AUSTIN, Texas -- An odd combination of the Sundance or Cannes film
festivals, the college tradition of spring break and a massive corporate
conference -- it is the music industry's largest annual gathering -- South
by Southwest is always in part about business, though it tries to pretend
In its 19th year, SXSW, which started on Wednesday, has broken
attendance records. Four days and nights of panel discussions at the Austin
Convention Center and showcase gigs at 60 venues around the city have drawn
more than 1,300 bands, 8,000 paid registrants and 1,600 journalists from
around the world.
That isn't counting the thousands of people who come just for the parties
and the unofficial shows, including a sizable contingent of Chicago music
fans who have adopted the Texas capitol and this event as their favorite
Here are just some of the acts with tracks available for download
Amos Lee, "Arms of a Woman" -- Check him out before he opens for
Bob Dylan and Merle Haggard in Chicago beginning April 1.
Mavis Staples, "Have a Little Faith" -- The Chicago soul legend
is omnipresent at this year's festival.
The Redwalls, "Universal Blues" -- Hear why Austin is buzzing
this week about this swaggering Chicago band.
SXSW 2005 will generate $30 million for the local economy -- a fact that
should be noted by the newly formed Chicago Music Commission as it begins
the difficult task of promoting our city's music scene and repairing the
damage done by heavy-handed officials who cracked down on the club world in
the wake of the E2 tragedy.
With all of that money at stake, and the major labels' untiring penchant
for hyping their products, SXSW has always flirted with big business, even
as previous keynote speakers -- independent spirits such as Lucinda
Williams, Steve Earle and Daniel Lanois -- have lauded the ethics of
operating outside the mainstream.
That's why Robert Plant seemed such an odd choice to launch the
conference on Thursday morning.
As the lead singer of Led Zeppelin, Plant sold 200 million albums
worldwide, and he has moved another 20 million units since going solo. The
self-proclaimed "Golden God" has never been a struggling musician who's had
to worry about paying the rent or selling enough D.I.Y. CDs to buy gas to
get to the next gig.
With a new album, "Mighty Rearranger," being released by Sanctuary
Records on May 10, Plant is nominally an independent artist now. But the
amount of money the company is spending to promote the disc would keep 1,000
real indie musicians stocked with beer and burritos for life.
Plant was ushered onstage with a self-serving video heralding the new
release, and VH1 executive Bill Flanagan -- the singer opted to do a
"keynote interview" rather than give a speech -- proceeded to hype it some
more. All of this star-struck glad-handing made SXSW seem more like a
political convention than a musical celebration.
But when the 56-year-old legend finally appeared, he partly redeemed
himself by talking about the joys of being a music fan.
When he was a teen, Plant's parents were so frightened by his love of
black American bluesmen that they cut the plug off his record player, he
said. But that love has abided, and he glowed as he spoke of meeting two
bluesmen who performed on Wednesday night.
"Here was Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and the Golden God," he said,
poking fun at himself. "And I thought, 'How the hell did I get in here?' "
Plant talked about his love of world music -- the new disc evokes a cross
of traditional Middle Eastern sounds, trip-hoppers Portishead and vintage
Zep -- and said, "We have to keep pushing, keep opening new ideas."
Later, he added, "I hate the idea of the jukebox being just about mass
acceptance of four or five songs."
That comment probably made Plant's aggressive marketing team cringe, but
it was a reminder to SXSW's organizers that true fans just tune out the
business and the hype and concentrate on the music.
Chicago soul-gospel legend Mavis Staples did just that when she preceded
Plant with a special early morning performance in the main ballroom of the
Riding high on "Have a Little Faith," her first new album in a decade and
one of the strongest in her career, Staples performed several tracks from
the disc and a few of her trademark spirituals with stellar backing by
country singer Marty Stuart on guitar and mandolin. She had the jaded and
hungover crowd of industry veterans singing along.
Praising her current label, Chicago's Alligator Records, Staples noted
that many other record companies passed on her new music, all too willing to
confine this still-vital force to the dustbin of history. "All these
companies, they want a Beyonce," she said, laughing.
"Well, I'm here to tell them, I used to be a Beyonce! And if Beyonce
keeps on living, she's going to be a Mavis!"
Beyonce can only wish, Mavis.
A full report of Jim DeRogatis' highlights from South by Southwest
2005 will run on Monday.
LOCAL ARTISTS AT SXSW
Among the local artists performing at SXSW 2005, in order of appearance:
DJ Logic with Liquid Soul, University, Burning Bright, David Singer & the
Sweet Science, the Watchers, Minsk, Redwalls, Devin Davis, Palaxy Tracks,
the Zincs, the Jai Alai Savant, Like Young, Troubled Hubble, Reputation,
Royal Space Force and Mahjongg.
Also: Mavis Staples, Novembers Doom, Nora O'Connor, Functional Blackouts,
Tyrades, M.O.T.O., Head of Femur, Slicker, L'altra, Pelican, ZZZZ, Baby
Teeth, Detholz!, Bobby Conn and the Glass Gypsies, Break the Silence, Tight
Phantomz, Diverse, the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, Manishevitz, Edith Frost,
Devil in a Woodpile, M's and Dark Fog.
And it just wouldn't be SXSW if the Chicago contingent of the legendary
Mekons weren't here in force. This year, the assorted country-punk offshoots
include Jon Langford & the Sexy Weary Boys, Sally Timms and the ubiquitous