sounded no different than the last time I saw them a few years ago, though the group had gotten a bit more gray around the temples. I recognized a few songs off older albums, and so did the crowd, all of whom were busy getting started on a long day of binge drinking thanks to free Pabst tickets handed to everyone who came through the door.

SXSW is a drinkers' paradise, though I didn't notice many "free beer" events. Ordering soda pop was looked upon as quaint. But despite the heavy alcohol intake, there were few -- if not any -- drunks flopping around... in the daytime. At night, well, that was a different matter.

We hung around and watched the first 15 minutes of Bishop Allen -- a real snore -- before heading off to another outdoor venue -- which was little more than a large tent constructed in a parking lot behind a bar on the east end of the strip, called Habana Calle Annex 6. I figured Titus Andronicus would be playing outside, but instead they played on the stage inside the tiny bar. I liked their most recent album enough to place it on my 2008 top-10 list -- it's rowdy and rough and young, with unbridled energy -- and so was the band, bashing away on stage, the frontman sporting the new-hipster unibomber beardo look. It was loud, but forced -- they never got into an angry groove heard on their album, or maybe it was just too early for that sort of thing.


The Wrens
The Wrens at Mohawk Patio



Titus Andronicus
Titus Andronicus at Habana Calle Annex 6

Cursive at La Zona Rosa

It was already approaching 3 p.m. One thing I was dead wrong about going into SXSW: I said there was no way that the venues would stay on schedule. Wrong. Bands hit their mark timewise at every showcase. There were no exceptions. I assume either the SXSW organizers or the venues were responsible for drilling the schedule into the bands' heads. In fact, three or four times during the day, a band commented on how much time they had left. "Just 8 minutes? I better make this a good one." And so on. Everyone is carrying their own schedules in their hip pockets or saved on their iPhones; and instead of enjoying what they were watching, they were planning three gigs ahead, tracking their paths in their minds, trying to figure out how they'd get across 6th St. in time for whatever they wanted to see. A band running late wasn't going to stop them from heading out when they needed to.

Knowing that we'd be heading back toward the hotel afterward, we figured we'd trek further down the strip. It's here that I decided to break my own rule and go see an Omaha band -- maybe the only Omaha performance of the trip. I figured if I'm going to see only one Omaha band, it might as well be Cursive. So we hoofed it west a mile down 4th St. to La Zona Rosa, the newest and most pristine of all the venues and quite a contrast to the usual crap-panel walls or paint-everything-black interior of most clubs located further east.

The place had a stage, sound and lights that rivaled Slowdown's. It only made sense that Dan Brennan was there to run sound for our homeboys. They played a strange set, heavy with songs from The Ugly Organ and only two or three from the new album, skipping entirely the big album closer, "What Have I Done?" instead opting to close with "Dorothy at 40."

The huge crowd (400?) ate it up. So how did this out-of-town crowd react to an Omaha band? No different than any typical Cursive crowd at TWR or Sokol or Slowdown. Kasher struggled with his voice, and I wondered how he was going to sound at 1 a.m. that same night at the Saddle Creek Showcase at The Radio Room. But I never found out. Cursive was playing the hell out of SXSW -- a show Thursday, two on Friday and again Saturday out at a park.

After the agony suffered after Day One, I knew I wouldn't make it a full day and full night walking/standing around. After Cursive we headed back to the hotel for a dip in the pool. Joining us was a young, heavy-set guy with an enormous black beard who took a half-hour to acclimate to the icy-cold water, and a rail-think older Irish guy with long black hair the spent the entire time slowly swimming laps. I figured they were both probably musicians, but I never found out.


We got rolling again around 7 and discovered that none of the night showcases were starting until 8. Sixth St. was crowded with people looking for food options, and finding very little other than pizza, hot dogs and other street vendor fare. It was the worst food I've eaten on a trip in years.

With few options, we figured we might as well head east across the freeway to see Peter John and Bjorn. Little did we know that we were entering the dirty side of town, at least compared to 6th St. It not only felt like we were in a different city, but a different country, and time -- Tijuana circa 1973. Houses like shacks. Dirt lots and rusted fences that surrounded exposed junk yards and auto graveyards.

