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.
The day began very early with a flight from Newark, N.J., and my weary arrival yesterday (March 16) was greeted with cloudy skies, chilly temperatures and close to two hours in an amusement park-like snaking line through the Austin Convention Center to pick up the registration badge that would grant me admission to panels and music venues.
Let me frame the scene: Most of SXSW takes place in less than a square mile of Austin’s downtown. Within that area are thousands of journalists, music industry personnel and artists. Some are known to one another, others will be introduced. Many more will be missed because even in this small space there is simply not enough time to see everyone and everything.
Badge secured, hotel checked-into and lingering office duties completed, my SXSW experience was ready to begin in earnest. At the convention center, a rare public interview with Elvis Costello was among the first panel presentations. In his sit-down with MTV Networks executive Bill Flanagan, the artist was honest and engaging as he gave a packed audience of eagerly fawning music fans a first-hand account of some of the highs and lows of his lengthy career.
Meeting up with some colleagues that included occasional Billboard.com contributor Gary Graff, by 6:15 I was among a group of revelers raising a glass of local favorite brew Shiner Bock with the members of U.K. recording act Embrace and representatives of the band’s U.S. label, Lava Records.
A much-anticipated annual dinner gathering with a large cadre of music publicists and fellow journalists at the “new” Threadgill’s (they don’t take American Express) brought much talk about what plans for the next several days were taking shape and, more immediately, what was on tap for the evening ahead. Without a doubt, the biggest buzz was Costello’s planned midnight set at La Zona Rosa, one of Austin’s larger clubs. Many, including myself, vowed to spend most of the night at the venue so as not to be denied entry, as the place was bound to fill to capacity early.
Although jammed by midnight, that threat proved largely to be unwarranted, but spending an evening with Costello’s Lost Highway labelmates did not disappoint. First up was Glen Phillips, the Toad the Wet Sprocket leader who is out on tour with his own band. Generally more upbeat and rocking than the often sedate Toad — Phillips remarked that it had been a while since his guitar playing made those in the front row step back a bit — the singer/songwriter ran through a set of tunes from his upcoming solo album, “Winter Prays for Summer.”
Singer/songwriter Mary Gauthier, whose generally hushed tones were challenged by the cavernous, steel-walled venue and chatty industry crowd, managed to capture most of the audience with the devastating songs from her acclaimed Lost Highway set “Mercy Now.” Across a handful of slower songs — including “I Drink” and the album’s title track — she sounded like a cross between Austin favorite Lucinda Williams and Canadian songwriter/poet Leonard Cohen. Despite this compelling combination, she won more ears with the upbeat “Prayer Without Words” that closed the set.
By far the biggest surprise of the night was Tift Merritt. Often misleadingly categorized as a singer/songwriter, Merritt commanded attention with a rollicking set of vintage soulful Southern rock jams usually associated with the likes of the Black Crowes. Only a pair of ballads slowed down the locomotive set, highlights of which included “Heart of Man,” “Tambourine” and “Shadow in the Rain.”
Sardine-like conditions greeted Costello and the Imposters as the clock welcomed St. Patrick’s Day, and the group turned out 28 songs in a set that broke generally accepted SXSW rules by running more than two hours. Nearly all of his latest album, “The Delivery Man,” was laid out amid old favorites like “Mystery Dance,” “Chelsea” and “Radio Radio” and more recent fare such as “When I Was Cruel No. 2,” “Bedlam” and the Oscar-nominated “Scarlet Tide.”
Being that it was a rare club date during a tour of theaters, it was not surprising that the set opened a little looser than would have been expected. The band barreled through about eight songs before Costello was able to rein in his mates, who seemed on the verge of unraveling at any moment. With things more under control and the sound mix improved, the band relaxed into a stellar showcase that the bandleader visibly enjoyed conducting.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m having a fantastic time,” Costello told the crowd, adding that he’s just caught a performance by veteran blues artist Hubert Sumlin across town at Antone’s.
As the one-hour mark approached, many in the audience exited, no doubt to catch 1 a.m. sets at other venues, but those who stayed were handsomely rewarded. After playing such songs as “The Delivery Man,” “Monkey to Man,” “High Fidelity” and “Watching the Detectives,” Costello could have ended the set to no one’s dismay. But he continued pulling out new and old songs to keep the remaining audience reeling past 2 a.m.
By the time my head hit the pillow at 2:40 a.m. CT, I was less than an hour shy of being awake for 24 straight hours. Closing my eyes and contemplating this detail, it seemed a fitting beginning to what promises to be an exhausting and thoroughly rewarding week of music.
Between computer woes and long registration lines, it’s 9 p.m. before there’s even a chance to hear any music, leaving me frustrated and feeling already behind schedule. That makes Trespassers William (Nettwerk) the perfect choice to ease into the evening. Playing at Copa to an attentive crowd seated on the floor, the quartet runs through a set of dreamy, languid tunes reminiscent of Mazzy Star. Lead singer Anna-Lynne, who is featured on the new Chemical Brothers’ track “Hold Tight London,” has a sweet voice that unfortunately has to do battle with the guitar and bass. And while the songs are lovely, especially new tunes “Bells” and “I Don’t Mind,” the stage presence is non-existent and I’m starving, so it’s time to move on.
