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South By Southwest 2006 – In the Trenches

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South By Southwest, the annual music convention held in Austin, celebrated its 20th anniversary this past week. And while many industry analysts bemoan the declining revenues of the industry, SXSW continues to buck the trend and has expanded exponentially over the past several years. The 2006 edition boasted a whopping 1,350 music acts in attendance, with somewhere in the neighborhood of 20,000 people purchasing badges or wristbands. Although it doesn’t trumpet the fact, SXSW is undoubtedly the largest music conference of its kind in the world.

SXSW has proved to be a crucial launching pad for numerous acts, especially for young UK bands, with Franz Ferdinand and The Darkness being two recent examples that rode a wave of positive SXSW buzz to huge international success. As a result, the conference has become a spring break of sorts for UK music fans, and this year it seemed that one out of every four attendees had traveled from overseas.

Every UK music fan I met was quick to say how much they loved Austin, and how they were knocked out by the number of live music venues along the main thoroughfare of 6th Street. And two visiting bands actually announced during their showcases how refreshing it was to meet the friendly folks of Austin, who greeted audiences with smiles and enthusiasm rather than the standoffish cool they receive on native soil.

In addition to young acts, SXSW always amps up excitement by also booking music legends who are eager to hype just-released, or soon-to-arrive projects. This year the old guard on hand included Ray Davies, Morrissey, the Pretenders, Beastie Boys, Lyle Lovett, the Flaming Lips, Neil Young, and rather bizarrely … Judy “Send in the Clowns” Collins (huh?).

And while many longtime attendees tend to wax rhapsodic about the Texas sunshine in March, this was the second year in a row marred by overcast skies and the occasional light drizzle. Certainly not disastrous, but still a disappointment for a sun-deprived New Yorker like myself who had been yearning for an invigorating solar thaw after a long winter.

But enough background details. The reason you are reading this is to vicariously share in the thrill of my SXSW experiences. You want to know about how the young turks fared! If the old lions still had their teeth! You want to read about the dirt and scandal! Well, I’m not one to disappoint, so hold on tight and let’s get to it!

WEDNESDAY, MARCH 15th

(The Rumble Strips)

After making an afternoon stop by the convention center to pick up my badge, I quickly hustled over to the Fader/Cornerstone/Red Stripe outdoor party to catch a set by FIELD MUSIC, a new band from Sunderland UK. There was already a long line for this free party upon my arrival, so I had to strain to see the band from my place in line on the street.

Although I can’t say I actually witnessed Field Music in action, I did like what I was able to hear, which was a hooky pop/rock hybrid occasionally reminiscent of XTC, with harmonies akin to the Finn Brothers. Upon gaining entry, I was busy catching up with fellow traveling friends, but I did notice LA ROCCA was making music in a similar vein to the Waterboys.

By the time TAPES ‘N TAPES took the stage, I had a clear vantage point but this Minneapolis band’s attempt at mixing bombastic post-punk with melodic keyboards left me cold. But I give them credit for being the first band to draw a crowd to the front of the stage. Next up was CARINA ROUND, a raven-haired young artist from Birmingham, England, who shared more than a passing similarity to PJ Harvey.

Like PJ, her band shares her name. Like PJ, Carina wails and growls and plays a mean lead guitar. And perhaps to fully confront critics who might compare her to PJ, Carina went out of her way to actually DRESS like PJ, taking the stage in an emerald gown and matching eyeshadow, and red shoes right off the cover of PJ’s third album To Bring You My Love.

To an old school publicist like myself, this appeared to be a calculated ploy to make an impression. Even if a person forgot her name after the set, you would be certain to remember “that gal that rocked like PJ Harvey.” I personally liked her rough-edged pop songs and presentation, so I hope the buzz picks up when Carina’s first album for Interscope arrives in May.

