Austin, Texas’ annual South by Southwest (SXSW) event 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.
My last day in Austin was also my shortest, as I headed home in the late afternoon, catching the powerful rainstorm that likely left many festival goers soaked in a cab on the way to the airport.
That’s not to say my Saturday at SXSW was lacking. After working at the hotel for a while, a call let me know that members of Doves had a few minutes amidst a busy schedule to chat. Sitting down in the lobby of the Hyatt, singer Jimi Goodwin and drummer Andy Williams were humble about the buzz their Manchester, England-hailing band has created at the festival and in the United States.
“We’re just getting here,” said Goodwin, who spent the previous day in bed fighting the flu, forcing the band to miss an afternoon showcase performance. “We haven’t really had time to notice if people are noticing us.”
Describing the difference of their new album, “Some Cities” (Capitol), from their previous two full-length releases, Williams quickly noted that “It’s more live,” with Goodwin adding, “There was more face-to-face time, sitting in a circle working songs out as a band in the studio rather than in the control room.”
Despite his illness, Goodwin was able to appreciate the opportunity to play a headlining Thursday night set at one of the bigger SXSW festival venues. “This is great. It’s massive,” he says. “There’s thousands of people out in the streets all to go and hear music. It seems like a fantastic thing. I haven’t gotten out to see much of it myself, being locked upstairs in a dark room trying to get well. But it seems fantastic.
This Doves trip to the United States is a short one, with shows only in New York, Austin and a Monday night (March 21) gig in Los Angeles before heading back to England. Later this month a U.K. tour will precede a handful of other European dates, and then a trip back to the States for an April 30 set at the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival.
“Festivals are really suited to our sound,” Williams said. “There’s so much sonics in our music [and] so many layers, that it has room to come out on a big stage. Sometimes in a club it feels restricted, because there’s so much to it.”
Yet the band, which will tour U.S. clubs and theaters for all of May, really doesn’t have a problem playing smaller venues. “We like the challenge,” Goodwin said. “It’s a different way of playing and a different thing. I’m not going to say we hate playing to a small club after we play to 40,000 people or something. It’s just what we do. It’s just another place to play and it’s great in either place, just different.”
With Doves off to prepare for an in-store performance at Austin’s beloved Waterloo Records, I headed to the convention center to catch Erykah Badu discussing her new label, Control FreaQ Records and her commitment to community development through her nonprofit group B.L.I.N.D. (Beautiful Love Incorporated Non Profit Development) at a sparsely attended interview session.
Committed to family and community before her music career, Badu asserted, “Life is more important than selling units for the label,” and said pointedly, “My music belongs to Motown/Universal, but I don’t.”
Badu noted that she has built a studio in her Dallas home, giving her access to recording whenever she feels like it. “It feels comfortable and it’s at my own pace,” she said, adding that she’d deliver her fourth album to the label “when it’s done.”
In the meantime, she’s committed to promoting Control FreaQ’s first artist, New Orleans-hailing Jay Electronica. “He’s an incredible poet, an incredible artist and a peculiarly intellectual MC,” she said.
Badu is looking to sign artists who are “control freaks, like me, who are self-sufficient.” And while she will work with each to develop and promote their careers, they shouldn’t expect to collaborate with the label’s founder, “because my stuff is for me,” she said.
As that discussion wound down, I made a quick trip to the Billboard booth in the SXSW trade show to say goodbye to my colleagues and then set off to catch a few more songs before heading home, since I still had about half-an-hour before heading out and the constant music atmosphere of SXSW is addictive. I landed at Tom Vek‘s showcase performance at the Velvet Spade’s Island Records U.K. party, which was interesting but not much more. Though his flat vocals recalled the Fall’s Mark E. Smith, the songs did not, but then again, I only heard four or five, and I’m not ready to write him off just yet.
With storm clouds on the horizon, I felt the need to get packing and set off for the hotel and then the airport. SXSW was yet another whirlwind of music and people talking about music, which, apart from being with my daughter, is more or less the best way I have found to spend my time.
Saturday at SXSW belonged to the independents. The hyped shows — M.I.A., Bloc Party, the Go! Team, etc. — were over. With the buzz transferring to lesser-known artists, such as the Franz Ferdinand-inspired Maximo Park and the elegant pop of Texans What Made Milwaukee Famous, there wasn’t a clear-cut must-see show. Labels such as Century Media, Definitive Jux, Victory Records, Rainbow Quarts and Fenway Recordings presented showcases and major labels took a back seat to the undiscovered.
