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