THE RUMBLE STRIPS were up next, and they proved to be my first real discovery of the conference. A horn-driven quartet from Dover UK, the Strips impressed with a fervor reminiscent of early Dexys, and their debut single “Motorcycle” is rightfully causing a stir in indie circles. Members Tom Gorbutt and Henry Clark kept things lively by switching between keyboards, saxophone, trumpet, and bass guitar, while frontman/guitarist Charlie Waller impressed with his commanding presence and rich, soulful voice. Chatter from the crowd was at a minimum during the Rumble Strips’ set because everyone knew they were witnessing something unique in today’s monochromatic scene.

One of the UK’s breakout bands of ‘05, THE ZUTONS, closed out this afternoon party. A large contingent of Brits pushed their way to the front of the stage, lit a continuous chain of fags, and danced and sang their hearts out during the band’s 30-minute set.

Tom Smith, front man of current buzz band EDITORS, was also on hand, watching from next to the mixing board. I thought the Zutons sounded more dynamic live than on their debut CD, but I was impressed enough that I wanted to revisit the disc. Their sound is a smart combination of classic rock, blues boogie, and singalong choruses. A new album, Tired of Hangin’ Around, will be released Stateside later this year.

With clouds turning darker, and a few raindrops beginning to fall, I rushed to a taco stand on 6th Street to refuel before my next marathon music session.

Knowing how many Brits were in town, and knowing that THE RAKES are one of the biggest new bands in the UK at the moment, I decided to arrive at Flamingo East early to avoid disappointment. The prospect of the night’s lineup of bands — THE RAKES, EIGHTIES MATCHBOX B-LINE DISASTER, TOWERS OF LONDON and THE OTHERS — was enticing.

(The Others)

Arriving an hour before the first band I wanted to see (The Others), I was forced to endure a trio of Nirvana pretenders called ZICO CHAIN. That’s the problem with so many of these showcases; you have to sit through the occasional crap band to get to the good stuff.

At 10:00 PM, I left my bleacher seat and made my way to the front of the stage for THE OTHERS. A band that arrived on the London scene concurrent with the quick ascent of the Libertines, this quartet initially gained infamy because lead singer Dominic Masters dated a transexual and freely gave his mobile number out to fans. Dubious claims to fame to be sure, but except for a few blatant swipes (Nirvana and the Cure), I can find no fault in the Others’ music.

Some critics were quick to say the band’s musical chops were lacking on their self-titled 2005 debut album, but to me it just sounded punk. Punk as in raw, passionate, and unschooled – good things. For their showcase, the Others played nearly all their debut album, including such ragged molesters as “Stan Bowles,” “Lackey,” and “William,” and they debuted a new song or two which sounded equally great. With eyes glazed, Dominic is an oddity as a frontman – skinny, tiny, wired, disaffected, and strange. Robert Smith-lookalike Johnny Others switched between bass and rhythm guitar, while Jimmy Lager and Martin Oldham handled lead guitar and drums.

(Towers of London)

Having been unimpressed with their singles, I can’t say I was too excited to see TOWERS OF LONDON. But I was aware that they had been thrown in jail, and that the band’s imagery copped freely from the Pistols, so I gave them the benefit of the doubt and hoped I would be entertained. Taking to the stage like a tornado at touchdown, the TOWERS drew immediate laughter for their LA Guns riffs, teased hair, rock star posing, and D.I.Y. t-shirts (obviously borrowed from the Manics) sporting slogans like “Pogo” and “Vanity Lies.” But sneers were soon replaced by pumping fists and whoops from the audience as the TOWERS won us over on pure chutzpah.

Livewire vocalist Donny Tourette was sneering and leering as though his life depended on it, and he busied himself by jumping into the audience and swinging his mic like Roger Daltrey. Lead guitarist “The Rev” earned points for a spot-on Johnny Thunders impersonation. Bassist Tommy is as tall and handsome as Nicky Wire. Drummer Snell is a dead ringer for Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks. Although I can’t say the songs were memorable (“I’m a Rat” and “Fuck It Up,” fer chrissakes), I give the TOWERS points for being fun, rambunctious, and slightly dangerous. I guess the next step is sealing the deal on a Converse endorsement, since each member of the band sported a new pair.