So it was fitting that the day began with a panel dedicated to A&R representatives — the record label employees responsible for signing artists. Luke Wood, a senior VP of A&R at Interscope Records, was among the panelists, and he discussed how he waited years to sign such artists as Elliott Smith and Jimmy Eat World, arguing that it was better to let the artists develop on an indie label first. In fact, the entire session discussed the importance independents play in building major labels acts.
The New York Times’ Jon Pareles asked the one question on my mind: Why, then, would a successful artist need a major label? The panelists all sprouted the company lines about international distribution and easier access to radio — both of which do indeed carry some weight. Yet even that answer illustrated the growing strength of the independent sector. Whereas a major label contract may have once been the destination of choice for most artists, today more and more acts are regularly becoming successful without the help of a major label machine. The access to radio a major can provide is a large factor, but it’s essentially the only one, and it’s a gap that’s being narrowed each passing year by the strength of the Internet.
As for the evening’s showcases, I began the night with San Diego’s Bunky, a lighthearted, sometimes silly, power pop act. The latest addition to the Asthmatic Kitty family, Bunky presents baroque pop with bass-defined melodies. A small horn section and a vocalist who sings as if she’s trying out for a Broadway musical lend Bunky a goofball feel, and the act wouldn’t have been out of place amongst the Elephant Six collective (Apples in Stereo, Elf Power, etc).
Also associated with Asthmatic Kitty family is the experimental folk of Castanets. The duo comes from the same scene that supports Devendra Banhart and the Animal Collective, with the occasional burst of noise amid the acoustic-based arrangements. The quiet songs even recall Low in its early days, despite the fact that the Castanets are not quite that atmospheric yet.
The Portland-based Menomena brought out the hipsters, and the early evening show inspired a line that stretched nearly a block. For this trio, even the vocals act as an instrument, as they are constantly laid over one another. The instrument-swapping act constructs the songs in front of the audience, utilizing samples to turn this indie-pop trio into a mini orchestra.
It can be easy to be turned off by Menomena’s art school tendencies — a band Web site is impenetrable, and the group’s debut for FILMGuerrero, “I Am the Fun Blame Monster,” was packaged as a flip-book. Yet despite its experimental leanings, Menomena is quite melodic, with a saxophone and xylophone amongst its arsenal. But the best part of seeing the group is watching the members swap and sample instruments, giving each show a level of improvisation and unpredictability.
Psychedelic rock continued its resurgence (see Secret Machines, Film School, M83) with Pure Reason Revolution. Live, the eight-piece bridges modern dance beats with thick retro keyboards and glistening guitar solos. A debut album will be released on OR Music this summer.
Speaking of OR Music, the company that gave the world Los Lonely Boys has one of the artists of the moment with Matisyahu, a Hassidic Jewish rapper. I didn’t see Matisyahu’s showcase, but he popped in to lend a few rapidly clean verses to Th’ Corn Gangg. Featuring two former members of pop act the Unicorns, Th’ Corn Gangg re-imagines the latter act as the backbone of a hip-hop collective.
With Clash-inspired guitar riffs, Th’ Corn Gangg was surprisingly lively, and the mix of hip-hop and rock was a seamless one. Having five quality MCs doesn’t hurt, and the SXSW showcase hopefully landed the group a record deal.
My later evening plans were changed at the last minute when rapper MF Doom‘s appearance on the Definitive Jux showcase was cancelled. No explanation was given for his absence, but it allowed me to see a handful of acts, beginning with Victory’s newest signing, the Forecast. Led by alternating girl/boy vocals, the Forecast looks to be one of Victory’s more melodic, pop-leaning acts.
Robbers On High Street are a fine rock band, falling somewhere between Supertramp and Spoon with keyboard-heavy guitar rock. Clever arrangements, and a dance-floor worthy backbeat, carried the successful live performance.
Elsewhere, Montreal’s the High Dials dished out retro psychedelic rock, and the group could have easily been included on the famed “Nuggets” garage rock compilation. Timonium displayed monster drumming and dark keyboard atmospheres, surel to please any fans of Godspeed You Black Emperor, and TVT’s Ambulance LTD supplied pretty Velvet Underground-influenced guitar pop.
— Todd Martens
I started the day at a panel, “A&R and Artist Development in a Hit-Driven Business.” While these sessions generally tend to be full of major-label bashing, legendary British music executive Tony Wilson reminded the audience that hit is not a four-letter word.
