A Spring Music Break at South By Southwest
Music from SXSW
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Listen to Robert Plant and the Strange Sensation perform 'Another Tribe' from the CD Mighty Rearranger
Early on, the music scene in Austin, Texas, featured country, folk and blues, expanding to include jazz, rock, punk, hip-hop, electronica and almost any permutation of those genres. Austin claims more original-music venues in a concentrated area than any other city in the world, and as a college town it developed a reputation as a welcoming music lab.
But there was one problem: relative to the East and West coast music industries, the Texas state capital sits in the middle of nowhere. So in 1987, the South By Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) was born. And the festival associated with the deal-making conference has really taken off.
In March, more than 10,000 music fans and music-industry creatures landed in Austin, thrilling to the prospect of checking out roughly 1,300 bands at 50-plus SXSW venues over five hectic days. My goals: to hear some of the most talked-about emerging musicians, and gather ideas for stories. What follows is a day-by-day blow-by-blow of how it went.
Wednesday, March 16
On a rainy, unseasonably cold day, artists, engineers, journalists and industry folk sip caffeinated beverages as they line up at the Austin Convention Center. They're queued up for band registration, to buy SXSW-logoed merchandise and to get The Badge. The Badge grants first entry to all shows, plus access to panels and trade-show exhibits. And you can't make a bogus Badge, either. Doorkeepers at the festival's performance venues use handheld PDAs to scan for fakes.
But even without top credentials, you can still hear a lot of music. Record labels, radio outlets and magazines host daytime showcases to plug products and present a mix of newer and established artists. At Town Lake Shores, artists include local hero Alejandro Escovedo, and the public is welcome.
One artist on my must-see list for tonight: '80s rocker Billy Idol. Performances by artists beloved (or bemoaned) by the MTV generation comprised at least one small-scale trend at this SXSW. Former Wall of Voodoo frontman Stan Ridgway has remade himself as a bluesy, Western-style balladeer. Elvis Costello never really left the building, but he did segue into a multitude of genres. He's here too, with his current band, the Imposters. Even South Florida rapper Vanilla Ice, that dancing bad punchline, shows up on a SXSW stage.
Alternastars of the '90s also resurface in reinvented form, including a solo, more meditative Lou Barlow -- with earlier side projects that ranged from the lo-fi Sebadoh to the grungy Dinosaur Jr. -- and outspoken singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham.
At the Idol show, the ladies in the audience freak out when he teases them: "You want something to scream about?" He rips his shirt off, inducing even more hilarious female shrieking. Those women do have a point, though. Idol looks as lithe and muscular playing "White Wedding" and other past hits as he did during his Top-40 reign. Material off his current disc, Devil's Playground, includes much of the percussion, guitar licks and bad-boy lyrical posturing that fans loved two decades ago.
Listen to M.I.A perform 'Galang' from her CD Arular
Listen to Kermit Ruffins perform "Do the Fat Tuesday" from his self-titled CD
Listen to Parlour perform the title track to the CD Hives Fives
Thursday, March 17
Every year at SXSW, a handful of emerging artists are on the radars of Everyone Influential, Essential, In-Demand, and Official (E.I.E.I.O.s) long before most attendees even see the show schedule. Judging by the hipness of this evening's lineups, SXSW seems to exist not so much for signing and promoting undiscovered talents, as it does to reassure music execs of their profitable and prescient good taste. (Or maybe some scouts want to torture themselves for failing to sign a performer while the gettin' was good.)
Once at the festival, if you don't jump in line early for The Hot Shows, you won't get in. One of tonight's must-see events is being run by XL Recordings. The label's roster includes British hip-hopper Dizzee Rascal and squawky folky Devendra Banhart. But tonight the spotlight is on up-and-comer M.I.A, a Sri Lankan rapper who rhymes about partying and about her struggling homeland over drum-and-bass rhythms, and the punk-funk-disco collision of LCD Soundsystem. Dozens of hopelessly optimistic Badge-holders stand in a line that is not moving. It's pretty loud even outside the club, so many frantically text-message friends to figure out -- in the words of The Clash -- should we stay or should we go?
At another impossible-to-get-into showcase, the stars are the Kaiser Chiefs (XTC's post punk, plus Blur's 1990s Britpop). The formidable, mostly U.K. slate includes the Futureheads (did Morissey's doppelganger collaborate with the Buzzcocks?) and Doves (ambient Manchester pop).