When we got to Fader Fort we found a line that stretched more than a block. I talked to someone wearing a headset at the front, asking her if there was a badge line. The gig wasn't part of SXSW, she said, and you had to have RSVP's to get in. I'd RSVP'd to a ton of stuff over the past two weeks but couldn't remember if that show was one of them, and I wouldn't be able to find out until I made my way through that block-long line that barely moved as every individual had to be looked up in a database on a small white Macbook. No.

We walked up a block to where Mark Mallman was playing at 9 -- a place called The Iron Gate Lounge. A shitty, haphazard fence had been thrown around the crushed-stone parking lot. A small stage had been placed against a retaining wall and was covered with one of those portable tents. Two porta Johns were pressed in the corner. It was seedy, but fun.

Up the venue's weather-worn deck steps stood a young mutt with the traditional hippy dewrag tied around its neck that couldn't have been more than 5 months old. The pup was being walked on the lawn next to the house-like bar, where old power-line cable spindles were being used as tables. Pot smoke wafted in the air as people blazed up in lawn chairs, right in the open. Back down on the crushed-stone lot someone sold hippie artwork. I glanced behind a barrier curtain and two guys sat in folding stadium chairs picking through buds, rolling joints. This was the other Austin that no one on Sixth St. would ever see unless they moved there.

Another non-sponsored event -- everyone was allowed in -- the crowd looked like it was made up of neighborhood locals. The whole thing felt like O'Leaver's 5-year anniversary block party. And here's where the beauty of SXSW comes in: I had no idea who was playing before Mallman, nor did I care. We figured we might as well just stay there instead of hiking back to Sixth St. As luck would have it, the guy playing first was fellow Minnesotan Jeremy Messersmith, who's self-released album was one of my favorites from last year. With a sideman on electric guitar and a beat-box synth gadget, Messersmith played what ended up being my favorite set of the evening.

Right after him was Mallman with a full band -- quite a contrast to the last time I saw him play (a solo set at the long-gone Johnny Sortinos Pizza joint where Wal-mart now stands, and I was the only one in the crowd). With his full band, Mallman became an unbridled madman, hyper beyond words, throwing himself on top of his keyboard, doing leg kicks and tossing his piano stool. It was worth it just for his theatrics -- entertaining, though the music was sloppy and marred by technical problems. I think Mallman was trying too hard for a crowd that was too small to make his efforts worth it.

We left Tijuana and headed back to 6th St., back to Mohawk Patio this time for The Ettes, a poppy punk four-piece with a bubbly female singer who had the buoyancy of Belinda Carlisle before she got old and fat. The Ettes have enough to turn this relatively straight-forward punk into something harder, and do. Not a bad band, though none of their songs stood out.

I considered staying at Mohawk for The Hold Steady, who was playing at midnight, but figured I could see them in Omaha soon enough. Outside, a huge mass of humanity crowded the street, trying to get a glimpse of Metallica playing inside Stubb's -- people stood on top of a nearby parking garage, tossing devil horned salutes down below. I pushed through and headed back to Emo's Jr. for the other most-hyped group of the weekend: The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. Once inside, it was a crush mob, mostly girls, many who longingly mouthed the words to the songs. Their music was standard-issue indie with a pop slant that recalled '90s acts like The Trashcan Sinatras. It was well-played, but boring and flat. Very run-of-the-mill, but that won't stop them from riding a hype train all the way to SNL.

I figured I might as well stay for The Black Lips, who I missed at TWR last week. Something was up as their set was running late and there was a lot of back and forth with the sound guy. Finally on came the band with another SXSW surprise -- a guest appearance by GZA of Wu Tang Clan. The crowd reacted by throwing up the classic thumb-fingers "W" symbol. I had no idea who it was as I was never into WTC. Needless to say, the guy laid down some lyrics while the Black Lips tried to back him. It didn't work out very well. GZA barked orders throughout the half-hour endeavor, before leaving the stage. After being told to "bring it down" by GZA during their ad hoc set, the Lips' set was flaccid and half-assed.

It was well past 1 a.m. when I made the long walk back to the hotel. Sixth St. had turned into a drunken bacchanal -- thousands of people stumbling around, yelling, chasing after each other. I expected to see someone carrying around a golden calf. The streets turned from carefree to angry and weird, as huge lines formed behind hotdog carts, people looking for anything to eat to kill their daylong buzz.


Iron Gate Lounge
The Iron Gate Lounge lawn

The Pain of Being Pure of Heart
The Pains of Being Pure of Heart
at Emo's Jr.