The panel had some unexpected poignancy when someone asked how the A&R reps handle artists dealing with addiction, as many of the panelists had tragically lost acts. It was clear that their hearts were still heavy from such losses and the lingering lament that could they have done more.
My first show of the day was at the Velvet Spade where Island U.K. was hosting several bands. As we watched 23-year-old Londoner Tom Vek run through a series of college radio-friendly tunes on the back patio, I wondered if I’d hit my musical wall: the songs weren’t resonating at all with me. One of my friends says, “maybe you just don’t like him.” I can’t go that far, but I feel no connection to his music.
The showcase gets halted by a quick moving rainstorm. We all pack the inside of the club. It takes almost an hour to set up the inside stage, but the music doesn’t stop. In a scene that could not have occurred five years ago, producer/engineer Danny Kadar (My Morning Jacket) pulls out his iPod and plays me songs from three artists he’s producing. All are wonderful in their own way, but particularly strong is teenage guitarist/singer/songwriter Tash.
Then Jamie Hilton pulls out his iPod and plays me an Australian band he’s managing, Side Effects. The group’s commercial rock would fit right onto radio here.
Back to the live music: Next up are Dogs, who wear their Iggy Pop influences on their sleeves. File this one under rock and just kick back and enjoy.
If Dogs worship at the altar of Iggy Pop, then Nirvana is Nine Black Alps‘ god of choice. The band, which has already signed with Interscope in the United States, delivered a short but bracing set of propulsive tunes laced with strong melodies.
For pure, solid musicianship, they come no finer than Los Super Seven. The group, which includes members of Calexico, Joe Ely, Rick Trevino, Ruben Ramos, Augie Meyers and Max Baca, played a private party at Las Manitas, a restaurant/art gallery/ performance space before a packed, adoring crowd. LS7, as their fans call them, performed selections from their new album, “Heard It on the X,” out Tuesday, on Telarc.
The album features guest shots from Lyle Lovett, Raul Malo (who joined them for two songs tonight), Rodney Crowell and many more. It’s just a pleasure to hear them play as they rumble through their fine-tuned “Border” music, which combines Tejano, rock, country and Tex Mex. It seems impossible that anyone could have as a clear and angelic a voice as Trevino or as steady a tone as Ramos, and they both wowed the crowd with their performances.
From there, I make my way to the legendary Antone’s where I catch brand new faves, Kings Of Convenience. While waiting in a long, long line, I eavesdrop on an unbelievable conversation. The dude behind me is telling his friend that he supposedly got a massage the night before (wink, wink), but he doesn’t remember any of it. The problem is he has a girlfriend back home and he’s really into fidelity. His friend suggests that it might be smart to watch his alcohol consumption so he can keep tabs on his activities. The fellow thinks about it for a moment, then declares “F*** that. If I didn’t remember it, it didn’t happen.”
Back to the Kings: The Norwegian duo is a breathtaking blend of Nick Drake, Simon & Garfunkel and Antonio Carlos Jobim. Their harmonies are exquisite, as is their delicate guitar work, but it’s the songs of longing, heartbreak, and loneliness that are the jewel here. No matter how jaunty the melody, there is a beautiful but inescapable sadness that permeates it all. Simply stunning.
The pair’s second album, “Riot on an Empty Street,” came out last summer on Astralwerks. Also contributing to the evening, hot new Cherry Tree/Interscope signing Feist, who is on tour with the boys and joined them for three songs.
Next, I saw Raul Malo. I can’t be objective about Malo. Ever since his days with the Mavericks, I’ve felt like he had one of those voices where God just handed him an incredibly precious gift and said, “Take care of this.” Malo is often compared to Roy Orbison for good reason: the purity, clarity and strength of his voice is simply unmatched by any other singer out there today; heartbreak is always just a note away.
Malo previewed songs from his next Sanctuary album, out in August, which features him singing covers of his faves, including J.D. Souther’s “You’re Only Lonely” and Randy Newman’s stunning “Feels Like Home.” He threw in a few Mavs tunes into a set that was way too short.
I ended the night at Pecan St. Ale House to see Maximo Park from Newcastle, U.K. A&R executives are circling around them with good reason: they offer up swirling, indelibly catchy Brit-pop with a dash of punk dropped in. Charismatic frontman Paul Smith led the band through a blast of tunes including “I Want You To Stay,” previous single “Apply Some Pressure” and “The Night I Lost My Head.”
The only thing missing from my SXSW experience: I never got any frigging barbeque.
— Melinda Newman