It’s Austin so that means that even the noodle shop has live music. Acoustic guitarist John Wilson serenades me and my friend with tasty covers and his own compositions throughout the meal.
Next stop is La Zona Rosa, where, unfortunately, we’re running so late we only catch the last two songs of Mary Gauthier‘s set during the Lost Highway showcase. She bears more than a slight musical resemblance to Lucinda Williams, but her voice is less tweedy and the tunes are more upbeat, especially the rambling “Prayer Without Words.” Gauthier will open a pair of non-SXSW Willie Nelson shows this weekend and is headed to Europe with him, before coming back to the States to play with Kathleen Edwards on what sounds like the perfect bill.
The next stop is supposed to be Buffalo Billiards to see Ray LeMontagne, but we get stopped by the sounds of Shooter Jennings pouring out of the Fox and Hound. He’s singing the title track to his dubiously named album, “Put the O Back in Country” (I’m really trying not to examine that title too closely). He’s backed by a kick-ass band that would make his late daddy, Waylon Jennings, proud. They rumble through a set that ranges from outlaw country to just good old rock and roll.
We arrive at Buffalo Billiards surprised to see Tom McRae on stage. Turns out he’s subbing for a sick LaMontagne. If people were initially disappointed, McRae quickly wins them over with his strong songcraft and superior vocals that cut through the melodies like a knife. Accompanied only by guitar and cello, McRae exemplifies the spirit of SXSW and the sheer power of well-crafted music, like “A&B Song” and “Hummingbird Song,” that needs no bells and whistles. McRae’s next album comes out in Europe on Sony BMG in May, but he’s without a label home in the United States after parting ways with Nettwerk. If there were any A&R reps in the room tonight, we have a feeling that situation will be remedied fairly soon. He’s simply too good to not have his music heard here.
Next we rush over to the Parish to see Magnolia Electric Co. (Secretly Canadian), a band that we’d never heard of before landing in Austin but who come highly recommended. And with very good reason. Led by Jason Molina, the group blends Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Band in a seamless twist of songs where there are no happy endings. Sadly, we only hear a few tunes, but it’s a great introduction to an act that we’re clearly late finding out about.
We end the evening at Emo’s where an extremely enthusiastic, packed crowd greets Sleater-Kinney. There’s a love-fest going on between the band and audience. The spirit is great, the playing inspired (featuring material from the trio’s superb upcoming Sub Pop debut, “The Woods”), but wary of burning out with three more days to go, I turn in.
— Melinda Newman
My 2005 South by Southwest experience got off with a Bonk. Although hailing from Norway, the group’s hard rock is steeped in Americanism. There’s plenty of thick stoner-rock riffs, and the occasional harmonies grace the songs nicely, but I had hoped Bonk would be weirder.
Better was Texas folk artist Micah P. Hinson. I had a generally positive reaction to his debut album, which adds some gothic undertones to his anti-love ballads, and live the songs were more impressive. While generally acoustic- based, there’s plenty going on beneath the surface, and all the dark shades and atmospheres are brought out in the live setting.
Sub Pop’s Jennifer Gentle was an early highlight. The members of Sleater-Kinney stood near the front of the stage, grooving to the group’s avant-garde mix of vintage keyboard sounds and garage rock. The lead singer’s voice is the most prominent instrument in the group; as it pierces through the music with the pitch of a kazoo, he leads the band on a carnival-esque stomp through ’60s rock.
Canada’s Les Georges Leningrad packed in the hipsters for punked-up new wave art rock. Sporting cat make-up, the lead singer shouted her way over foreboding rhythms and disco keyboards.
My favorite Wednesday act was Parlour, a seven-piece instrumental band from Louisville that will release a great new EP, “Five Hives,” next month via Temporary Residence. The group effortlessly mixes Krautrock with jazzy leads and rock’n’roll guitars, utilizing a saxophone and a clarinet as if they were the vocalists. The latter instruments carry the choruses, and a throbbing bass keeps the festivities upbeat. Plenty of spacey, psychedelic sounds abound, but the tight compositions keep the songs from ever getting too unwieldy.
With acts such as Sleater-Kinney, Elvis Costello and the American Music Club performing at the same time, I was surprised to see a line down the street for the Magnolia Electric Co. The Midwestern country rockers didn’t disappoint, offering a Neil Young-inspired set of old-fashioned adult pop. Fans of early Wilco or the Jayhawks will adore this group.
Yet the only reason I saw them was because I wanted to catch the 1 a.m. set by the Wrens. After arriving 15 minutes late, many in the crowd seemed ready to hunker off to bed, but the Wrens were better than I had ever seen them, completely reworking old songs and playing right through without the instrument fussing of yore.
The band built things up gradually, starting with just a keyboard and vocals. But two songs in, when the full four-piece had arrived on stage, the Wrens morphed into a mighty hard rock band, packing more hooks and craftsmanship into the opening 30 seconds of a song than any of the current crop of emo rockers on the radio manage can in an album.
I ended the night taking in the seven-piece U.S.E., which may very well become this year’s Scissor Sisters. Their songs are pure sugar, led by ’80s keyboards, all-group shout-outs and a pastiche of new wave guitar riffs. By the end of their set, nearly everyone in the sparsely attended club was on stage dancing with the act.
— Todd Martens