Unlike past years, the main focus of this year's South by Southwest -- the annual convention that draws thousands of music industry types and hundreds of bands to Austin, Texas, for five days of beer and barbecue -- was on the Internet and how it is going to change the nature of the record business. While no one had any clear answers, the presence of web-related business made an impact on everything, from the panel discussions to the booths on the trade-show floor and even the afternoon parties (which were generally hosted by companies with a ".com" after their names). Internet start-up companies offer everything from music downloads to music-related search engines and promote themselves as alternatives to record labels. The fact that they are investing heavily in putting music on the web means that they also plastered their names on virtually everything to do with SXSW.
It was ironic, then, that live music (which doesn't translate across the Internet, despite what live webcasts would have you think) still drew large crowds. But when a relatively small town such as Austin is flooded with conference attendees looking for the next big thing, showcases by bands with tired shtick (i.e., Nashville Pussy, the Supersuckers, and Pimpadelic) were packed, though they wouldn't attract big audiences on national tours. A few years ago, SXSW began branching outside of indie and alternative rock by booking more hip-hop and electronica, and this year it kept that up by bringing in hip-hop acts such as Del the Funky Homosapien, Blackalicious, and Doug E. Fresh, and electronica artists such as the Moog-obsessed DJ Me DJ You, Stewart Walker, and Carl Craig. Still, it wasn't easy to find music that was fresh and exciting -- too many of the hyped acts didn't live up to expectations. Patti Smith has gotten rave reviews for her new album, but her show sounded flat (perhaps because she didn't play with ex-Television guitarist Tom Verlaine, who's not a part of her current band), and Neko Case couldn't duplicate the rich music found on her beautiful new album either. Making a comeback of sorts, the Meat Puppets didn't fare any better -- the fact that singer-guitarist Curt Kirkwood is the only remnant of the original band might have had something do with it.
Disengage and Qwasi Qwa, the two bands from Cleveland that performed showcases, stood up well to the competition. Led by singer-guitarist Jesse Bryson (the son of the Raspberries' Wally Bryson), Qwasi Qwa played an accessible mix of Beatlesque pop during its performance at a club called the Iron Cactus. At one point in the middle of the set, a paisley-jacketed Beatle look-alike (an L.A.-based musician whose nickname is Beatle Bob) took the floor and started exuberantly dancing. His energy, unusual amid disaffected industry reps, seemed to lift the band members' spirits and make their sugary pop songs really sparkle. Sounding like a cross between the hardcore punk of Fugazi and the stoner rock of Queens of the Stone Age, Disengage played an energetic set to a crowd that included reps from major labels (Columbia Records among them) and Austin's hard rock station. While it was often difficult to hear singer Jason Byers's vocals, the band's aggressive energy was steered in the right direction by its ear-splitting delivery, which refused to resort to new metal clichés.
Other musicians from Cleveland went to SXSW in the hopes of making connections, and to that extent Derek Poindexter of Pleasure Void and singer-songwriters Mike Farley and Tony Lang all said that just, by attending the event (none of them actually performed), they were able to open some doors. Poindexter met briefly with producer Mitch Easter (R.E.M., Suzanne Vega, the Loud Family) to discuss future recording projects, and Lang took steps toward licensing his music for use on television programs.
Despite the large crowds and annoying .com-related industries, SXSW still had something to offer -- you just had to look a little harder. Venturing off the main drag (Sixth Street), which gets so crowded on Friday and Saturday nights that the city closes it to traffic, we witnessed a great set by Mexico City's Resorte. The band, which will release its first album in the U.S. this month (its last album, the Vernon Reid-produced Republica de Ciegos, is available only as an import), sounded like a heavier Rage Against the Machine as it played to a predominantly Latin crowd at a German dance hall converted to a concert venue. While the fervent mosh-pit action made things a bit bumpy at times, it was refreshing to see a crowd that was really enthusiastic about seeing a band -- and, as unpleasant as it might seem, getting knocked around and sweaty isn't something you can download off the Internet.
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