SOUTH BY SOUTHWEST MUSIC AND MEDIA CONFERENCE 2004 Austin, Texas, Wednesday to Saturday, March 17-20. www.sxsw.com
Austin, Texas - It's taken 17 years, but hiphop has finally risen to the level of prominence at the annual South By Southwest (SXSW) music conference usually reserved for indie rock and alt-country. In fact, there really wasn't much twang to SXSW 2004 at all. The two high-profile showcases programmed to jump-start the annual music biz party-gras focused exclusively on backpack acts, with Rhyme Sayers crew members Atmosphere, MF Doom, Eyedea & Abilities and Brother Ali on Wednesday, followed by the Def Jux posse of Aesop Rock, El-P, RJD2 and Mr. Lif on Thursday.
Judging by the off-the-hook response from the fist-pumping crowd crammed into Emo's Main Room, both nights confirmed that festival organizers had the right artists at the correct venue.
Although the silver-masked MF Doom had the buzz, largely due to his recent Madvillain collabo with Madlib, his low-energy performance was easily eclipsed by the wildly amped MC Eyedea, whose hyper-rhyme barrage drew delirious cheers.
Also getting serious lip service in Austin was the Canuck contingent - not established artists like Sarah Harmer and Sam Roberts, but rising stars Broken Social Scene, the Constantines, Death from Above and the Hidden Cameras. The Cameras didn't even play. They had to cancel their Friday showcase at Rockstars when flamboyant frontman Joel Gibb was refused entry to the U.S.
No such trouble for Toronto touring vets Danko Jones, who had other matters on their mind at the Toronto airport Wednesday morning.
The day before, Universal Music Canada informed the group by phone that they'd been dropped (see sidebar). Having a SXSW showcase scheduled with the Super-hot Hives turned out to be a very fortuitous turn for a band suddenly in the market for a label deal.
As Hives singer Howlin' Pelle Almqvist concluded after looking at his palms blackened by swinging from the rafters at Emo's, "Austin is very dirty - there must be many record company executives here."
Among the most anticipated SXSW events were the Austin Music Hall appearances by Memphis legends Big Star - whose music remains magically undated - and the N*E*R*D side project of Neptunes duo Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo, which was a disappointment.
This had nothing to do with Hugo's absence, as Williams demonstrated he has the vocal chops and charisma to carry a show himself. They've just got a lame-ass backing band in the Steely Dan-ish Spymob.
The Minneapolis fusioneers were booed offstage after a nauseating opening set and booed again when they returned with N*E*R*D. And here Williams was thinking that things could only get better after being offered a blow job during an on-camera interview with some pinhead Aussie TV reporter dude before the gig.
I've found the most enjoyable moments at SXSW are rarely the ones you plan. Like going to see the Coachwhips and being drawn into frat-rock frenzy of Harold Ray Live in Concert by the delightful wheezing of a well-bashed Farfisa. Or running past Antone's and getting sidetracked by the haunting howl of Jolie Holland, later joined by surprise guests Samantha Parton and Trish Klein of the Be Good Tanyas, which Holland co-founded.
And it wouldn't be SXSW without a chance meeting with Robyn Hitchcock, who's currently collaborating on a song with the Sadies and finishing up an acoustic album with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. This year, the Hitchcock run-in occurs at departure gate 14 of Austin's Bergstrom International Airport.
"This is getting too weird," smiles Hitchcock, shaking his head. "I'm going to have to take a photograph of you for my files.... Hang on."
For more of Tim Perlich's SXSW coverage, check www.nowtoronto.com.
Festival highs and lows
Eyedea & Abilities
Broken Social Scene
Mission of Burma
Harold Ray Live in Concert