Government entities, from the BBC to the Australian Trade Commission, have increasingly backed artists at SXSW in an attempt to make their nations the next big musical thing. Last year, Franz Ferdinand led the so-called Scottish invasion. This year, the Canadian Blast Off showcase comes on the heels of the American media's lavish praise for such Montreal bands as the Arcade Fire. Attendees can also Experience the French, or check out Japan Nite, two Nordic Nights, or The Other Side of Latin Music (from southern California and Mexico). But artists don't sink or swim on geographic origins alone, especially if they borrow from foreign predecessors: After all, Dutch punkers NRA sound awfully American, and Montreal's the Dears resemble '80s British darlings the Psychedelic Furs.
Listen to Doves perform 'Words' from the CD The Last Broadcast
Listen to Jason Moran perform "Gangsterism on the Rise" from his CD Same Mother
Friday March 18
"South By" possesses an astounding punctuality. In the rest of the universe, musicians rarely start on schedule. But during festival time, Austin probably runs by the U.S. Naval Observatory's atomic clock. Clubs, bars, restaurants, and record stores book half a dozen acts for afternoon and evening shows, with bands scheduled to hit the stage at the top of each hour. This means sets that are 45 minutes at most, leaving roughly 15 to 20 minutes to clear the stage and set up the next band. Some bands run as many as 20 minutes late, but that's a comparatively short wait when you consider how most performers view that pesky thing called time.
This promptness also extends to music-biz executives (at least, as long as they're in Austin), who preside over the daytime seminars at the convention center. Conference-goers can hit crash courses on dealing with managers and attorneys, touring and booking, merchandising, or getting radio airplay. There are panel talks on the craft of songwriting, how to woo independent-label reps and music distribution. The SXSW Interviews feature writers grilling the likes of soul singer Erykah Badu and drummer Jacob Slichter. There are amusingly titled panels: "Young & Over the Hill" (on life as an Artists and Repertoire scout after age 30) and "Ringtones as Income Stream" (with additional chatter about how to make money licensing music to video-game companies). And there are discussions honoring Faces (Rod Stewart + mod rockers Small Faces + Jeff Beck Group) and psychedelic rock pioneer Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators (the band that launched his career).
And one personal SXSW milestone: I meet the somewhat enigmatic, yet friendly, Beatle Bob. Bob's a "festivarian," who treks across the country to rock and jazz fests. His bio in brief: He's from St. Louis. He's clocked a fair amount of time behind record-store counters and as a social worker who counsels troubled teens. Having Beatle Bob introduce your band at a show is a big deal. Just try to ignore his heartfelt but humorously jerky moves; one online diarist has christened Bob's preferred groove the "squirrel dance" (hand in front, moving in a downward digging motion). Bob got his nickname via a childhood passion for the Beatles, and kept it by always wearing the kind of Mod suit and haircut that induced weak knees and heart tremors in young American women who first caught sight of the Fab Four in 1964. (Tonight, Bob introduces British rock duo the Kills.)
Listen to Sleep perform "Sonic Titan" from the CD Dopesmoker
Listen to Be Your Own Pet perform "Electric Shake" from the EP Damn Damn Leash
Listen to Fischerspooner perform 'Ersatz' from the CD #1
Saturday, March 19
During the day, I'm at an Austin landmark called Threadgill's for the third annual Roky Erickson Psychedelic Ice Cream Social. It's not affiliated with SXSW, but this fundraising event for the Roky Erickson Trust always happens the last Saturday of "South By." Besides free ice cream, there's also live music from such homegrown talent as Carolyn Wonderland and Summer Wardrobe playing outside. Before the show, the Austin Music Network holds its annual high school Battle of the Bands. Even the pre-teen and teen musicians rock. (Whatever Austin City Hall puts in the food supply, can other city governments order some?) Roky Erickson performs, in his first show in more than a decade, with his '80s band, the Explosives. Forty years after he blew the minds of rock fanatics, Erickson's voice is still powerful, even if he growls and shoots for the high notes a little less. Of the three songs they play, the best by far is their energetic, emotional rendition of "Starry Eyes."
