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 www.sxsw.com:
*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
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
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.