(Eighties Matchbox B-Line Disaster)

Having already been pummeled by the Cramps-meets-Bauhaus assault of EIGHTIES MATCHBOX B-LINE DISASTER at SXSW two years ago, I had spent the last month eagerly awaiting a rematch. I’m happy to say, this band trounced my ass yet again. The audience at the Flamingo East didn’t know what to make of them. In the unenviable position of having to follow the TOWERS’ high-adrenaline set, EMBD came out of the gate like a baying hound from hell.

Initially, it seemed like the band was trying too hard – “the Towers were crazy so we’ve got to be crazy, too.” But EMBD (their name comes from a train accident) is a different kind of crazy – whereas, the Towers are of the “let’s get drunk and fuck things up” variety, EMBD is more along the lines of “let’s take mescal and sacrifice a vigin to Satan under the full moon” type. The whole band was clad in black, with a scarf here and there, and hair tending toward shaggy manes.

Frontman Guy McKnight is a young Glenn Danzig reborn, all feral muscle with a deep, crazed voice. A short chick to the left of me thought he was the sexiest man alive, and she screamed throughout the set, and forced her cuckolded boyfriend to take pictures. Gone were the constant strobe lights that punctuated their stage show two years ago – instead, EMBD relied soley on beastly good looks and hellsent music that updates the more frenzied moments of the Cramps, Bauhaus and the Stooges. Currently without a deal after having been dropped from Island UK after two discs, EMBD deserve a new home NOW.

(The Rakes)

I first read about THE RAKES in the NME nearly two years ago, upon the release of the “Strasbourg” single. The tense Wire-like propulsion of b-side “Ausland Mission” grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. Things have exploded for this London band in the past six months, thanks mostly to the can’t-get-it-out-of-your-head single “22 Grand Job.”

Already something of an albatross, “22 Grand Job” was shouted for incessantly by the punters from the moment the Rakes took the stage. Vocalist Alan Donohoe delighted with his wonky dancing and persona. He jerked about and danced in place with childlike fervor, instantly bringing to mind a non-spectacled Jarvis Cocker with A.D.D. The Rakes got the crowd up on their feet, and Donny and Tommy of Towers of London sang along merrily from the bleachers. Let’s hope the delayed release of the Capture/Release CD doesn’t harm the Rakes’ prospects in the States. Their Buzzcocks-influenced pop punk could break through to a large audience.

It’s 2:00 AM. End of Day 1.

THURSDAY, MARCH 16th

(Roky Erickson & the Explosives)

I returned to the fray in grand style by catching a late afternoon set at Threadgills by legendary garage rocker ROKY ERICKSON. A cult figure on the Texas music scene, Roky has been around since the ‘60s when his trailblazing psychedelic band the 13th Floor Elevators performed “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on American Bandstand. Roky continued to perform throughout the ‘70s, but by the early ‘80s his copious drug experimentations had caught up with him, and he became an altogether different kind of rocker. Instead of singing tender ballads like “Starry Eyes,” Roky was focusing on a new genre he dubbed “horror rock,” which was, like the name says, a ghoulish but immensely satisfying blend of melodic garage music with horror movie lyrics.

Sadly, Roky’s new music didn’t find too large of an audience, and his mental health grew steadily worse from then on out. The ‘90s and early ‘00s were peppered with stories of Roky’s imminent “comeback,” but they never panned out. Until now. With the help of his brother, and the music community in Austin which rightfully worships the ground he walks upon, Roky performed a triumphant set at Threadgills with his former backing band, the Explosives.

Throughout a 50-minute set, Roky played rhythm guitar and sang heartfelt renditions of his biggest hits, including “Starry Eyes,” “I Walked with a Zombie” (famously covered by R.E.M.), “White Faces,” “Creature with the Atom Brain,” “Two-Headed Dog,” and, of course, “You’re Gonna Miss Me.” Gratefully, there’s no reason to miss Roky now. He’s back!

