Reed gives amusing SXSW keynote, bands like Yeasayer have us saying 'yeah!'

March 14, 2008


AUSTIN, Texas — Thursday morning’s keynote with Lou Reed at the South by Southwest Music Festival — Cannes meets Sundance for the music industry, with a touch of spring break — did not get off to a promising start as he sat down with his friend, producer Hal Willner.

“Lou Reed is to rock ’n’ roll sort of like Miles Davis is to jazz,” Willner said. “Basically, with what he does, more than half a dozen times, he’s changed the direction of rock ’n’ roll — with what he’s done with the Velvet Underground and ‘Transformer,’ which was recognized in its day, and then other things from ‘Berlin’ to ‘Street Hassle’ to ‘Metal Machine Music.’”

It was a fitting synopsis of Reed’s career, but even Willner seemed intimidated to be interviewing such an accomplished artist, especially one who loves to play the role of the Prince of Darkness.

“If my parents knew I’d grow up to work with Lou Reed, they’d have suffocated me then,” Willner confessed. “Instead they moved to Florida,” Reed quipped.

And so it went at first:

Willner: “I feel like Tony Soprano and his shrink. What’s her name?”

Reed: “Dr. Melfi.”

Willner: “That’s right. Talking about the anger you had toward your mother.”

Reed: Deadpan silence and a withering glare.

Willner: “OK, um … I thought it was funny.”

Reed: “It’s a good thing you’re a producer.”

From there, the artist proceeded to hype his latest project: director Julian Schnabel’s film of his recent concert performances of the 1973 concept album “Berlin,” which Reed said was hailed upon its release as “the worst album ever made.” But the interview began to become something more than a gripe fest about halfway through, as Willner turned to questions that had been submitted on the Web, and Reed began to reflect on his accomplishments, undercutting any hints of self-importance with the perfect old-school timing of a Borscht Belt comedian.

•       “People always want to know, ‘How do you write a song?’ I don’t know. I’ve wanted to know, too. If I could have done it, I would have had ‘Son of [Walk on the] Wild Side’ and I would own an island in the Caribbean. But I don’t know how to do it or how it works or why it works or what it has to do with anything.”

•       “Punk in the old days meant a coward. I meant punk — aggressive steel street action. That’s what I meant, and there they were, like a lot of these bands last night. All that young guy stuff? That’s punk. No one did that, and now it exists, and it will forever, because where else are we going to put it? It’s there or jail.”

•       Asked how he could write knowledgably about the dark side, Reed said, “I have a B.A. in dope — and a Ph.D. in soul.”

•       And in response to a question about MP3s, the notorious audio perfectionist quipped, “The technology is taking us backwards. It’s making it easier to make things [sound] worse.”

None of the other panels I’ve caught so far or in the last three or four years were nearly as much fun.

But if the daytime activities in the convention center have been falling short, there are still 100 times more artists performing every night than any one listener could ever hope to catch.

The best plan usually is to forget about the big hypes — this year’s Amy Winehouse-level hysteria centers on preppy popsters Vampire Weekend — and seek out the less-heralded bands and overlooked veterans who just as often turn out to be the very best artists.

The highlights of my first two nights of SXSW started with the legendary and increasingly reactivated Chicago punk band Naked Raygun and its recent tour mates Shot Baker, a hometown group upholding that ’80s punk tradition. The two bands played a pre-festival gig at a club called Red 7 on Tuesday, and both proved the timeless power and enduring charm of a rampaging rhythm and a rousing “whoa-whoa-whoa-oh-oh-oh” chorus.

Also noteworthy Tuesday night: the mostly instrumental dub-punk-metal of Brooklyn-based Ipecac recording artists Dub Trio and the Richmond, Va., crossover thrash band Municipal Waste, which wailed away with unrelenting fury as an old-school mosh pit erupted complete with the new-school twist of fans actually using a boogie board to surf atop the crowd.

Wednesday night started with a disappointment. I was eager to see if Scotland’s answer to X, the Glasgow quartet Sons and Daughters, have taken as big a leap onstage as they did on their stellar recent album, “This Gift.” But the long line at the landmark club Antone’s dissuaded me from even trying to get into the Domino Records showcase.

Undaunted, I moved on to La Zona Rosa and endured an hour-long set by Philadelphia’s uninspired techno DJ Dave P before the Columbus, Ohio, trio Times New Viking finally took the stage. Onstage as on its Matador Records debut “Rip It Off,” the band worships at the altar of Guided by Voices, and at its best, it captures a similar mix of lo-fi noise, garage-rock chaos and jaunty melodies worthy of the best Britpop.

Unfortunately, much of that promise was smothered by the sort of pretension that prompted the group to bury the vocals under a smothering blanket of distortion that grew as annoying over the course of a 45-minute set as the band’s demands for “red lights — only red lights!”

Much better and by far the highlight of my second night in the clubs was the Brooklyn quartet Yeasayer, which plays a swirling, melodic and hypnotic brand of psychedelic rock incorporating gorgeous harmony vocals, exotic computer-programmed polyrhythms and electronic versions of several global drones, from Celtic bagpipes to Indian ragas.

The band was to have performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, but it was wooed away by Lollapalooza in a bidding war. In any setting, it is a must-see.