AUSTIN, Texas – Founded 21 years ago to show off Austin’s vibrant but isolated live music scene, the annual South By Southwest summit has grown into the continent’s grandest showcase of emerging trends and important new innovations, only a portion of which have to do with creating and performing.
The exponential rise in the festival’s international popularity has come with the increasing infiltration of corporate concerns. The massive gathering of well-placed cultural tastemakers is the perfect platform to spread the word about their latest money-making ventures and consumer products. Consequently, the event’s live music component is becoming more of a pretext for a sales pitch than what’s actually being sold.
Photo By Shawn Scallen
Kelvin Swaby used his wicked falsetto to dazzling effect over the Heavy’s whomping funk grooves.
To stage an event the size of SXSW requires a huge amount of corporate sponsorship. But why does it have to be such a gargantuan beast? If fewer logos mean fewer big bands, what’s the problem? Given a choice between seeing amazing new indie bands who are ecstatic to be playing for a packed house or watching some has-been celeb sleepwalk through lame tunes from a new album, I’d always choose the former.
Corporate guerrilla marketers moved in on the SXSW action, chief among them Fader Magazine, published by marketing and promotions firm Cornerstone, which set up Fader Fort, a huge tent in a parking lot just off the 6th Street main drag, and played host to unofficial daytime showcase events.
Photo By Shawn Scallen
Fucked Up proved one of the more successful Toronto acts showcasing this year.
There was something distinctly soul-sucking about this concept. Once you passed through the clothing and sunglasses boutiques, received your 10th pack of free gum, proceeded to your free cocktail, sponsored by liquor brand X, and grabbed your complimentary magazine and energy drink, you felt like a rat running through Fader’s youth marketing maze.
Then there was the Smokin’ Music venue, aka the “Smokin’ Music Presented By Santa Fe Natural Tobacco Company” club. In this case, a tobacco firm took over an advantageously located building on Trinity to host SXSW-sanctioned events.
Because the club was programmed by SXSW like any other official venue, the cigarette company avoided the hassle of having to seek out smoking-positive artists to showcase. Thus, acts like the English Beat and Toronto’s own Blue Rodeo were used to attract people to the literally smoke-belching club. As the bands played on, delegates were plied with packs of American Spirit cigarettes.
As for the bands themselves, Vampire Weekend were the main attraction at Spin’s popular invitation-only party at Stubb’s BBQ Friday afternoon. The fact that they were Spin’s cover subjects prior to the fest helped fill Antone’s for the twee threat’s Friday-evening showcase, but their cardigan-friendly style of soft pop fell far short of the high expectations created by the advance hype.
Of course, there were numerous other bands getting serious lip service, namely Grand Archives, Cut Copy, the Heavy and the Black Keys but none approached the roar about Amy Winehouse last year.
Photo By Shawn Scallen
Memphis mauler Jay Reatard cut loose at six events during the fest.
With four previous albums out, the Black Keys hardly fit the typical buzz-band mould. However, the wildly enthusiastic response to the overtly funky and fuzzed-out new tunes they debuted for a shoulder-to-shoulder La Zona Rosa afternoon crowd at the Village Voice media party suggests that their forthcoming Danger Mouse-produced Attack & Release (Nonesuch) album will be huge.
They were among the few guitar bands at SXSW, hard-walloping UK funk crew the Heavy and post-punk upstarts These New Puritans among them, who’ve realized there’s been a sea change in listening tastes and that future success may mean moving beyond conventional song structures and time signatures.
It was informative to see how well the Black Keys’ off-kilter yet decidedly head-nodding new grooves went down with the audience on first listen, whereas the more traditionally rock-oriented psychedelic jams debuted by Sweden’s Soundtrack of Our Lives, who immediately followed the Black Keys, were met with a shrug. By their second epic tune, nearly two-thirds of the crowd had left, which is amazing, because just last year the Soundtrack dudes would’ve gone over like a storm. How times have changed.