Day 3

Before we took off for the park Saturday morning, we bought grab-and-go breakfast from the little Starbucks-like coffee shop in the lobby and carried it out to a patio that also acted as a smoking area, complete with flat-panel television.

While unwrapping my cresc-sandwich, I noticed someone pacing like a caged tiger along the sidewalk, her cell phone and backpack lying on an outdoor table. It was Janean Garofalo, the once-star of movies turned professional left-wing talk show guest. Standing around 4 feet tall and covered in tattoos, Garofalo looked angry and impatient, tracking back and forth behind me while I unwrapped a carrot-cake muffin.

This wasn't the first time I'd seen her in Austin. We crossed paths the day before as she marched with her backpack across the Congress Avenue bridge. I guess she was tired of making the hike and was now waiting for someone to pick her up, someone who obviously was late. She stopped her angry march occasionally to stare at the flat-panel, which was showing Fox News. I wondered if that also was why she was seething, and I decided not to say "hello," fearing that she would lean over my table and bite me.

We finished our breakfast and left her there, circling and scowling. I wondered what she thought of Ben Stiller these days, her old boyfriend and now a multi-millionaire movie actor married to a model, while she still slummed the comedy circuit and got by with the occasional guest role on "24," a show that ironically airs on the network she despises.


Garofalo was quickly forgotten as we began our own forced march toward 6th St. Waterloo Park is a few blocks north of the action, near the edge of the U of Texas campus, and rock-throwing distance to the State Capitol Building. The entire park had been encased in chain-link fence for SXSW.

We made our way inside and found the small "side stage" where Sleepy Sun was playing, then walked over to the much larger main stage, where fewer than 100 onlookers watched Cut Off Your Hands walk through the same set I heard Thursday night. Were they still New Zealand's Tokyo Police Club? They were to me, playing that same style of jump-rock indie music, complete with its earnestly young tone.

We left and ate lunch and came back for King Khan and the Shrines. By then, the lower bowl was half full. On stage was the Shrines in matching black shirts and ornamental neckware, preceding Khan, who entered to much fanfare wearing a crown and cloak and accompanied by a cheerleader with pom-poms who danced throughout the set. The whole thing had a James Brown-by-way-of-Hawaii feel to it that was wasted on a crowd composed of afternoon picnic-ers and hungover hipsters.

Afterward we walked back over to the side stage for Abe Vigoda -- not the actor but the band named after the actor who, judging by their age, probably never heard of Phil Fish or Tessio. The guy playing bass thought he'd throw a few bombs before they lit into their set: "I used to listen to Cursive when i was in 9th grade," he said, apparently miffed that Cursive was playing on the big stage. "Don't get me wrong, Domestica was a great album, and I don't mean that factiously. But that was 9th grade."

Shit talking is an odd way to greet your audience, and can be audacious and ballsy if you can back it up, but Abe Vigoda couldn't. The four-piece played a flaccid set of run-of-the-mill indie rock sung by a guy who couldn't sing. Listen, if you're trying to be punk and can't carry a note, at least try to scream the lyrics so no one notices. Instead, it was typical wonky Modest Mouse-flavored indie rock, poorly played and sung by a band whose only memorable quality was its name. By chance, I ran into Tim Kasher later in the evening and passed along Vigoda's pre-set soliloquy. "Don't worry, we'll get them back," he said. Anyone familiar with Kasher's famous between-song rants knows what he's talking about.

We left halfway through Vigoda's set and caught the tail-end of Cursive. By then, the field was filled and the band had turned their sound into a monster roar, waves of feedback crashed against the trees.


King Khan and the Shrines
King Khan and the Shrines at Waterloo Park

Outside Beerland



Box Elders
Box Elders at Red 7

By the time Cursive ended, it was already around 3, so we hiked back to the Austin Convention Center where Echo and the Bunnymen were scheduled to play at 5 at "The Bat Bar" -- a made-for-TV lounge that was nothing more than an exhibition hall turned into a sound stage.

After waiting in line for an hour, they finally let us in and reminded us over and over that the performance was being televised live on Direct TV -- so "make some noise, you're going to be on TV, too!"

