South By Southwest Diary: March 17

Billboard staffers criss-cross Austin, Texas' South by Southwest music festival in search of old favorites and new discoveries. In the second installment of a daily diary, Barry A. Jeckell, Todd Marte

South By Southwest Diary: March 17

Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest (SXSW) is a music festival and media conference offering industry panels and presentations, as well as more than 1,000 artists performing in 50 venues over the course four days (March 16-19). Billboard's Barry A. Jeckell, Todd Martens and Melinda Newman are in the Lone Star State capital taking in the sights and sounds and will file a daily diary detailing their encounters.

We can't think of a better way to start a day than with a Mavis Staples serenade. Even though it was Thursday, Staples, accompanied by Marty Stuart on guitar and mandolin, took us all to church in a sizzling performance at 10 a.m.

Staples was followed by an interview with Robert Plant, whose new album with his band Strange Sensation, comes out in May via Sanctuary. The session focuses on Plant's historic past, but what came through was his tremendous love of music, whether it be referencing an obscure 1941 Bluebird Recordings act or the Black Keys. He once again shot down any chance of a reunion between Led Zep's three remaining members: "It meant what it meant when it [happened]. And beyond that, there's no story." So there.

Next stop, the BBC2 barbeque. We get there too late for our first taste of Texas' finest culinary contribution to the planet, but the music is still full swing. Liverpudlian singer/songwriter Amy Smith, despite being sick, serves up a lovely, piano-driven set. She's followed by Rachel Fuller, whose underrated Universal set, "Cigarettes and Housework," came out last summer in the United States; a U.K. release is still pending.

Seated behind a grand piano, Fuller's delicate, lovely voice and songs fit perfectly into the current "chanteuse" mood of such acts as Nellie McKay -- although Fuller isn't quite as quirky. However, she certainly provided a wacky SXSW moment: Tall Texan Jerry Hall joined her on "Around This Table,' reciting lyrics supported by Fuller's singing. Bless her heart, as we say in the South -- she should stick to modeling.

Embrace closed the event with a stripped down, acoustic set. Led by brothers Danny and Richard McNamara, Embrace has already enjoyed two No. 1 albums in the United Kingdom. After releasing one album for Geffen eight years ago, the group is now signed to Lava, which will issue the new "Out of Nothing" in May. First single "Gravity" was penned by Coldplay's Chris Martin; turns out Coldplay used to open for the group. The two are musical cousins, as Embrace clearly treads upon the same path, perhaps a little less assuredly, as Coldplay and U2.

As Billboard London correspondent Paul Sexton and I wind our way down Sixth Street -- the hub of Austin's music scene -- we step in the Blind Pig where the first happy accident of the day happens. There, at the show, we hear Earlimart (Palm Pictures), a Los Angeles-based pop band that worships at the altar of the late Elliott Smith, but throws in a kaleidoscope of other influences as well. Basically, take Smith's dreaminess and the accessibility of classic Southern California pop of the '60s and '70s and there you have it. They also have a female bassist, which is still just too cool. Bad name, really good band.

Eventually, we end up at the New West showcase and catch Nic Armstrong, backed by his band the Thieves. Brit Armstrong combines '70s rock with a little rockabilly and a lot of spirit.

The Driskill Hotel, an Austin landmark, is our next stop for a showcase featuring a number of Aware Records artists, but starts with Island Def Jam's Blue Merle. The Nashville band features fiddle, upright bass and mandolin, but the music is rock. Unique and delightful, Blue Merle doesn't fit into any neat format, but that's what we like about them. The other highlights include up-and-comers Anna Nalick, 20, and Kyle Riabko, 17.

Nalick, whose Columbia debut comes out in April, is already a winning songwriter, ranging from Shawn Colvin-like confessionals to Gwen Stefani-ish saucy romps.

It's way too early to predict if Riabko will be a star, but his talent as guitarist (think along the lines of Johnny Lang) and soulful singing is only exceeded by an amazing amount of stage presence and confidence for one so young. He looks like he should star in a teen drama on the WB, but then his fingers start flying and just when you're about to be awed, he grins and breaks into Michael Jackson's "Thriller" just for fun. His Aware/Columbia debut, "Before I Speak," comes out later this spring.

Our second fun surprise of the day comes after a dinner break to clear our ears and refresh. We go to the Lookout! Showcase and discover Troubled Hubble (we're figuring they're named after the space telescope, although our romantic side wishes it was an homage to Robert Redford's character in "The Way We Were").