On to the nighttime shows. On to the nighttime shows. It seems most aforementioned E.I.E.I.O.s have fled this animal farm. Those left behind are resigned to battle the drunken, college-age throngs downtown, or else lounge lazily on couches around the swanky lobby of the Driskill hotel. Most of tonight's showcases don't seem as strong as Thursday's and Friday's artist lineups. Early in the evening, I catch fractions of performances: British rockers Nine Black Alps, part of the Welcome to MTV2 UK Country lineup, then the Jimmy Chamberlin Complex -- yes, that Jimmy Chamberlin, late of the Smashing Pumpkins.
Something that's bothered me all week: There's almost no cross-racial musical or social mingling at SXSW. Most attendees don't want to waste precious concert-going time in a taxi, so it would probably behoove planners to book acts more convenient to the 6th Street action, rather than at a club on the east (read: Latino and African-American) side of town. Fact is, SXSW, and by extension the greater Austin music scene, is pretty Caucasian. It's only been in the last three years or so that downtown has seen clubs open that are likely to draw more R&B and rap artists; the two highest-profile venues are Flamingo Cantina and Caribbean Lights. At the latter, I hear the second half of a set by Montreal rappers Th' Corn Gangg, a recent side project from the indie-rock Unicorns. I think I'm watching an Orthodox Jewish man rhyming on-stage with th' Gangg's Busdriver, Subtitle, and Vick Booz. Th' Gangg's surprise guest exits, leading one of the band members to note: "I bet you've never seen that before."
One of the week's most fun shows ends up being the most troublesome. Maybe the New York-based Brazilian Girls are having a bad week: food poisoning, jet lag. Lead singer Sabina Sciubba keeps berating the lighting technician to "turn down the lights, for Christ's sake!" The performers' foul mood is unfortunate, because they deliver a solid set. Still, I've never seen a band so contemptuous of its audience. Bassist Jesse Murphy closes out the performance with a snide, thunderous expletive directed at the city of Austin. (And not even a clever, stick-it-to-The-Establishment kind of expletive, either.) Makes me wish I'd gone to hear hip-hop artist MF Doom or cacophonous alt-country act Son Volt, instead. This has been my latest night so far -- I don't leave downtown until after 3 a.m. -- and I'm starting to lose some of my boundless enthusiasm.
Listen to Roky Erickson perform 'You're Gonna Miss Me' from the CD I Have Always Been Here Before
Listen to Roky Erickson perform the title track to the CD I Have Always Been Here Before
Listen to Kings of Convenience perform "Misread" from the CD Riot On An Empty Street
Listen to Dogs Die in Hot Cars perform "I Love You 'Cause I Have To" from the CD Please Describe Yourself
Sunday, March 20
No. More. Please. As much as I crave live music, I can't keep doing this. Good thing I won't have to... this is SXSW's final evening of shows. One of the closing-night line-ups includes such irony- and rock-god-worshipping groups as the Dung Beatles (Fab Four covers featuring scatological references where the lyrics about youth/rebellion/lost love should be), and Pudge Zeppelin (these Plant and Paige loyalists are fat -- by their own admission -- and theyre loud). Closing out the night in garage-rock style are the Diamond Smugglers, who pay tribute to Neil Diamond with a little help from a six-member ensemble, lead singer Neal Diamond, and the Smugglettes backup singers. The Smugglers, however, are not a "cover band." That would be Super Diamond. Unconfirmed legend has it that actor Jack Black so loves the Smugglers, they served as the model for his own Diamond cover band in the movie Saving Silverman. Confirmed gossip says that comic Gary Shandling sang along during most of this night's show.
I'm exhausted, but not quite ready to head back to my real life in Washington, D.C. I'm looking forward to basking in a little Austin sunshine after the week's cold, wet start, and I'm thankful that I'll miss the cranky crowds leaving SXSW, wishing that we could all keep whiling away our nights in some smoky, cramped bar, catching a glimpse and a listen to our new favorite bands.
Listen to Ratatat perform "Seventeen Years" from their self-titled CD
About the Author
Elaine Heinzman is a production assistant and fill-in director on NPR's Weekend Edition Sunday. The first record she ever bought was a 45 rpm of Prince and the Revolution's "Let's Go Crazy." She's still fond of the synth-heavy mope rock of her youth. She's also a sucker for noisy guitars and a good brass section.