This is Austin's South by Southwest Music Conference, a musical Mardi Gras with barbecue instead of boobs.
Now in its 20th year, the four-day festival strains against Austin's infrastructure like a fast-growing kid in last year's sweater. Austin's taxis, hotels, and clubs struggle mightily to accommodate an influx of 10,000 musicians, writers, and industry hangers-on. Only the bars seem up to the challenge.
The occupying force of badge-wearing interlopers is looking for the next big sound. Acts that barely attracted an audience last year -- Arctic Monkeys, Wolfmother, and KT Tunstall, among them -- have to turn people away at the door this year. One of the ironies of SXSW's oft-overcrowded venues is that if you wait in line for the band of the moment, you're probably missing next year's, playing to an empty room across town.
The festival begins for us Thursday at the Village Voice Media party, hosted in association with Capitol Records. While Capitol has a stable of vital young acts (Idlewild, Shout Out Louds, Ed Harcourt), it's pretty quickly apparent that Morningwood is in need of some serious beer goggles. Its trashy glam-rock-meets-power-pop sounds like the members of Poison got shit-faced and tried their hand at Cheap Trick covers.
The next stop is the IHeartComix.com showcase, featuring Lady Sovereign, opening for Jean Grae. Unfortunately, the bratty English rapper is late for her DJ set, so we miss out on Sovereign's rubbery, vacuum-tight flow and snotty independence. Luckily, Grae has plenty of attitude of her own. She harasses the crowd of people, leading them in a round of "Fuck off" as they bounce with their middle fingers in the air. Her angry lyrics and brash style are mesmerizing. She calls out a couple of wallflowers in the back, then smiles and shakes her head at her impudence. "I got the mic," she says.
Later that night, the pleading, confessional folk of Rocky Votolato proves surprisingly catchy, despite its bittersweet undercurrent. From the sound of it, the songs from his new album are likely to be his best yet. Detroit's His Name Is Alive plays an appropriately unusual and eclectic set, wavering between limping ballads and rafter-shaking rockers. But the evening belongs to Arkansas' the Gossip and its singer, Beth Ditto. While the guitarist mines the funk hidden in post-punk's angular leads when not joining the drummer's throbbing garage-blues groove, Ditto holds it all together with magnetic stage energy and extraordinarily limber, soulful vocals, capable of charming even the most jaded hipster.
Austin's got a wealth of great country-tinged, ragged rock bands, the most underrated of which is Grand Champeen. Mining the intersection of Stones-like country and alt-rock crunch pioneered by the Replacements, the quintet's chunky, bracing guitar is a great musical mimosa. After ripping through Elvis Costello's "Radio, Radio," the guitarist borrows one of the picks he threw out to the audience earlier in the set, promising to give it back.
Across town at the Merge Records barbecue, fellow Austinite Britt Daniel sounds fantastic solo. During a jaw-dropping performance, he really manages to translate Spoon's distinctive, skittering rhythmic style to the acoustic guitar. Glasgow's Camera Obscura follows him with an alluring set of great beauty and delicacy. While its plush, lingering sonics hold obvious appeal for Belle & Sebastian fans, Camera Obscura distinguishes itself with singer Tracyanne Campbell's much more intimate lyrics, which eschew the fey distance of Stuart Murdoch's. Robert Pollard closed the afternoon shindig with a white-hot set that belies the "death" of Guided by Voices. Pollard by any other name still sounds as sweet.
On Friday, many of the high-profile showcases -- Lucero/Ted Leo, Animal Collective, Editors, Neko Case -- become overcrowded. Luckily, SXSW has a deep bench. Death Vessel (aka singer-songwriter Joel Thibodeau) works a somber vein of Americana not unlike Will Oldham's -- only several registers higher. Guggenheim Grotto surprises listeners with a lush, dour sound reminiscent of Arab Strap. Hotel Lights shines as the best of the unsung bunch, with leader (and former Ben Folds Five drummer) Darren Jesse offering captivating pop melodies couched in sashaying structures that split the difference between Big Star and R.E.M.
The evening concludes with England's Th' Faith Healers, who emerged in the wake of My Bloody Valentine. Playing together for the first time in a dozen years, they surf churning, choppy waves of distortion, while singer Roxanne Stephen provides low, resonant vocals, reminiscent of Kim Gordon's -- if she could actually sing.
Rainer Maria kick-starts the last day with tracks from its forthcoming album. One of the most creative and durable acts to emerge from the '90s, its newest songs are creamier and not so tightly wound. Meanwhile, turns out that Art Brut has formed a band and is every bit as good as it says. The rare English act to live up to the cross-Atlantic hype, it displays a sardonic insouciance matched by jagged guitars, jerky rhythms, and an arch sense of British irreverence.
Many at SXSW were singing the praises of L.A.'s Dengue Fever, a jazzy cocktail-pop combo led by singer Chhom Nimol, a one-time Cambodian pop star, who sings in Cantonese. But the group was overshadowed by Tres Chicas, three ladies from North Carolina who pool their talents for some of the sweetest country-tinged harmonies you'll ever hear.
The weekend ends in a church, of all places, where Anti-, an Epitaph imprint, hosts a hootenanny of eclectic acoustic-based talents. Jolie Holland, Billy Bragg, Joe Henry, and folk legend Rambling Jack Elliott play, individually and in concert, rolling though classics such as Little Feat's "Willin'," Guthrie's "Pretty Boy Floyd," and Kris Kristofferson's "Me And Bobby McGee." Bad Religion's Greg Graffin makes an appearance, as does talented singer-songwriter Dave Dondero and country star Marty Stuart. But the 75-year-old Elliott is the star of the night, leading the entire assemblage through a closing rendition of Guthrie's "Deportees." As we leave the church and step into the rain, it feels like a fitting coda to three days of nearly nonstop music.
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