AUSTIN, Texas -- The South
by Southwest Music & Media Conference has long been the music industry's
most telling barometer--the best way to forecast pop-music trends and spot
promising up-and-comers certain to make noise in the months to follow.
The 16th annual festival descended upon the Texas capital for four
frantic days and four loud nights starting on Wednesday. And while this
year's event continued to reflect the uncertainty of the music business as
it grapples with the corporate consolidation of the major labels, radio and
the concert business, the power and the promise of new music was as strong
here as it has ever been.
With dozens of panel discussions during the day and some 1,200 bands
performing at more than 50 venues at night, SXSW can be a different
experience for every attendee, from musicians to industry professionals to
the hundreds of Chicago fans who traveled south for a music-, beer- and
barbecue-drenched version of spring break.
Here are the scrambled diary entries from one exhausted critic's
The festival tends to book the major acts starting on Thursday, but some
of the most rewarding sounds I sampled came from smaller names on opening
night. You may not have heard of any of these acts yet, but if you're a
dedicated rock fan, one or more is likely to cross your radar screen some
time this year.
My evening featured, in order, an aggressive set of Gothic-tinged
noise-pop from the Athens, Ga., drum-and-guitar duo Jucifer; churning garage
rock from Union Youth, a quartet from Bad Bentheim, Germany; spirited punk
from North Shore natives Fall Out Boy and Chicagoans Haymarket Riot (who
made impressive use of dramatic dynamic shifts); endearingly catchy
indie-pop from Milwaukee's Lovelies and Brooklyn's Palomar; more
slash-and-burn garage rock from Detroit's Fags, and finally a strong set of
New Wave-influenced postpunk from Chicago's We Ragazzi.
Eight good bands in five hours--only at SXSW!
After Daniel Lanois' inspiring keynote address, the biggest draw among
Thursday's panels was a one-on-one interview with singer-songwriter Liz
Phair conducted by Neil Portnow, the new president of the National Academy
of Recording Arts & Sciences.
Seemingly unfamiliar with Phair's post-feminist pop, the Grammy bigwig
asked exceedingly lame questions, and the artist dodged his most interesting
query about how her music has changed since she left Chicago for Los
Angeles. But the answer was evident as Phair performed several tunes from
her self-titled new album (her first in five years, due on June 24).
The glossy, radio-friendly production and hot-button sexual
pandering--one song is entitled "Hot White Cum"--seem to have been carefully
engineered to garner the most commercial attention and Madonna-like
controversy. Phair has somehow morphed from an indie-rock ingenue to a
thirtysomething cross between Sheryl Crow and Avril Lavigne.
Thursday was another busy night of clubbing, though my results were
mixed. The garage-rock revival continued courtesy of KVLR, a punishing
quartet from Umea, Sweden, but next came three disappointments: the generic
techno-pop of London's Simian and New York's the Rapture and the
much-anticipated return of Britpop heroes Blur, who suffered from the
defection of guitarist Graham Coxon and the fact that bassist Alex James was
barred from entering the country because of visa problems.
Thankfully the night ended on a high note with a strong solo acoustic set
from another British veteran, Mark Gardener, the former guitarist and
vocalist with Ride.
After the spellbinding panel on artists and activism (see sidebar), I
abandoned the Austin Convention Center in favor of the famous Southern
restaurant Threadgill's for what was billed as a "Psychedelic Ice-Cream
Social" in tribute to Roky Erickson, the '60s legend and former leader of
the 13th Floor Elevators.
Plagued by mental and legal problems for decades, Erickson has been
nursed back to health in recent years by his brother Sumner, a world-class
symphonic tuba player. Roky wasn't quite up to singing, but it hardly
mattered, since the likes of R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and his Minus Five
cohort Scott McCaughey pulled together to perform spirited versions of
Erickson classics such as "You're Gonna Miss Me."