Conspicously absent were all the riotous rock ’n’ roll lunks like the Strokes, the Hives and Jet who were all over SXSW in recent years. Likewise, emo bands and alt-country crews were also scarce. Anything set to a straight 4/4 beat seemed oddly arcane.
That may be why artsy avant-leaning ensembles like Philadelphia’s unison-singing Man Man and violin-and-bass-clarinet-rocking Toronto crew Islands went over surprisingly well at Emo’s while twangy prospects such as alt-country blueblood Justin Townes Earle – the stringbean son of Steve Earle, who could pass for a young Waylon Jennings but warbles more like Jimmie Rodgers – fell flat during the Bloodshot showcase at Red-Eyed Fly.
Much more exciting were Alabama reformed garage punks the Dexateens, who are now using their aggressive three-guitar attack for the good of country rock. These kiddos had apparently been playing together for five years before thinking about putting a record out, and it shows in the sloppy tightness of their approach, which reminds me of the first time I heard the Drive-By Truckers. Rumour has it that the Truckers will be bringing the Dexateens out on their next tour. Watch out.
If you followed any one of the seemingly thousands of young people wearing skinny jeans and white Ray-Ban Wayfarers, there’s a good chance they led you straight to one of the RSVP-only parties at the Fader Fort. The Fort hosted some of the festival’s hottest shows, including the Lou Reed tribute, which featured Yo La Tengo, Thurston Moore and Reed himself, among notable others.
Another artist hitting the festival hard was Brooklyn’s Santogold (aka Santi White). Slapping a “next M.I.A.” tag on White might do her more harm than good. But with an infectious, club-ready sound that mashes world, dancehall, electro and hiphop, plus the fact that she’s got an album ready to drop with a collab-list that includes Switch, Diplo and few other red-hot producers, it’s hard not to make the comparison. You’ll be hearing about her.
With conventional rock bands all but extinct at this year’s SXSW, many looked to the weirdo-beardo scene for heavily amplified music. Dark Meat, a 15-piece of freak rockers from Athens, Georgia, looked like a band of acid-dropping pirates who just anchored their freakout ship. The fest crowd went nuts for their chaotic energy and twisted Southern rock style.
Established artists like Van Morrison and R.E.M., with new discs due out soon, were in town to flog their products. With all the activity at SXSW, no one wants to attend an album playback party, so instead, some marquee acts drop into Austin, quickly play through the new album track by track, then bugger off.
On a similar tip, Lou Reed has a new film coming out, so he used most of the time allotted for his “keynote address” to talk about the Julian Schnabel-shot documentary Lou Reed’s Berlin and screen a lengthy clip. Afterwards, Hal Willner managed to wrest Reed (who claimed to hold a “BA in dope and a PhD in soul”) out of self-promotion mode long enough to offer his thoughts on the horrible sound of MP3s and the importance of maintaining the rights to your song publishing.
Each year at SXSW there are a few astonishing comebacks. Last year it was the soul revival led by the reunited Booker T. & the MGs with William Bell and Eddie Floyd and Dallas great Bobby Patterson.
This time around, stylin’ Bay Area player Darondo – who comes off like a back-alley Al Green – returned to Texas for his first show in some 30 years. Backed by Nino Moschella’s funk posse at the rammed Club DeVille, the wiry Darondo sang and strutted with the sort of crowd-bewitching charisma rarely seen in artists half his age. Whatever it is, he’s still got it. The same goes for guitar-ripping Georgia soul man Herman Hitson, who rocked the Continental crowd ragged during his stellar performance at the Ponderosa Stomp night, letting everyone know where his buddy Jimi Hendrix got his stuff.
A rousing big-band soul revue performance by promising 24-year-old Boston shouter Eli “Paperboy” Reed – who clearly has spent some time with old Bobby Bland and Swanee Quintet records – and impressively poised performances by soulful young Welsh upstart Duffy indicated that the old-school R&B revival that surfaced last year might be more than just a weird anomaly.