SXSW 2004

Here’s a taste of the uniquely enjoyable madness that is South By Southwest. Every evening, all evening, at the Junction of Sixth and Trinity, a group of Christian evangelists try to convert the many thousands of sinners streaming past. As every building is shaking to the bone-shattering volume of punk bands, rock bands, metal bands, blues bands and Japanese Hardcore Transvestite Glam-Slam bands, the only way they can convey their message is to shout. But they are not alone. Permanently challenging them is a wizened old hippie dressed in nothing but a skimpy leopardskin chemise and a thong. His method of countering God’s word is to shout even louder than them. He roars terrifyingly into their faces for as long as they are there, which is a long time. It’s great entertainment, but there’s no time to spare, for we have 1200 bands to see.
The madness continues. In an event where eccentricity is almost de rigeur (Robyn Hitchcock comes across as being perfectly normal), London act Paul The Girl, dressed in a silver lamé dress and a trilby, is playing a looped Led Zeppelin song to fifteen people on the 18th floor of the Crowne Plaza Hotel. She is warming up – I kid you not – for Jamie Cullum.
At Elysium, the singer of one of the many Japanese all-girl groups present is reading her between-song patter from cue cards. The front row of the audience is having a great time. “Say ‘rock & roll’”, they plead.
SxSW is famously impossible to review, because at any one moment, scores of bands are playing concurrently in different places. Teeth-grinding dilemmas are a permanent reality. Franz Ferdinand or Athlete? Razorlight, the Veils or the Gourds? How do you decide? Why, you drink loads of beer and do whatever seems right at the time, which is almost certainly wrong. My best example: Choosing Drive By Truckers rather than the Polyphonic Spree, on the basis that it would be easier to get in. It was, but the Truckers were a load of sub-Lynryd Skynryd bombastic country rock, of a standard lower than hundreds of other bands around this weekend.
So what is the “real” SxSW? Is it the industry bashes where labels, and, increasingly, national cultural agencies show off their new artists? These ones are good to suss out, because they invariably dole out lashings of free beer. The UK Showcase “pre-party” (may have got the terminology wrong) saw snooty music journalists mingling with Radio 2 DJs and the likes of Tom McRae and Thea Gilmore being terrifyingly cool. Refreshingly uncool and just charming were Aqualung, who played this event acoustically. “We’ve never played at a wedding before”, observed Matt Hales.?
Nearer to the “real” SxSW was the brunch party at Maria’s Taco Express, hosted by Aljandro Escovedo, a respected Austin musician who is currently much in the limelight on account of a serious illness. As breakfast burritos crunched all around, the huge but cuddly Nicolas Tremulis pricked the bubble refreshingly with some swampy Chicago blues. “If there’s anyone influential out there”, he cried, with unusual candour, “don’t sign us, we suck!”
Even closer to the “real” SxSW (maybe on account of being miles from anywhere, conducted in the Church of the Friendly Ghost, a prefab on a suburban trailer park), was the Ba Da Bing party, featuring those lovely Sons and Daughters, a Glasgow band who are relishing the increasing attention their hugely entertaining mutant punk-folk is receiving. They have the added advantage of being frienfs with Franz Ferdinand, which means that they are going to be heard by lots of people. Seldom has a band deserved it more (and seldom, incidentally, has a band been more drunk).
Ah, Franz Ferdinand. The event in which an act that no one has heard of is booked into a little venue but then turns out to be the hottest ticket in town is definitely part of the “real” SxSW. The mayhem of this show is hard to describe, and there is absolutely no doubt that FF is a great band, but there is a certain arch knowingness about them which takes the edge off. Credit where it’s due, but once you’ve got it into your head that Alex Capranos is actually Wilco Johnson and Nick McCarthy is a member of Spandau Ballet, it’s hard to concentrate. Whatever you do, though, don’t try to stare out the bassist – he’s scary. So allow me to observe that the band immediately before FF, namely Clearlake, stole the show as far as I was concerned. With their pastoral melodies, melancholy lyrics and unstudied, low-key delivery, this is a band whose patience will one day be rewarded.?
If you can get over the feeling of “Oh God, what if there’s a fire?”, Stubbs Barbecue on Red River is probably the best place to be. Here, I contrived to see Detroit’s Von Bondies twice – one of the few bands for which the expression “You rock” is truly apt. Las Vegas’ semi new romantic revivalists The Killers impressed too, as did the showbiz-dedicated Hives, trying out some new songs on us.
One really rewarding thing to do at SxSW is go and see a band that you’ve liked before and find that they don’t let you down. Stellastarr* opted to play a little show at the Red Eyed Fly rather than a schmoozefest showcase, and it worked. This is a band you should take someone to see who wants to understand what rock and roll is all about. They are just incendiary. Bassist Amanda Tannen would stir unworthy thoughts in the most respectable of gentlemen, while Shaun Christensen really should invest in a trouser roadie. Similarly un-disappointing was Jesse Malin at the Cedar Street Courtyard. This New York ex-punk is charming, literate and humorous, plus has a lovely voice and great songs. A new album from Jesse later in the year is indeed something to look forward to.
Mentioned in dispatches: Sarah Sharp, whose “do-it-yourself” ethic has resulted in “Fourth Person”, an astonishingly accomplished album which will kick-start her career; International Noise Conspiracy, deft masters of the art of scissor-kicking, microphone-lassooing and vying with the Hives in the “Scandinavians in daft outfits” stakes; Robyn Hitchcock – so it’s true he’s still big in the States; the Black Keys, whose “turn it up to eleven” distorted blues couldn’t have found a more appropriate home than Antones; American Music Club, who gave the lie to the notion that legends shouldn’t re-form (as unfortunately demonstrated by Big Star); representing the huge Aussie contingent, a shockingly well-behaved Sleepy Jackson. After two technical breakdowns, even the mildest-mannered band would have smashed their instruments, but the Sleepys’ mood was positively mellow. Great, though; … oh, and a couple of dozen more.
Disappointments: The Veils (it just doesn’t work); Graham Parker (he’s been at the same thing for too long); Electrelane (amateurism is sometimes good, but not in this case); and Cerys Matthews, who looked and sounded virtually unrecognizable in her perfunctory set. And by the way, if this all seems a bit indie for you, it’s worth mentioning that other artists appearing included NERD, Kris Kristofferson and – yes – Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
No two reviews of SxSW will mention the same bands, and certainly none will agree on a highlight. Mine had the unexpected bonus of being a bolt out of the blue. The scruffy, Grandaddy-style unkempt bunch of apparent Austin slackers called Centro-Matic didn’t look promising at all, but the explosive performance of their anthemic songs – think Radiohead meets Neil Young with a healthy dollop of grunge thrown in – caught the soporific audience on the hop, chewed them up and spat them out, exhausted.
It was a low-key afternoon affair at the Red Eyed Fly, so there probably weren’t any cheque book-waving A & R men shouting “sign ’em”. But there should have been.

From LOGO magazine