Moments later Ian McCulloch stepped on stage with the rest of the band, and stood there while we all waited for Matt Pinfield to finish an interview somewhere else. It was strange and awkward. McCulloch tried to pass the time talking about European Cup "football" to an audience that had no idea who Manchester United was, nor cared. Finally, he got the cue and tore into his set. I've never been a big fan of Echo and the Bunnymen. To me, their music was a watered down version of stuff I really liked by bands like Psychedelic Furs and Teardrop Explodes. But McCulloch sounded terrific, not a bit of age showed on his 49-year-old voice. I recognized a couple of the songs, including set closer "Lips Like Sugar."

We stayed on 6th St. and caught the Oh Sees playing outside at Beerland -- not nearly as good as the Emo's Jr. set from Thursday night -- before heading over to Stubb's to find something to eat and wait for PJ Harvey. This turned out to be a misstep, as the food was bad and so were the bands preceding PJ, including the Razorlight, a British act that wants to go the U2 route but doesn't have the songs for it. They started out strong and quickly became boring. The crowd mulled around just waiting for them to get it over with.

Everywhere people were jockeying for places to sit down, their backs and feet felt like open sores, dying for some relief but finding none. The crowd shifted from foot to foot just trying to get through the next two hours, while bouncers came by and shooed people off booze loading ramps and camera platforms. We found a spot near a railing where we could at least lean. Down below was a table full of water coolers that had long since gone dry.

PJ came on at 10 sharp, dressed in a white satin outfit with a big white "thing" in her hair -- we were too far away to make out what that "thing" was. She kicked into a set of rather low-key songs off her latest album, which sounded good, but I preferred the old Polly Jean -- the one that played electric guitar on 4-Track Demos -- over this modern version of Annie Lennox.

Next it was off to see Alessi's Ark -- the same Alessi that recorded in Omaha a couple years ago at ARC with Jake Bellows. The venue -- Stephen F's Bar -- was hidden on the second floor of a 7th St. luxury hotel. Inside it was all oak paneling and French doors that opened to a balconies that overlooked the flotsam in the street below. Alesssi played a set of acoustic songs with guitar to a crowd of around 50 -- nice stuff.

Finally it was off to punk rock central in the form of Red 7 for Box Elders. I figured it might be my last band of SXSW, why not go out with a bang? There on stage was Dave Goldberg and the McIntyre brothers in their respective get-ups (the too-short shorts, the gold lame smoking jacket) doing their garage band thing to a crowd of 100 punkers and scenesters who got into the vibe. Halfway through the set, Goldberg bit into a capsule that made him drool green foam, maddog-style.

I considered heading over to Emo's for Daniel Johnston and even got as far as getting into the club, but the previous band was still on stage and I figured they wouldn't be done 'til past 1:30. So instead I left to find a brat and was hit again with the Mardi Gras-on-amphetemines atmosphere of 6th St., rowdier than ever, but this time The Man was in full force.

Crossing Brazos I ran into a battalion of cops headed somewhere, ready for action. A glance down the street revealed a wall of red and blue strobe lights and mounted police surrounding some sort of melee. Fleets of cops in cruisers flew over Congress Ave. bridge, looking for trouble. A couple kids in a black VW GTO sped by us, one of them standing out of sunroof yelling with glee, just glad to be alive -- then boom -- squad lights, busted. When I passed them walking to the hotel I could see the two kids inside the VW looking scared, digging through their glove box for papers as a second squad car pulled up next to them -- a bad scene, but a suiting way to end three days of rock 'n' roll chaos.


Final thoughts on SXSW: An event that enormous makes Omaha's piddly music scene seem miniscule, almost embarrassingly so. A common theme heard and read this year (and I'm sure was probably heard last year) was that Omaha's heyday was seven years ago. Seven. That's forever from a pop music standpoint. And yet, Omaha had a healthy number of acts performing at SXSW, including Beep Beep, Cursive, Ladyfinger, O+S, Yuppies, Box Elders, and unofficially, Little Brazil (I assume Darren Keen also was playing somewhere (other than with Beep Beep)).

But besides the fact that it was a great time, I'm still not sure what purpose SXSW serves other than as a media junket. New bands aren't getting "discovered," deals aren't being made. Will The Oh Sees, who were my favorite at the festival, emerge from SXSW with heightened exposure, increased record sales and more demand for touring (and consequently, more money)? We'll have to wait and see.

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Portions of this article were published in The Omaha Reader March 27, 2009. Copyright 2009 Tim McMahan. All rights reserved.