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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
HOW WAS YOUR
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
email@example.com for an
upcoming Sunday column about the fans' experience in Austin.