(The Flaming Lips)

There were many events to choose from on Thursday night, but I decided to go with a lineup at Eternal that included the American debut of DIRTY PRETTY THINGS and a “secret” set by THE FLAMING LIPS. Arriving an hour in advance of the official 8:00 PM start time, I took my place at the end of the already-lengthy line. With the doors to the club opening a mere 15 minutes before the first band was set to take the stage, the recipe for disaster seemed pre-ordained and one problem after another beset this six-hour gig. With the night’s festivities being taped for BBC Radio 1, and with high-profile DJs Zane Lowe and Steve Lamacq on hand as hosts, each of the six bands on the bill was supposed to get a 30-minute set, with time allocated for breakdown and set up. But they never settled into a workable groove.

Hotly-tipped London quartet THE GUILLEMOTS (pronounced “Gilly’motts”) kicked things off but ten keys on the singer’s keyboard failed to work, and the bass player grimaced with thinly veiled anger throughout the set. The oddly named SPINTO BAND was up next (what’s a “spinto”?) and while I was probably supposed to be focusing on their frenetic college rock, I was instead fascinated by the singer’s flowered sweater, which looked like something he borrowed from his grandma. When he somehow hurt himself and developed a nosebleed, all I could think of was how disappointed his grandma would be if he got blood on her nice sweater.

BOY KILL BOY, another new group from London, had one song that sounded a bit like Thin Lizzy, but the most remarkable thing I can say about this band is that the singer’s haircut was an amalgam of different styles worn by the members of Slade back in the ‘70s. Wayne Coyne of “secret guests” THE FLAMING LIPS commiserated with the audience over the oppressive heat and cramped conditions at Eternal, and in return the Lips were rewarded with loud audience participation during their opening singalong to “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

Massive green and orange balloons were tossed into the audience, confetti was thrown, streamers cascaded from the ceiling, and the Lips delivered a short-but-satisfying set that included “Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots” as well as four songs from their new At War with the Mystics CD. Albert Hammond of the Strokes, alongside his attention-grabbing blonde gal pal, watched the Lips from the sidelines.

DIRTY PRETTY THINGS, the band led by Carl Barat from the ashes of his Libertines, took the stage next, and 15 minutes into their set, just as his band was settling into a groove, the plug was pulled and they were told to get off the stage. The story going round that night was that one of the band’s roadies got into a scuffle with a SXSW stagehand, and a cop who witnessed it demanded that the band be kicked off the stage immediately. How’s that for an unceremonious start to your American campaign!?! I felt most disappointed for all the diehard Brits who had obviously traveled far to get into this important gig.

The highly touted Brooklyn combo CLAP YOUR HANDS SAY YEAH closed the night, but they didn’t inspire me to do either.

It’s 2:00 AM. End of day 2.

FRIDAY, MARCH 17th

This was my day to jump around a bit, and not stay in the same venue for hours on end.

I started off at the Harp magazine party, catching New Zealand’s THE BRUNETTES at 1:00 PM. I adore this band. They make me swoon. Imagine a perfect pop blend of Jonathan Richman, the Shangri-Las, and the third Velvet Underground album. Yes, they’re that great. Vocalist Heather Mansfield is even prettier in person than in photographs, and her breathy good girl vocals brought 3-D life to classic pop confections like “Mars Loves Venus,” “Cotton Candy,” and their most sublime recording to date, “Talk to Jesus.” For this live show, the Brunettes performed as a six-piece, playing a wide variety of instruments (xylophone, clarinet, trumpet, etc), and even dancing in Mary-Kate and Ashley masks on one song.

(Tim Burgess of the Charlatans)

Since their first gig was cocked up by the Austin police force, I decided to head over to the Cornerstone/Fader/Red Stripe party for another opportunity to see DIRTY PRETTY THINGS. This set went off without a hitch, and the band looked sharp in their black leather (except for drummer Gary Powell, who always goes shirtless). Having seen the Libertines twice (once with Pete Doherty, once without), I can honestly say this was the most enjoyable gig to date that I’ve seen performed by Carl Barat. His new material sounds ace and I look forward to the release of the first single “Bang Bang You’re Dead” next month.

After quick sets by AUGUSTANA and THE TWILIGHT SINGERS, I got my spot at the front of the stage for THE CHARLATANS. I still remember seeing this Manc band on its first American tour in ‘91, and how impressed I was at the time that they had the balls to open their set with their only recognizable song, “The Only One I Know.” Can you imagine? A new UK band opening their first U.S. tour with their only “hit”? That takes guts.

