At full blast

March 19, 2007


AUSTIN, Texas -- To paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the music industry's demise have been greatly exaggerated.

This year's 21st annual South by Southwest Music Festival once again proved to be the biggest ever, with 1,400 bands from around the world and tens of thousands of registrants and party-crashers filling the streets of the Texas capital during four days of panels and nights of showcase performances that ended Sunday.

The major labels continue to demonize digital file-sharing -- or, if you prefer, online piracy -- bemoaning figures of a 15 percent decrease in sales so far in 2007. The debate about technological changes was the subject of much of the talk at the conference, but anyone who suspects that music isn't alive and well -- on the concert stage or at the independent, self-released level -- needed to take a quick stroll down Sixth Street during this festival to see that's simply not true.

There were simply too many bands playing at too many venues to see all but a fraction of the music here. But unless festival-goers limited themselves to tried and true legends (keynoter Pete Townshend, say, or Booker T. and the MGs) or reunited favorites (punk greats the Stooges and the Buzzcocks topped the list of the latter), they were bound to catch a few up-and-coming acts certain to make a critical or commercial impact in the months to come.

After Wednesday night's discovery of Bone Box, a wonderful Australian band putting its own spin on Southern Gothic alternative country, here are my favorite discoveries at SXSW XXI:

     120 Days is an electronic dance/art-rock quartet that's the best New Wave of New Wave band the active scene in Brooklyn has produced -- even though the group actually hails from Kristiansund, Norway. It released its self-titled debut album on Vice Records last October, but the group was even better live on Thursday, when the driving drum-machine rhythms blended with live percussion and sweeping waves of heavily echoed keyboards and vocals to create an all-enveloping swirl.

     The Swedish pop trio Peter Bjorn and John had already generated considerable buzz about its third album, "Writer's Block," before the festival, yet while I'll grant that its melodies are delightfully sweet, the group is a bit too twee and affected on album. In concert Friday, it turned out to have more of a rhythmic bottom and drive, and you could appreciate how the spaces in the arrangements emphasized the simple but effective hooks. There may have been only three musicians onstage, but they created a sound as big as ork-pop bands with 10 members, and that was a pretty good trick.

     Speaking of ork-pop, I caught the new incarnation of the Polyphonic Spree, as big, bold and brassy as ever as it gears up to release a new album on TVT Records, but with new costumes -- black paramilitary uniforms -- and a darker vibe replacing the white robes and relentlessly sunny outlook of the last two albums.

     The Good, the Bad & the Queen is the English supergroup led by Blur and Gorillaz frontman Damon Albarn and featuring former Clash bassist Paul Simonon, ex-Verve guitarist Simon Tong and 73-year-old Fela Kuti drummer Tony Allen. The British music press has hailed it as "the future of rock," while many American critics have been disappointed with its self-titled debut, claiming it doesn't do justice to those pedigrees. Both extreme views miss the point of a collaboration by friends and neighbors on a focused, one-off project exploring a particular mood and sound, a trancey, gentle trip-hop groove. Judged on those terms, its beautiful, powerful music was all the more effective live on Friday, thanks to a four-piece string section and watching Allen in action, playing deceptively simple but extraordinarily effective rhythms.

     On Saturday night, with no must-see's on my list for several hours, I set out to do a bit of blind club-hopping, and I made two rewarding discoveries. Tulsa is a band from Boston led by songwriter Carter Tanton, with a core a la Wilco's "Being There." But this is enhanced with gorgeous Fender Rhodes keyboard and heavily echoed guitar reminiscent of Pink Floyd at its pre-"Dark Side of the Moon" trippiest for a unique take on alternative country.

     I also happened upon a set by the Affair, a quintet from Brooklyn that put its distinctive mark on New Wave revivalism. Its biggest asset is fiery vocalist Kali Holloway, but the group also benefits from more direct rhythms, textured keyboards and a pop sensibility that owes as much to early Blondie as bubblegum pop and the girl groups of the '60s. Released in January, its powerful debut "Yes Yes to You" features memorable tunes such as "Left at the Party," "Jailbait Date" and "Anything But Disco (You Ruined My Life)," and those titles sort of say it all.

     One of this year's biggest festival buzzes, the Pipettes played five gigs, counting showcases and parties, and I finally caught the last of these, even though I never made it inside the venue. (It was a tent, so I simply sat in a park across the street.) As their name suggests, the three women from Brighton, England, are also big admirers of the girl groups, but they amplify the sass and feminism that was once a mere suggestion (think Lily Allen) while boasting a winning, self-deprecating sense of humor (think Art Brut) and adding a hefty dose of garage rock.

     Finally, faced by endless lines and massive crowds waiting to see the Stooges (who come to the Congress Theatre on April 15), I opted to make my way down the main club drag of Sixth Street to catch a band from Australia that is arguably as good as Stooges as the Stooges themselves in 2007. Beasts of Bourbon, from Melbourne, made six cult-favorite albums of gloriously grungy punk before going on hiatus in 1997.

Back and better than ever, they spent a grand total of three days recording the recent album "Little Animals," and they were even quicker and more raucous onstage, with the amps cranked up to 11, sweat and beer flying everywhere and their anger and lust for life thoroughly undiminished.

It was a great way to end the fest, even if my ears are likely to be ringing and my feet killing me until the end of the week. But as one of the Beasts' best new tunes puts it, "I don't care about nothing anymore" -- and that's exactly the way good rock 'n' roll and the South by Southwest experience should make you feel.



Sun-Times pop critic Jim DeRogatis' extra SXSW dispatches are posted at An excerpt:

Friday evening's low point: a performance by singer, songwriter and pianist Rachel Fuller. Fuller is Pete Townshend's partner (Townshend was the festival's keynote speaker on Wednesday), as she reminds the crowd on the average of every 10 minutes. ... On her own, she is a mediocre to downright awful performer and songwriter -- a second-rate wannabe Tori Amos. ... Fuller drew huge crowds every time, as fans showed up and waited for the moment when her partner would come onstage to do a song or two of his own. Listen, it's wonderful that Pete is happy and in love, but there's something distasteful about Fuller holding Who fans captive and trying to capitalize on this relationship to forward her own career. Absent this connection, few would care.



Overheard at SXSW:

   "Within five years, no CDs will be sold anymore. Or maybe CDs will be sold, but only the way vinyl is sold now." -- David Byrne during a talk entitled "Record Companies: Who Needs Them?"

   "This next song is from an EP that we made. It came out on our computer." -- A member of Tulsa onstage

   "There will always be a music business. Music is something a lot of people in the world just can't live without. What we just have to do is figure out how to survive." -- Seymour Stein, founder of Sire Records

   "What passes for intelligent generally isn't." -- Iggy Pop