Here's a band that's about nothing but pure fun. Reminiscent of Lookout! alumnus Green Day at its poppiest, Troubled Hubble's members jump up and down, shake their tambourines with the verve of a Partridge Family member and generally just bring down the house with their goodtime, energetic alterna-pop. The band's Lookout! release, "Making Beds in a Burning House," comes out next month. Troubled Hubble has played more than 400 shows in the last three years, and its experience shows. One of the best live bands we've seen at this year's festival.

Victory Records' the Black Maria are tearing it up at Eternal, but their brand of hard rock is tempered with strings of lovely melodies that then break back into waves of driving guitars. Oddly compelling.

Our final stop of the night is the Co-op Bar to see Welsh band People In Planes. The quintet, which self-released its CD in the United Kingdom earlier this year, has plenty of U.S. A&R reps sniffing around and with good reason. The group blends heavy melodies with a touch of electronica. Lead singer Gaz clutches the microphone as if his life depends upon it, and with labels circling around, maybe it does.

Tomorrow, we're counting on lots more good music, but, equally important, we're not going another 24 hours without some barbeque.

-- Melinda Newman

The keynote from Robert Plant was a whole lotta blah. Framed as a question and answer session, Plant fielded softballs from Bill Flanagan, senior VP of MTV Networks. Thankfully, Plant's jovial answers kept the music masses entertained, as he told stories about meeting Elvis Presley and touring the North Pole. So onto the music...

DFAIt's only day two of SXSW, but I can pretty much guarantee that no band better than LCD Soundsystem will perform over the next three nights. The five-piece, led by DFA mastermind James Murphy, presented a wildly enjoyable mix of electronica and rock, utilizing at times three percussionists and bouncy, New Order-like bass lines. The act reimagined songs from Harry Nilsson and Siouxsie & the Banshees as dance-pop explosions, with impassioned vocals that played give-and-take with cowbells and rave-ready synths. To LCD Soundsystem, rock history exists to be taken on journey through urban pop noise, as rhythms snaked around video game-worthy keyboards like they were on a subway ride to another planet.

However, in order to see LCD Soundsystem, I had to make a sacrifice: about 10 other acts. Lines were forming early on Thursday night for nearly every club in sight, and a show with the Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV, the Futureheads and Hot Hot Heat was virtually impossible to get into. With buzz rapper M.I.A. performing before LCD Soundsystem, I feared the worst, and I was right.

Despite arriving two sets before M.I.A., my companions and I waited nearly an hour to get in the club, and those who had purchased $150 wristbands were told they had no chance of getting into the show. With all due respect to the fire codes, the club was not quite full, but many who were eager to see M.I.A. were forced to fend elsewhere.

The Sri Lankan-born M.I.A. can be a compelling artist, but not necessarily worth the "next big thing" tag she's been saddled with by much of the music press. Sporting a graffiti-sprayed dress with the word "oppression" scrawled across the bottom, M.I.A. doesn't so much as rap as she does confront. Part of her charm is her rudimentary dance and performing skills, which places the emphasis rightly on her political-leaning lyrics.

"You can be a follower, but who's your leader," she yelped, curling the end of phrase to compensate for under-developed rapping skills. The London-based artist kissed off America's president, a striking move at a SXSW that was oddly lacking any political fire in light of the artist community's mobilization against George W. Bush last year. She's best when she douses her Caribbean-flavored beats with activist slogans ("Pull up the people / Pull up the poor"), and is certainly an artist to be watched. With her XL Recordings debut being licensed to Interscope, M.I.A. is on the fast track, but she deserves time to develop into the artist worthy of the hype she's receiving.

Also on the bill was Ratatat, a guitar geek two-piece that swaps solos over industrial-light beats. Fun and dance-y in the beginning, the duo's act proved to be a little too thin, as songs stayed at essentially the same tempo and pitch for much of the set. The guitar was manipulated to sound like a keyboard, and it was fun to watch the two guys sample themselves. But the set suffered from a lack of interplay with the rhythm, which seemed to have no bearing on the direction the band took.

Hot Chip took the stage just prior to LCD Soundsystem, lining the stage with keyboards. The group was a borderline novelty, and entertaining only in its noisy simplicity -- the effect not unlike a high school talent contest.

A sleeper act of the evening was Film School, a San Francisco five-piece that nicely taps into a melodic psychedelic sound in the vein of the Secret Machines. There's an element of shoegazing to the group, but Film School builds its tunes out of the noise, not with it, and lets M83-like keyboards carry the arrangements.

-- Todd Martens

After satisfying the necessity of a few hours of work in the hotel, a gospel breakfast was the first order of the day. Legendary singer Mavis Staples got things moving with a 10 a.m. performance as a prelude to a keynote interview with Robert Plant.

