Austin rocks with hype, tunes

March 20, 2006


AUSTIN, Texas -- As the South by Southwest Music Conference celebrated its 20th anniversary last week, I took a moment amid four days of industry panels and four nights of showcase performances to reminisce about conferences past.

Though I started attending SXSW in 1990, I first covered the event for the Sun-Times in 1993. At the time, it was already established as the music industry's largest annual gathering and its best barometer for forecasting pop-music trends and spotting promising up-and-comers certain to make noise in the months ahead.

About 3,500 musicians, record company executives and music journalists traveled to the Texas capital in '93, and the music festival hosted 468 showcase gigs. The major labels were still booming, flush with cash from the alternative-rock explosion, and the big buzz acts were American singer-songwriters Pete Droge, Jill Sobule and Lisa Loeb and the punk trio Green Day, though only the latter went on to significant success.

At SXSW XX, the major labels and brick-and-mortar record retailers continued to bemoan their inevitable slide into extinction, and everyone was still unsure of exactly what the industry is becoming, though they all know it will involve the Internet. Nevertheless, attendance broke all records, with 1,300 showcases, 10,000 official registrants and at least another 10,000 gate-crashing music lovers packing the shows and the hundreds of parties that filled the streets with music 20 hours a day.

Much of the hype focused on British acts, including the Arctic Monkeys, the Subways, Magic Numbers and rapper Lady Sovereign. But the crush of people made it impossible to catch one of these bands unless you arrived at a venue by 8 p.m. and stood there waiting for a show that started at midnight or 1 a.m.

This prompted a lot of grousing about SXSW having grown too big for its own good. But frankly this didn't bother me in the least.

The most rewarding musical discoveries I've made over the last 16 years -- and there have been dozens -- were invariably the most surprising, and I often found them at a club with 50 other people. Meanwhile, a ridiculous number of the acts that drew capacity crowds buzzing about "the Next Big Thing" have long since been relegated to the list of "Where Are They Now?"

Because of this, and the fact that SXSW is a completely different experience for every festivalgoer, I long ago decided that the best way to give readers a sense of the event is to simply recount my personal highlights from 96 hours of near-constant music -- give or take four hours a night for some sleep:

The Black Angels

This young Austin sextet describes itself by asking us to imagine "a red moonlit night [when] Nico and Timothy Leary return from the dead, guiding you through heaven and hell." I can't do much better to evoke their reworking of the Velvet Underground at its most psychedelic, which is as powerful onstage as it is on a strong new album called "Passover," due in stores shortly after Easter.

Art Brut

I initially thought this London quartet was just another in this year's gaggle of British hypes and New Wave of New Wave dance bands singing witty lyrics about their trousers, though I was impressed by the energy of vocalist Eddie Argos and his neat trick of jumping rope with the microphone cord. Then I realized that I couldn't get the band's tunes out of my head, or forget Argos' indelible chant of "Art Brut -- Top of the Pops!" He might be right.

Rhys Chatham Guitar Army

In the late '70s, New York composer Chatham pioneered the merger of avant-garde classical music and rock guitar, influencing Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth and countless others. The only time I saw him perform in 1991, he conducted his classic "Die Donnergotter" with 30 guitars, and shortly thereafter, he moved to Paris. How or why SXSW found him remains a mystery, but he led a smaller eight-member version of his Guitar Army (plus bass and drums) at 1 a.m. Thursday in the serene setting of the Central Presbyterian Church.

Once again, the insanely loud, harmonics-laden "Thundergod" symphony blew my mind, with Thurston Moore, Chicagoan Doug McCombs of Eleventh Dream Day and Tortoise, Chris Brokaw of Come and Ernie Brooks of the original Modern Lovers contributing to the glorious noise. A reason for living: Chatham just received a grant from a European arts council to realize his long-fantasized 100-member guitar ensemble.

Tim Fite

As the first half of Little-T and One Track Mike, Fite scored a rap novelty hit in 2001 with "Shaniqua (Don't Live Here No Mo')"; now he has reinvented himself a la the backwoods characters in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" doing hip-hop with They Might Be Giants, channeling a fire and brimstone preacher awaiting the Rapture but winding up ruptured.

That may sound like a lot of shtick, but Fite somehow pulls it off on a truly unique new album for Anti-/Epitaph, "Gone Ain't Gone," and onstage, thanks to an endearing personality and an unbelievably expressive face seemingly made of rubber.

The Flaming Lips

You might think it would be hard for Oklahoma's psychedelic pop gods to top their SXSW appearance in 1997, when they conducted an automotive symphony in a parking ramp with 40 cars. But bandleader Wayne Coyne came close when he rolled down Sixth Street at the height of the insanity Thursday night in his giant plastic space bubble.

The group used the festival to unveil a work-in-progress show, inserting a lot more guitar into its orchestral pop, covering "Bohemian Rhapsody" by Queen and sampling material from its 11th album, "At War With the Mystics," which will be released on April 4.


Hundreds of Chicagoans travel to SXSW for a sort of hard-core music lovers' version of spring break. If you were among them and made some notable musical discoveries of your own, e-mail me your contributions to for an upcoming Sunday column about the fans' experience in Austin.