Love and her hisses, hits and misses

March 18, 2002



AUSTIN, Texas--The old way of doing business in the music industry is on life support, if it isn't already dead and buried. So what is all that noise?

It must be the musicians, dancing on its grave.

The 16th annual South By Southwest Music & Media Conference, the music industry's largest annual gathering and its best barometer of coming trends, started on Wednesday with a pro-business slant decrying the rapid changes spurred by evolving technology and a slowing economy.

It ended Saturday after four days of panel discussions and five nights of showcases with a call for revolution from the controversial Courtney Love. And through it all, some 3,000 artists from around the world made amazing music that had little or nothing to do with the dollars or the politics.

Long, rambling and frequently derailed by gossipy asides, Love's anti-keynote polarized the assembled media and a capacity crowd, who seemed divided on whether or not the godmother of grunge had succeeded in rallying the growing movement of musicians seeking recording-contract reform, a union such as the Screen Actors Guild and their own version of "free agency."

Love skirted the issue of her fight with Nirvana, which she recently addressed at length in an exclusive interview with the Sun-Times. Instead, she focused on her lawsuit against Universal and recording artists' increasingly spirited battle with the major labels.

As a spokeswoman for the cause, Love lets other musicians such as Don Henley and Sheryl Crow make the sane and well-reasoned arguments. What she does is stir up emotions, pro and con. And by evoking Pearl Jam's failed crusade against Ticketmaster, she underscored the need for consumers to vote with their wallets if they want to see real change.

"I'm not the sexy story," Love railed in her truest comment. "Give me your five favorite hit songs, and I will show you at least four destitute artists. That's the sexy story!"

Give a music lover five nights in the Texas capital, and he or she will see a lot of great performances. I caught more than three dozen acts, including some artists who are guaranteed to be the coming phenoms of 2002. But some of the Chicagoans who traveled to Austin for a music-saturated spring break made me feel like a punter: Delilah's owner Mike Miller had seen 53 bands midway through Saturday night, and there were still several hours to go.

My own highlights were many and varied. Here are my picks for the 10 Best Bands of SXSW XVI, in order of preference.

1. Led by gleefully goofy Tripping Daisy veteran Tim DeLaughter, the Polyphonic Spree was a Dallas ensemble that crossed "Pet Sounds" and Up With People for a genre that can only be called "Wellbutrin-rock." Fronting a 10-piece choir and a 13-piece band including theremin and French horn (and with everyone adorned in angelic white robes), DeLaughter sang uplifting odes about sunshine and smiles, leaving the most jaded hipsters grinning joyfully.

2. Recording for Chicago's Scratchie Records, Canadian vocalist and pianist Dan Bryk turned out to be a Randy Newman for Generation Y, performing sad songs of lost love at the Donut Hut, and mining his heartbreak with the wryest of smiles.

3. The legendary long-haired freaks of Acid Mothers Temple traveled all the way from their native Tokyo to blow listeners' minds with their warped brand of psychedelic cacophony. Best stage patter of the week: "Hello, Austin, Texas! Crocodiles! Yeah!"

4. God bless the return of garage rock! No mere revivalists, New York's Mooney Suzuki brought a pressing urgency to their take on "Nuggets," proving once again that the Yardbirds' version of the James Brown groove never goes out of style. Honorable mention here for fellow travelers the Catheters from Seattle.

5-6. Speaking of New York and revivals, it was the rhythmic art-punk of the Gang of Four that Radio 4 sought to bring back in vogue. Meanwhile, the Brought Low evoked the tuneful classic-rock of Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grand Funk Railroad. It's been a long time since New York produced this many good buzz bands, and you have to wonder why. Can it be the aftermath of Sept. 11, the influence of the Strokes, or both?

7. The over-rated genre of "math-rock" reintroduced complicated arrangements and technical proficiency to the indie underground, but the Burlington, Vt. trio the Cancer Conspiracy drew its inspiration from an earlier era, summoning the progressive-rock '70s by evoking a punk-rock version of Yes. Call it "Tales from Topographic Puddles."

8. The second album by the stoner-rock trio High On Fire isn't quite as good as its predecessor or guitarist-vocalist Matt Pike's earlier band, Sleep. But onstage, the band was still more powerful than 98 percent of what passes for "heavy" music. During the anthemic "Baghdad," the musicians effectively sheared off the top of my skull and handed me my brains to carry home in my pocket.

9. Although the aesthetic may be nu-metal, the Chicago quintet Premium proved to be much more creative than many of its peers, thanks to a lack of hip-hop pandering, the fluid but primal drumming of Mike Levine, and vocalist Robin Kiefer's endearing "Robert Plant as the nerd from science class" stage persona.

10. Finally, it was another Chicago band that ended my SXSW experience on a high note, providing the perfect soundtrack for the early hours of St. Patrick's Day. The Tossers took traditional Irish reels and delivered them with hardcore-punk intensity. If the Pogues' teenage kids ever form a punk band, they could do no better than this.

Some more honorable mentions: the Warlocks, tuneful psychedelic rock from Los Angeles; veteran anti-folkie Mary Lou Lord, who busked for several hours outside on Sixth Street, and two bands from San Diego, droning rockers Charles Curtis and amped-up punks the Dragons.

Inevitably, there were also some high-profile disappointments. Liverpool's Clinic ("the new Radiohead") lacked charisma and musical muscle; Manchester's Elbow ("the new Beta Band") was simply a snooze, and Chicago's Alsace Lorraine ("the new Stereolab") were anemic, tentative and lacking in vocal presence.

Jim DeRogatis will discuss and sample the music of his South By Southwest favorites on "Sound Opinions," which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. on WXRT (93.1-FM).