Five great nights at South by Southwest

March 14, 2008


AUSTIN, Texas -- During the 18 years I've attended South by Southwest, the largest and most influential music festival in the United States, the industry has radically changed, to the point where the old major label system is hardly in evidence today.

What remained, as tens of thousands of tastemakers and musicians from around the world descended on the Texas capital for four days of panels and five nights of showcases, was the inspiring independent spirit of those artists, many of whom are certain to make news in the coming months, and the undeniable power of the sounds they create.

Although the official showcases didn't start until Wednesday, dozens of unsanctioned shows took place throughout the week, and my SXSW experience got off to a great start at Red 7 with the underrated Shot Baker, an excellent quartet working the classic Chicago punk formula, and some of their heroes, the reunited and reactivated Naked Raygun, still the all-time champs of the rollicking rhythm, metal-meets-punk riff and rousing "whoa-whoa-whoa-oh-oh-oh" chorus.

Earlier in the evening, I also caught a great Los Angeles duo called the Pity Party at the Beauty Bar, with guitarist-vocalist M and drummer-vocalist Heisenflei delivering half an hour of propulsive, angular New Wave art-punk.


Thwarted by long lines and mediocre acts for much of the night, this one ended with one of my standouts of the festival: the Brooklyn quartet Yeasayer, which played a swirling, melodic and hypnotizing set at La Zona Rosa that incorporated gorgeous harmony vocals, African polyrhythms and subtle hints of psychedelic sounds from around the globe, from Celtic bagpipes to Indian ragas to Middle Eastern drones.

The band was to have performed at Chicago's Pitchfork Music Festival (July 18-20) this summer, but it was wooed away by Lollapalooza (Aug. 1-3). In any setting, it's a must-see.


Along with up-and-comers hoping to transform regional buzz into national success, SXSW also attracts established stars seeking to re-launch their careers. This year's major contender, R.E.M., filmed an hour-long concert Thursday afternoon to be aired on PBS-TV's "Austin City Limits" in May.

Nearly unbeatable from 1982 to 1992, R.E.M. has been on a sad decline to arena-rock mediocrity since "Monster" (1994), though that disc and every one since initially has been hailed as the one that reclaims the old magic. The same is being said of "Accelerate," out April 1.

The group played most of the new album, with the hard-rocking "Living Well's the Best Revenge" and "Mansized Wreath," the single "Supernatural Superserious" and the new ballad "Hollow Man" emerging as the highlights. But none of these songs matched the poignant power of older gems such as "So. Central Rain," "Drive" and the gorgeous "Fall on Me," and the veteran musicians barely interacted with one another onstage.

When it came to artists who evinced real joy in performing, Dark Meat -- an 11-piece group from R.E.M.'s old hometown of Athens, Ga. -- were hard to top at a club called Vice. Dressed in outlandish thrift-store duds and sporting strange face makeup, the group threw plastic glow sticks and glitter confetti at the crowd while roaring through gonzo but melodic art-punk punctuated by a wailing horn section.

And when it came to a veteran performer seeking renewed attention, none was more deserving than the endearing chanteuse and comedian, Syd Straw, who once sang with Stipe in the indie supergroup the Golden Palominos.

Straw, who lived for a time in Chicago but now resides in Weston, Vt., also is a fantastic if not exactly prolific solo artist, last heard on her second album "War and Peace" (1996). The singer-songwriter finally has a new disc called "Pink Velour," and her gig at a dreadful 6th Street bar called Bourbon Rocks found her fronting a quintet with mandolin and four guitars.

Straw made a running joke of the fact that the group hadn't rehearsed or soundchecked, but her gorgeous voice, emotional songs and wry bon mots carried the evening.


Night four started at Emo's with a short but strong set by Crystal Castles, an experimental duo from Toronto that alternated between lulling chill-out music and more aggressive punk-techno, with multi-instrumentalist Ethan Kath creating undulating washes of sound as captivating vocalist Alice Glass commanded the room.

The next stop was a twisted Tiki bar called Head Hunters to see the Frantic, an ultra-energetic Chicago punk band in their late teens. The group didn't play any slower than 110 mph, but it never skimped on melody, either in its originals ("This is a song about someone saying you can't do what you want in life, and you proving that they're wrong every step of the f---ing way!") or in their killer cover of the Foundations' "Build Me Up Buttercup."

From there, I returned to Emo's for the red-hot, beyond-packed Chicago hip-hop showcase. Consensus held old-school rappers the Cool Kids as the night's champs, though party DJs Flosstradamus and rapper Kid Sister also proved worthy of the national spotlight.


The high points of my last night at SXSW were a study in contrasts. The first was Houston's Space City Gamelan, an eight-piece group of young men and women dressed in black with red and white face paint who played a mix of traditional Indonesian pieces and their own "polyrhythmic, psychotropic lullabies" at the Central Presbyterian Church.

These mystical sounds were a welcome breather and the extreme opposite of my second high point, the Marked Men. This Denton, Texas, quartet unleashed frenetic buzzsaw punk laced with delicious British Invasion harmonies -- bubblegum garage on speed.

The Marked Men had been recommended to me by Matador Records co-founder Gerard Cosloy as "the best band in the world," and while I cannot second his hyperbole, the group was one of the three best bands I heard in Texas, and the perfect way to end my SXSW experience.