Friday night I only managed to catch five acts: Philadelphia's
unremarkable indie popsters Laguardia; Vancouver-to-New York transplants and
Cure obsessives the Stills; the ridiculously over-hyped Cat Power, who was
boring to downright incompetent onstage; Austin's galvanizing art-punks
Spoon, who are being primed for fame and fortune by Wilco manager Tony
Margherita, and even more fiery, Detroit-style garage rock (are you spotting
a trend yet?) from the Datsuns, a take-no-prisoners quartet from Hamilton,
The only interesting panel on the final day was a session with Jonathan
Adelstein, one of the five commissioners on the FCC currently reviewing the
rules for ownership of radio stations. For music lovers, Adelstein is the
commission's "good guy," a Democrat who is battling the Republicans over
continued deregulation and corporate consolidation.
While Adelstein's statements about the evils of too few companies owning
too many stations were inspiring (he noted that one giant, Clear Channel
Communications, now owns 1,200 of the 11,000 stations in the U.S.), he
wields far less power than FCC Chairman Michael Powell (Secretary of State
Colin Powell's son), and the session was like listening to a eunuch talk
about the problems in a brothel.
From there I hit the best of the weekend's many parties, a joint shindig
thrown by Chicago nightclubs the Hideout and Metro and featuring some 16
Windy City artists. My highlight was a passionate set by the maturing
alt-country singer and songwriter Chris Mills, who performed with a quartet
of guitar, bass, drums and cello. The nadir: an obnoxiously twee set by
Children's Hour, a too-precious guitar and ukulele duo. (Tiny Tim is the
only performer who should have ever played ukulele.)
My last night started with the Polyphonic Spree, the 24-piece orchestral
pop band that was the biggest discovery of last year's festival; a strong
set by Chicago's arty pop songsmith David Singer; an odd sampling of quietly
haunting hillbilly folk rock from Miami's Iron & Wine, and finally a
high-octane rave-up by Hot Hot Heat, a young Canadian quartet that was
branded one of this year's biggest contenders.
Bouncing around the stage with amphetamized insanity, the group offered
an updated take on the frantic New Wave pop of early XTC. Primed with a new
label (Warner Bros.), a high-powered booking agency and No Doubt's manager,
the band hit Austin determined to justify its growing buzz, and it didn't
and the war
While America's pending war with Iraq was on the minds of many of the
musicians I spoke with at South by Southwest, their political concerns did
not spill over into much of the music I heard.
The festival coincided with a week that found a trio of artists (the
Beastie Boys, Billy Bragg and John Mellencamp) rush-releasing anti-war
protest songs on the Net and the Dixie Chicks making a controversial
statement about President Bush onstage. Against this backdrop, Chicago
Tribune rock critic Greg Kot found himself hosting the most timely panel of
the conference, a session on artists and activism.
The panel was flanked by two veteran '60s protesters, Wavy Gravy (the
Merry Prankster who emceed Woodstock) and John Sinclair (the former leader
of the White Panther Party). They noted that while it was slow in coming,
the anti-war movement is growing much more quickly now than Vietnam protests
did 40 years ago.
"A month ago I was pessimistic," Sinclair said. "Now I have the unbridled
optimism of a former acidhead."
Fellow panelists Mike Mills of R.E.M., John Doe of X, indie-rocker Jenny
Toomey and former Chicago pundit Neal Pollack all agreed and encouraged
artists to speak out. But when the Texas capital hosted an anti-war protest
march that drew 7,000 people on Saturday only blocks from the Austin
Convention Center, none of the musicians performing at SXSW played for or
spoke to the marchers.
Of all the gigs I saw, I only witnessed two artists commenting on current
affairs, both with subtle messages.
New Jersey's heartfelt punk rocker Ted Leo opened a solo set at the
convention center by covering a Bragg song, and he had duct-taped the
message "No War" on his guitar. And when Daniel Lanois performed a few
nights earlier, he invited Woodstock veteran Richie Havens to join him for a
transcendent version of "Freedom." Said Lanois the following morning: "It
just seemed appropriate."