Guys and Dolls: Four days and nights at SXSW


March 21, 2005


AUSTIN, Texas -- With more than 1,300 bands from around the world performing at 60 venues throughout the Texas capital, the South by Southwest Music Conference is a different experience for every music-biz insider, aspiring musician, journalist and fan.

Whether attendees are connoisseurs of roots rock, emo-punk, hip-hop or electronic dance music, the festival remains the best barometer for forecasting musical trends and spotting promising up-and-comers. With that in mind, I offer my highlights from four frantic days and four loud nights at SXSW 2005.


Wednesday, March 16

For me, the music started with two veteran power-pop heroes and a local band poised to break on the national scene.

Tim Lee, a founder of jangly indie-rockers the Windbreakers, led a strong new quartet through a great set at Momo's, but he played to perhaps three dozen people. Over at Tambaleo, Jason Falkner, formerly of jangly psychedelic-popsters Jellyfish, packed the club but didn't sound nearly as good as he performed solo with pre-recorded drum loops. Sometimes there's no justice at SXSW.




Here are a few more of the acts at SXSW with tracks available for download at

*Novembers Doom, "Not the Strong" -- Roaring, driving metal from this Chicago rock band.

*Great Lake Swimmers, "Moving Pictures, Silent Films" -- A spacious, alt-country ballad from this haunting Toronto act.

*Ester Drang, "The Greatest Thing" -- More lush studio creations from this Oklahoma-based band, in the vein of Starflyer 59 and the Sea and Cake.


Chicagoans the Redwalls followed. As the young quartet gears up for the June release of its Capitol debut, it grows more self-confident and energetic every time it performs. Since it first formed as a Beatles cover band, the group's sounds and fashions have been based on the Fab Four's Hamburg club days, when the snazzy suits and beautiful harmonies had yet to mask the raw R&B roots and garage-rock frenzy.

Because of the band's obvious influences, some industry vets question whether the Redwalls are late for the garage revival that started a few years ago with the Hives and the White Stripes. Over the course of several SXSW shows, they converted skeptics, and they thrilled the crowd at Tambaleo. It brought to mind a still-unsigned Veruca Salt playing at the same club (then called the Electric Lounge) in 1994, winning over national tastemakers and scoring a hit single within the next few months.


Thursday, March 17

I've covered 14 of the 19 annual SXSW conferences, but I've never seen the festival this crowded: Attendance was at a record high -- 8,000 paid registrants and 1,600 journalists -- up 30 percent from 2004. So much for rumors of the music industry's demise.

I was shut out of the much-buzzed-about U.K. glam-popsters the Kaiser Chiefs and Louis XIV of San Diego at La Zona Rosa; I arrived an hour early, but the club was at capacity, with a block-long line of conference-goers waiting outside. I headed to Elysium -- and another brutal line -- because I didn't want to miss the headliner, Brooklyn's LCD Soundsystem.

A red-hot producer on the dance scene -- Britney Spears and Janet Jackson have both sought him out -- James Murphy looks like a frumpy, middle-aged recording engineer and a most unlikely frontman. But he was a riveting presence as he joked with the crowd and screamed the witty lyrics of his group's underground dance hits, including "Daft Punk Is Playing at My House," while his drummer, bassist and keyboardist deftly merged '80s art-punk and cutting-edge grooves.

LCD was preceded by fellow New Yorkers Ratatat, a duo that added swirling live bass and guitar to pre-recorded ambient backing tracks; Hot Chip, four goofy London synthesizer players who paid loving homage to the era of Devo and Kraftwerk, and another of the conference's big buzzes, M.I.A.

Raised in Sri Lanka, the former Maya Arulpragasam is the darling of the London underground, thanks to her 2004 hit "Galang," her stridently political lyrics and her mix of Jamaican dancehall and Southern crunk sounds. But while it's hard to resist M.I.A. on record, her live performance was disappointing, marked by stilted, sing-songy rapping and a lack of stage presence.


Friday, March 18

My third day was dominated by rock legends.

At the Austin Convention Center, I saw Keven McAlester's brilliant documentary "You're Gonna Miss Me," which tells the story of psychedelic-rock legend Roky Erickson, a notorious victim of hallucinogenic excess and schizophrenia as well as a horrifying upbringing. (The film recalls "Crumb" in its sad but fascinating look at the family that produced this troubled musical genius.)

Healthier and more lucid than he's been in 30 years, Erickson took a bow after the screening, which was only the film's third showing. He is clearly benefitting from the care of his younger brother Sumner, a symphonic tuba player who has nursed his sibling back to health. (Roky's musical legacy is also being celebrated with a strong new CD anthology, "I Have Always Been Here Before.")

Next up was the Spin party, headlined by reunited punk icons the New York Dolls -- or at least the group of ringers recruited by singer David Johansen and guitarist Syl Sylvain, the only surviving members. It was, of course, a nostalgic oldies show, but Johansen remains one of the most powerful vocalists in rock, and it was a treat to hear him once again singing "Pills" and "Lookin' for a Kiss."

Much less gripping was another big hype, London art-punks the Bloc Party, who slavishly imitated the Gang of Four. In fact, the Gang of Four influence was ubiquitous among several bands -- including LCD Soundsystem and New York's Radio Four, whom I saw later on Friday -- so it's no surprise that the '80s heroes are planning a reunion tour.

Looking to avoid a repeat of Thursday night, I camped out at La Zona Rosa, eager to see the headliners, Austin art-punks Spoon. The group releases its new album "Gimme Fiction" on May 10, and it's every bit as strong as 2002's stellar "Kill the Moonlight." Onstage, the band started out low-key, slowly building the intensity of its angular rhythms and atmospheric guitars and keyboards.

The rest of the night included two more venerated icons -- John Cale, who fronted a quartet by alternating on guitar, keyboards and viola, rocking harder than he has in 15 years -- and Robyn Hitchcock, who played a half-dozen solo gigs over the course of SXSW, but was ill-served by La Zona Rosa's cavernous space.

I also made two discoveries: New Yorkers the Rogers Sisters, an indie-rock trio in the Sleater-Kinney vein that trumps that group because it hits much harder, and Guitar Wolf, a Japanese trio that sported black leather and a bad attitude. Their aggressive punk was more Detroit than the reunited MC5 and more New York than the reunited Dolls.


Saturday, March 19

With no must-sees on my schedule, I reserved the final night of SXSW for my traditional crawl up and down the club strip of Sixth Street. In the past, I've made some real discoveries by stumbling into shows blind, but I wasn't quite so lucky this year.

The best of the 10 acts I sampled included Retrospective, a Memphis quartet playing well-crafted power-pop -- which came as no surprise, since they were signed to Ardent Records by Jody Stephens, a power-pop god from his days in Big Star, and Ariel Pink, an echo-obsessed, willfully primitive psychedelic-popster from Los Angeles.

A six-piece supergroup in its native land of Uzbekistan, Sharq traveled 7,500 miles to play a strong set of hypnotic, polyrhythmic, drum-heavy traditional Uzbek music, and it rocked only a little less intensely than the Smashing Pumpkins' former percussionist, who led his new indie band, the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex, through a strong set of hypnotic, polyrhythmic, drum-heavy progressive rock.

Once again, by early Sunday morning, after the inevitable SXSW overdose of music, barbecue and Shiner Bock, I was ready to head home -- and more than a little bit happy that I didn't have to fly to Uzbekistan.