Austin reveals the future of rock


March 22, 2004


AUSTIN, Texas -- With dozens of music-industry panels during the day and 1,000 artists performing on more than 50 stages at night, the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference is a different experience for each of the event's 10,000 attendees. But one thing holds true for everyone.

There is no better barometer for forecasting pop-music trends and spotting promising up-and-comers certain to make noise in the months to come.

The 18th annual festival descended upon the Texas capital for four frantic days and four loud nights starting on Wednesday. While most of the discussion during working hours centered on continuing uncertainties about the industry and debate about the role of the artist in politically turbulent times, the power and promise of great new music was the overwhelming focus come sundown.

As always, I caught more than my share of jaw-droppingly good artists you'll no doubt be hearing more about soon. With that in mind, I once again offer the scrambled diary entries from one exhausted critic's notebook.





In the past, I've made it a rule to avoid seeing local bands that I can easily catch at home. But the sheer number and quality of Chicago artists playing this year's conference prompted me to throw that out the window: Hometown heroes were impossible to avoid.

I spent much of this evening at a showcase at the Copper Tank Brewery sponsored by the local indie labels Flameshovel and File 13. Atombombpocketknife frontman Che Arthur kicked things off with a solo acoustic set of histrionic emo-punk, but things improved dramatically with the Narrator, a quartet that plays brilliant, angular, guitar-drenched art rock; the Race, another art-rock foursome whose sequenced, polyrhythmic ambitions were a bit beyond their grasp, and, later on, the impressive shoegazer/dream-pop quintet Lying in States.

In between, suburban pop-punks Troubled Hubble impressed with an ultra-high-energy set at the Ritz. But the high point of the night was a reunion of '80s indie-rock heroes Dumptruck at a sushi restaurant on Austin's bustling club strip, 6th Street.

A cross between power-pop legends Big Star and guitar heroes Television, Dumptruck singers, songwriters and guitarists Kirk Swan and Seth Tiven celebrated the reissue of their influential first three albums by playing tracks such as "Repetition" and "Back Where I Belong," which are still ahead of their time 20 years later.





Dallas' 26-piece orchestral-pop ensemble the Polyphonic Spree made its first big splash at South by Southwest in 2002. Now, gearing up for the spring release of its stellar second album, the mini-orchestra played a transcendent set in the fabulous setting of the main ballroom at the regale grand dame of Austin's hotels, the Driskill.

From there, I floated to Buffalo Billiards for a showcase of vaunted New Wave revival/drone-pop acts on the Domino and Too Pure labels. Glasgow's Sons & Daughters evoked Liverpool indie-rock heroes Clinic with female vocals, and one witty pundit in attendance dubbed Chicago's polyrhythmic groove band Mahjongg "Gang of Phish" (i.e., a cross between art-rockers Gang of Four and the mega jam band).

Brighton's Clearlake added harmony vocals to the Clinic formula and offered up my favorite lyrical couplet of South by Southwest: "I wouldn't hurt a fly / But I'd really like to punish you." But the big draw was Glasgow's Franz Ferdinand. The group justified the hype, delivering melodic, moody, rhythmically compelling drone with an irresistible energy.

Night two ended with a showcase of raunchy garage bands sponsored by Chicago's "beer and broads"-obsessed fanzine, Horizontal Action. I arrived in time to see the Detroit trio the Demolition Doll Rods play garage-glam covers by Roxy Music and the Velvet Underground, but was driven to the street with eardrums bleeding thanks to Atlanta's obnoxiously inept Black Lips.





The high point tonight was a young New York trio called the Secret Machines, which will formally release its debut album, "No Here Is Nowhere," in May (though it has made the disc available for free for several months on the Net). At Red-Eyed Fly, the group blended English "shoegazer" rock with vintage Pink Floyd psychedelia and a monstrously powerful drummer who evoked Nirvana's Dave Grohl.

At Room 710, former Chicagoan Lori Francis delivered a typically punishing set of stoner rock with Acid King before veteran Screaming Trees guitarist Van Conner and his brother Patrick delivered a powerful performance with their new band Valis.

The night ended with the San Francisco quintet the Vue, which played an updated, ultra-high-octane version of British Invasion R&B at Maggie May's.





My batting average wasn't quite as good on the final night of South by Southwest. I saw bad country-blues (Neil Cleary from Burlington, Vt.), bad hardcore (Bane from Boston) and what would have been a good set by a great artist (Robyn Hitchcock solo acoustic) ruined by bad sound at an overcrowded venue (Rock Stars).

I also saw an extremely amusing performance by New York singer Tammy Faye Starlite, a high-concept, country-punk shtick that crossed Tammy Faye Bakker and Loretta Lynn at the supremely silly (and rather offensive) chain bar Coyote Ugly. The best moment found Starlite climbing atop the bar a la the faux-strippers/bartenders to offer a post-feminist critique of the place before flashing her privatest private parts.

I also caught two strong Boston post-punk art-rock bands, Read Yellow (the name's resemblance to the influential English group Red Lorry Yellow Lorry is no accident) and Consonant, the side project led by Clint Connelly of the reactivated Mission of Burma (whose forthcoming album is killer, and whose set was many critics' highpoint of the festival, though I decided to hold out for the inevitable Chicago show).

My evening ended with one more disappointment. I was eager to see Los Lobos as the long-running L.A. band gears up for the May 4th release of a strong album called "The Ride" celebrating the group's 30th anniversary. But I was shut out of Stubb's by the long lines and capacity crowds (this year, Austin's fire marshals were as tough as Chicago's have been in the wake of E2).

Oh, well; there's always next year and South by Southwest 2005.