"If you hear any squeaks up here, it's because it's early," Staples warned the crowd. And while hers was not the soaring voice recently aired out in a Grammy performance with Kanye West, John Legend and the Blind Boys Of Alabama, she nonetheless managed to bring a packed ballroom to its feet as she scratch through several songs with Marty Stuart accompanying on guitar and mandolin.

Some time at the Billboard booth in the SXSW trade show gave me a chance to meet some of my fellow conventioneers and those pitching their wares. Among those was Lightscribe, who have developed handy CD labeling technology that burns images onto the face of a disc with the same laser that encodes the other side.

It was during their pitch that I ran into an old friend, Alarm lead singer Mike Peters, in town a day early to prepare for a Friday night performance. Peters mentioned he was just in Los Angeles further developing a film project based on his band's 2004 surprise success with the single "45RPM" in the United Kingdom.

I interviewed Glen Phillips and found the former Toad The Wet Sprocket frontman coming to terms with life outside of a band context. Although his set the night before left him less pleased than he'd hoped -- "It was the first show with a band, we just rehearsed for a few days, and I got laryngitis at the beginning of rehearsals, so it was really the first time we played through the set with me singing!" -- he feels he's winning the battle to rebuild himself as a solo artist after a painful post-Toad period.

"I toured out of a car for seven, eight years now," he said. "It's been a good humbling experience. And I realized that if that's my worst case scenario, I know I can do it."

His new album, "Winter Pays for Summer," is due March 29 via Lost Highway. Phillips says the songs are "mostly from the perspective of looking up from the bottom of the pit and really wanting to start climbing and not have a delusional happiness. [To] have something that's actually authentic and not based in denial and not based in making simple conclusions about life."

Skipping across town, I took in the premiere of Gorillaz' animated video for "Feel Good Inc." and raised a few pints of Guinness in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. In a chat with band co-mastermind Damon Albarn (see related story) he revealed Gorillaz will indeed be hitting the road later this year in Europe and North America. While we talked, he also amiably posed with pictures of a fellow reveler's dog, a black pug sporting a collar lined with huge spikes. "It's all in a day's work, innit?" Albarn said afterward.

NationalAlthough I missed out on planned stops at a Detroit musicians showcase and a party hosted by New York-based label TVT, a detour into the Blind Pig Pub found the National in the midst of a set much later than originally planned during a party. The group enjoyed the support of the surprisingly sparse late-afternoon crowd, but was quick for the door at the conclusion of its set, no doubt in a hurry to set up for a nearby showcase just a few hours later.

Thinking this event over and my chance to see Ireland's the Frames gone, as they were due to play at 1 p.m. and it was now nearly 5 p.m., I headed for the door, only to be corralled back inside by Billboard's Ed Christman, who insisted he'd heard the band hadn't played yet. He was right, and their set was a highlight for a crowd that was certainly feeling Irish after a long day of revelry.

"We planned to play an electric set," frontman Glen Hansard said. "But we said, f*** it, it's St. Patty's Day' and decided to go acoustic." Along with a dedication to Brian Wilson, who shared the plane on which the Frames arrived in Austin, Hansard dropped a bit of the "Willy Wonka" theme "Pure Imagination" into a show-stopping performance of "Star Star."

Catching an acoustic set by Phillips at the Driskill hotel was a treat, and he was obviously happy to showcase his new material with confidence, and without the aforementioned unrehearsed band. The same location also offered an intriguing set by singer/songwriter Matt Kearny and a dismissible performance by Anna Nalick.

For the evening, the long-term plan was to catch late night sets by Queens Of The Stone Age and the Bravery in a faraway location. In the near term, I decided to return to the previous night's scene to see the Futureheads at La Zona Rosa, but instead caught a solid performance by singer/songwriter Tracy Bonham at Carribean Lights, then stuck around to be appropriately floored by Kathleen Edwards at midnight.

Spinning songs from her new Rounder album, "Back to Me," this Canadian singer/songwriter proved she is deserving of the critical praise that has been lumped upon her and hinted that there's much more to expect from this still emerging artist.

Back outside, I stalked down 6th St. towards Congress Ave. to catch a taxi to the hinterlands to see the Queens performance, but as I walked, I began to realize that the culmination of the day's events had taken its toll. With a few more days of this ahead, I turned toward my hotel and made the painful decision to call it an early night at 1:30 a.m., thinking that more than four hours sleep would somehow sooth me better than the Queens' lullabies. Whether or not I made the right decision is debatable, but hopefully I'll be well rested to do it all over again on Friday.

-- Barry A. Jeckell