South By Southwest Austin, Texas. March 15-19. Rating: NNNNN
Austin -- In typically Texan "biggest is best" style, the 20th-anniversary South By Southwest festival topped all previous events for sheer size, showing marked increases in the number of participating artists, delegates and venues as well as so-called "outlaw" parties held at bars, clothing stores, music retailers, parking lots and people's houses every afternoon during the massive four-day music-biz booze 'n' schmooze.
In an attempt to stem the flow of badge-wearers from the Austin Convention Centre, this year's organizers boosted the number of celebrity interviews with marquee artists. But the promise of seeing a one-on-one stroke session with artists like Neil Young , Morrissey , k.d. lang , the Pretenders , Sam Moore or Judy Collins evidently wasn't attractive enough to attendees under the age of 50. Kris Kristofferson was probably planning to ditch his own chat with Dave Marsh after listening to the wild women cheer his set at the New West label party, which also featured Joe Ely , Stephen Bruton and the Drive-by Truckers at Club DeVille . When Kristofferson still hadn't turned up 30 minutes past the scheduled start time of the interview, it seemed pointless to waste any more time at the Convention Centre when there were exciting unsanctioned events happening all over town with the added enticement of free beer and BBQ.
One key development was an increase in the level of organization of outlaw events. Their better-targeted advance publicity, decent-quality sound systems and greater adherence to set schedules outdid many official SXSW showcases, which often ran late by up to 30 minutes, with lengthy changeovers between performances. It took the sound crew stationed at the Dirty Dog Bar Friday night some 20 minutes before we were able to hear Isobel Campbell 's viola through the P.A., and once things were finally ready to start, what came out was so distorted by screeching feedback, it sounded like she was singing into a kazoo. Clearly frustrated, Campbell decided to leave most of the vocals to sideman guitarist Eugene Kelly , a huge disappointment to the Belle and Sebastian fans who looked strangely out of place in the noisy frat bar, whose large-screen TVs were tuned to NCAA basketball playoffs during performances. On the other end of the spectrum, Saturday night's set by the Two Gallants at Eternal was eardrum-bustingly loud enough to be unlistenable. Oddly, the San Fran dirty heartland rock duo capped an evening of low-key strummers like Martha Wainwright and Josh Ritter , so it was hard to understand why the sound levels were jacked up to painful levels. It's a damn shame. Adam Stephens 's ragged-throated wail, detailed songwriting and awesome Gretsch attack deserved much better treatment.
Buzz band breathers
The upside to the explosion of unsanctioned events was fewer long lineups outside venues for buzz bands. Most acts that you really needed to see to determine whether all the advance hype was warranted - namely Tapes 'n Tapes , Wolfmother , Love Is All and the Grates - were each playing three or four different day parties, so there were ample opportunities to catch them in a more hospitable setting surrounded by friends and fans rather than loudmouthed biz knobs. The other strategy for sidestepping over-capacity quandaries was for better-known acts to play "top-secret" unannounced sets. The Beastie Boys , followed up their audience Q&A with a hush-hush Thursday afternoon set at Stubbs , while the Flaming Lips delivered two unofficial sets Wednesday and Thursday. Word had spread by the time their Thursday-night show at Eternal rolled around, but their confetti-, balloon- and streamer-strewn performance, highlighted by a crowd singalong of Bohemian Rhapsody, more than justified the 30-minute wait in line.
Hey, aren't you in DFA1979...?
Each year, there's one overriding trend at SXSW. In the past it's been expensive Cuban cigars, oversized sunglasses or cellphones taking photos. This time it was all about the facial hair: beards were the new Blackberry. The most popular styles were the bushy Will Oldham job and the swarthy Eurotrash look favoured by Jesse Keeler from Death from Above 1979 , but many attendees had their own creative variations. The most stylish option had to be the artfully confrontational growth worn by guitarist Zac Holtzman of Long Beach-based Dengue Fever , whose funky Cambodian psych attack led by enchanting singer Chhom Nimol was a house-rocking delight.
As for Canadian content at SXSW 2006, you know there's been a dramatic shift in perception of Canuck artists when you overhear some U.S. A&R dudes discussing their club-crawl plans and one says, "I need to see more bands from Montreal and Toronto." Even the baristas at the East 6th cafés were keeping a tally of how many Toronto badges they served. Buoyed by their well-known Broken Social Scene connection, Metric had the biggest buzz of the Cancon contingent and left people stunned after their headlining set at Stubb's , but VanCity underdogs You Say Party! We Say Die! also triumphed, garnering huge industry attention from both sides of the Atlantic. Toronto's Small Sins (formerly Ladies and Gentlemen) scored with a prime-time slot between Sia and Hot Chip at the Astralwerks showcase.
Made in Japan
Self-described "samurai jazz" ensemble Pe'z , on the other hand, looked like a crew of stony-faced yakuza punks but delivered a delirious dose of Latin-spiked bacchanalian jazz worthy of Desi Arnaz and his Babalu Orchestra. In the sea of rock, metal and hiphop, hearing something so wacky - the five-piece slipped between ska, lounge, Tommy Dorsey big-band numbers and funked-up joints - was wholly refreshing. And while they hail from NYC, not Japan proper, Asobi Seksu 's fusion of J-pop vocals - sung by frontwoman Yuki in a mix of Japanese and English - with walls of crystalline shoegazer guitar noise was one of the underrated high points of the festival.
The gospel truth
After Bay City, Texas, gospel group Jones Family Singers finished shouting, clapping and generally getting happy with the crowd packing the pews at the Central Presbyterian Church Saturday night, followed by a surprisingly soul-stirring performance by weedy twangers Ollabelle , contemporary country star Marty Stuart stepped forward with his suited gospel crew, the Fabulous Superlatives , briefly looked up at the 20-metre-high ceiling and announced, "This must be the coolest show of the whole festival!" The house of worship was certainly an unusual showcase venue, but from the moment they started into The Unseen Hand and first-call Nashville session drummer Harry Stinson joined in with a soaring high harmony, no one was arguing with Stuart's coolness claim.
Watching these dedicated musicians ply their craft with such jubilant passion and skilful grace put the week in proper perspective. This was not about getting a contract, securing a publishing deal or setting up a tour; it was about sharing the life-enhancing joy of music. You could hear it in every note echoing through the performance of the legendary Ramblin' Jack Elliott with Billy Bragg , Jolie Holland , Greg Graffin and Joe Henry .
After Elliott sang Kristofferson's Me And Bobby McGee like he'd lived it, Bragg and company joined him on a rousing politically charged finale. Before a giant cross inside a church located in the capital of the president's home state, the Ledbelly-inspired I've Got The Bush War Blues brought the crowd to their feet in a thunderous ovation.
A profoundly moving close to the festival.
SXSW hits and misses
Small Sins (formerly Ladies and Gentlemen)
The Octopus Project
Ramblin' Jack Elliott
Tapes 'n Tapes
The Velvet Teen
Kit Malone (of TV on the Radio)
Sailboats Are White
Echo & the Bunnymen
Micah P. Hinson
The Boy Least Likely To
The Young Knives