Tips by day, sounds by night:
South By Southwest spotlights hot new acts, state of the music industry


 Film Fest features new work from Landis, Demme, Smith

Austin, Texas, trademarks itself as the live music capital of the world, and how can you argue that label after a trip to the South By Southwest Music Festival, where more than 1,200 bands played to 8,000-plus festival attendees?

Certainly I won't argue, after catching 44 bands on a couple dozen different stages in the center of Austin over a whirlwind week, March 15-21.

During the 18 years of its existence, South By Southwest has become the premier annual event for bands eager to ply their songs to hard-core music fans, scouting record companies and the music press. A good showcase session at SXSW can get a band signed or get them written off the musical map.

Little Richard
Ani DeFranco Wayne Coyne

Little Richard served as a keynote speaker for this year's conference, which features a trade show and panels at a convention center during the day, and hours of band showcases on 50-plus stages every night.

The 70-year-old pop music icon announced himself as "history alive," and peppered his talk with rhymes and upbeat messages like:

"Master what you're doing be the best and nothing less. When you master it you're going to go places" and "The grass may look greener on the other side, but it's just as hard to cut."

He also pounded home a key message for musicians: "sign your own checks," he admonished. "And learn how to count your money, or else someone's gonna count it for ya."

Panels, over the course of the week, gave plenty of similar, if less colorful business tips to musicians, as well as advice on how to break into the industry through major and independent record labels, and how to score lucrative music publishing deals.

Controversial former Sony Music head Walter Yeltnikoff, million-selling independent folk rock artist Ani DeFranco, Wayne Coyne of The Flaming Lips and Joan Baez also served as keynote speakers during the days at the Austin Convention Center.

But it was the nights that mattered.

A dizzying lineup of bars and clubs all around the state's capital set up impromptu stages, most within walking distance of one another, so that bands from all around the country and the world could strut their stuff in quick, use-it-or-lose-it performances of 40 minutes or less.

But it was the nights that mattered.

A dizzying lineup of bars and clubs all around the state's capital set up impromptu stages, most within walking distance of one another, so that bands from all around the country and the world could strut their stuff in quick, use-it-or-lose-it performances of 40 minutes or less.

Bands from Japan, England, Norway, Australia and Canada all came in for the occasion, as well as a healthy dose of acts from Chicago.

For hardcore music fans, it was a smorgasbord of music that's overpowering how do you choose which band to see when 50 are playing up and down the street all at the same time?

Antigone RisingMy favorite showcase of the week?

Probably Antigone Rising (pictured at right), an all-girl band from New Jersey that played a powerful roots-rock set on Friday at a private label-sponsored party, along with labelmate Toby Lightman.

Antigone Rising sounds reminiscent of Melissa Etheridge, with a touch of Janis Joplin, and has a debut album on Lava/Atlantic due this summer. If the band's showcase was any indication, it should score well at rock radio this year. Their live independent album was reviewed in Pop Stops on March 11.

 

TUESDAY:
The music portion of the conference unofficially opened at the famous Stubb's Barbecue venue (you can buy their sauce in stores here in Chicagoland) with a BMI party featuring tasty eats and the personal introspection of country singer Holly Williams, as well as an unsigned but phenomenal The Greencards, a fiddlin' roots rock act originally from Australia that now calls Austin home.

Veteran alt-rocker Sonic Youth also turned up around the corner in Stubbs' backlot to preview its upcoming new release.

 

WEDNESDAY:

Things officially kicked off for the festival's music portion on Wednesday, and I got a solid workout, power-walking back and forth from one section of town to the other to catch the retro-techno dance party fun of I Am The World Trade Center, the quirky cabaret piano of Nellie McKay, a solo acoustic guitar set by the effervescent Bleu and a rousing end-of-night reminder of what rock is all about from Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
Nellie McKay Joan Jett Bleu

StiffedMy favorite set of the night, though, came from Philadelphia's Stiffed, a young band that owes a heavy debt to No Doubt and the '80s retro vibe of punk bands like Bad Brains and The Clash.

Lead singer Santi White is a force pop radio should reckon with.

 

THURSDAY:
The music mania opened for me on Thursday night with Feathermerchants, a strong folk-rock act from New York (its debut was reviewed here in November), followed by the feel-good Monkees-esque harmonies of Montreal's The High Dials.

Boston's Mary Lou Lord, a poignant singer-songwriter, performed a moving set at an outdoor stage, backed for a couple of songs by labelmate Gingersol (whose new disc was reviewed here on Feb. 26). She was later found busking on the sidewalks to an appreciative crowd at 2 a.m. The night closed for me with a sweaty set of power pop thanks to Austin's own Fastball and a reunited set from Seattle's The Posies.

 
Feathermerchants Fastball Mary Lou Lord

 

How ironic is it that during the nation's largest music festival, a band was arrested for playing music after curfew?

That's what happened to worldbeat rockers Ozomatli, whose conga line burst into the street after 2 a.m. Thursday and engendered a pepper spray altercation with the cops. But by Saturday, when the band returned to the stage for another surprise set, it was the talk of the festival, and sported "Free the Ozo 3" t-shirts. Talk about a fast media machine!

 

FRIDAY:
My day opened with the aforementioned Antigone Rising and Lightman, followed by the amazing fusion of Lili Haydn's electric violin and Kate Bush-esque vocals.

 
Lili Haydn Abra Moore Kacy Crowley

 

Singer-songwriters Kacy Crowley and Abra Moore offered uninspiring introspective sets, and the newly reinvigorated BoDeans and a reformed edition of '70s cult popsters Big Star (featuring members of the Posies backing up Alex Chilton and Jody Stephens) put on solid rock sets, but offered no surprises.

 
Alex ChiltonBoDeans   David Garza

Austin's David Garza closed with a rousing rock performance that made up for the previous couple of hours of ho-hums.

 

SATURDAY:
The final day of South By Southwest is always a challenge. You've been trying to hook into the hottest new bands all week, always knowing that there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of great shows you'll miss.

So Saturday is the ultimate challenge your last chance to find the "coolest" band of the week. I took 14 shots at it over the course of the day, seeing bands all through the afternoon and night. It started with an energetic outdoor set by the duo The Rocket Summer, fronted by a 21-year-old multi-instrumentalist Bryce Avary from Dallas, who drew me in from the street. I hope to be writing more about him soon.

 
Rocket Summer Nadine

 

A label party put on by Pete Yorn's Trampoline Records followed, with Jayhawks-like sets from Nadine and The Hang Ups and rootsy renderings from Minnie Driver (yes, movie star Minnie). Driver's inherent celebrity drew a healthy gapers block, but her short set, while enjoyable, didn't unveil a pop star phenom-to-be.

 
Minnie Driver Minnie Driver

Chicago's Liz Phair held court Saturday for a set that was long on poses and short on songs (she played just over a half hour) along with punky popsters Wheat, who offered nothing to mark them as more than one-hit wonders.

 
Wheat Liz Phair

 

The Honeydogs, a Minneapolis act with great harmonies and an Americana music vibe played a homey courtyard later that night which slowly filled throughout their set with fans anticipating Michael Penn, who turned up to deliver an acoustic set previewing his new album.

 
Honeydogs Michael Penn

 

After catching the quirky tech-pop of Japan's Bleach, and being capacity crowd-ed out of a show from The Hives, I closed the night with a warm, dreamy set from Portland's The Decemberists.

My ears were happy. I returned home on Sunday with a healthy bar bill, healthy calves and a healthy yearning for next March, when the South By Southwest circus does it all over again.