Anyway, fast forward 14 years into the future, and the Charlies are in front of me again, working the same magic, and mixing old nuggets like “North Country Boy” and “Sproston Green” with fine new material from their tenth album, Simpatico, out next month on Sanctuary.

(Carl Barat of Dirty Pretty Things)

As the sun went down, I found myself at Stubb’s to see current buzz band THE SUBWAYS. I’m fond of the simple pleasures “Rock & Roll Queen” has to offer, but otherwise I thought they were a snooze. The guitarist and bassist jump around the stage for every song. So what? Youthful enthusiasm doesn’t really take you that far. The Subways remind me of the Vines. That’s not a compliment.

I make my way through the throng of humanity massed along Sixth Street and arrive at Exodus. I catch the closing chords of THE HEIGHTS and notice that the sound in the club is ear-piercingly loud. Regrettably, that fact doesn’t change for the American debut of the Leeds act DUELS. Four sharp-dressed young men and an icy cool female keyboardist, Duels caught my attention with their single “Potential Futures.” The live show didn’t convert me any further. The subtleties I liked about the single were completely lost in the way-too-loud live mix. I decided to leave after three songs rather than spoil my impression any further. I’ll look forward to future recordings and leave it at that.

(Jello Biafra introducing Zolar X)

Yee Ha! It’s time for ZOLAR X!!! Nearly forgotten until last year, Zolar X was a mid-70s glam band that was originally from Pluto but set up residence on the West Coast. Thanks to Jello Biafra and the Alternative Tentacles label, the catalog of Zolar X was exhumed and dusted off last year on the compilation disc Timeless. Jello was on hand tonight at the Jack-a-Lope to introduce the first-ever Texas date by these interplanetary travelers.

Everybody in the room knew they were witnessing an event of cosmos-shattering proportions. Despite having the show almost cancelled due to the lack of a functioning amp, the silver-clad Zolar X soldiered on and treated the crowd to such obscure planetary transmissions as “Timeless” and “Space Age Love.” (Take me to your) leader Ygarr Ygarrist resembled William Demarest from “My Three Sons” in an Angie Dickinson wig. But that’s cool – you shouldn’t deny an ancient space traveller his right to rock! LONG LIVE ZOLAR X!

It’s 2:00 AM. End of day 3.

SATURDAY, MARCH 18th

All the decibels, weather changes, pollen, second-hand cigarette smoke, and lack of sleep took their toll on my fragile human shell, and I came down with a gory sinus infection. End of conference for me. No bands on Saturday. A very sad day, indeed.

Let’s end with a few tidbits …

WORST BAND NAME OF THE CONFERENCE: “Get Cape. Wear Cape. Fly”

BANDS WHO PLAYED AT SXSW THAT I SAW IN NYC IN THE WEEKS LEADING UP TO THE CONFERENCE: Belle & Sebastian, New Pornographers, Metric, Nada Surf, Battle, The Rumble Strips, Hot Chip, Grand National.

BANDS I WANTED TO SEE BUT IT JUST DIDN’T WORK OUT: Effigies, Translator, Volebeats, Mates of State, Mystery Jets, The Ark, Captain, Brakes, Kooks, the Pretenders, the Joggers, the Stills, a hundred or so more.

I’ll see you on the front lines next year!

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About Randy H.

  • Chris Kent

    Randy,

    Great job on SXSW! It is rare when I read such an extensive blog loaded with such detail and information on what just might be the future of rock music. Austin’s event has grown so much over the years, that it has become something akin to the State Fair – there’s a lot of great food, but there’s always the tent with the two-headed cow. I think the event is actually too big, with too many bands lost in the shuffle. How is someone supposed to catch 1,300 live acts?! Granted, there’s a sense of excitement with finding a diamond in the rough, but SXSW has a lot of tall weeds to stroll through. Isn’t it about time for someone to reign in this Titanic of a fest so the common man can actually find his way through?