A forceful weapon has found its way into the indie rock arsenal, melody.
A forceful weapon has found its way into the indie rock arsenal, melody. One SXSW showcase after another, regardless of venue size, band stature or style, the acts presented were nearly uniformly tuneful, a rejoinder against the hit-single model of the majors and a throwback to moments in the rock era when music defined communities. The defense, historically, for the indie world has been to push music into the outer reaches where the appeal is for the cognoscenti. This edition of SXSW revealed modern rock and its multiple tentacles as inclusive and in demand, a force that is not about to alter plummeting sales, but is capable of attracting attention and support.
Every individual’s experience at SXSW is remarkably different and it is rare that there is ever a galvanizing moment on which everyone agrees. For four isolated days, though, this music world felt connected, which ironically comes at a time when the industry powers are troubled by the landscape and the festival itself is in danger of becoming too monolithic.
Curatorial decisions, the cyclical nature of music and a lack of faith in the major label system all contributed to making the 22nd edition of the music confab an improvement on the last several editions. Lineup featured fewer hyped superstars-in-the-making – Vampire Weekend topped that list – and fewer returns of legends (R.E.M.). It forced the audience, a 16,000-person strong mixture of label types, media, musicians and fans, to look a little deeper on the schedules.
That translated into enormous lines for bands such as the Ting-Tings, a passionate and knowledgeable crowd for Stephen Kellogg and the Sixers from western Massachusetts and, at festival’s end, extraordinary enthusiasm for DeVotchKa’s next album, which will be released Tuesday. DeVotchKa is the punk-gypsy party band from Denver that scored “Little Miss Sunshine”; their performances were consistently powerful.
European singer-songwriters Laura Marling, Kate Walsh, Jens Lekman and Lykke Li confirmed that their live shows are as compelling as their albums; Daniel Lanois, My Brightest Diamond and Bon Iver made inventiveness feel comfortable and warm. Morrison, who relied on mostly material from an album being released April 1, and Daryl Hall, whose concert material covered a 35-year block, were beacons of endurance and relevance.
And the man known for playing keyboards in Derek and the Dominos, Bobby Whitlock, has joined forces with his wife, saxophonist Coco Carmen, and legendary Austin guitarists David Grissom (Dixie Chicks, Joe Ely) and Stephen Bruton, to create a credible blues-based rock band that in other years might have seemed like an unwanted relic. In 2008, a reworked “Layla” bordered on magical.
Part of the appeal of legends, in this case, is their ability to stick to their guns. Hall’s obviously well-constructed music felt alive and current; R.E.M. has returned to the guitar sound of landmark albums such as “Monster” and “New Adventures in Hi-Fi”; and Morrison, after a string of genre-specific albums, has returned to his unique mix-and-match style.
The musical continuum they provide was abundantly evident for once. It’s no shock to see a female singer list Joni Mitchell or Carole King as an influence; this year that inspiration was palpable.
Alternative music has changed. It no longer operates off a disconnect with pop music as it did in the ‘80s and ‘90s and it is no longer limited to prescribed musical conceits (low fidelity, apparent amateurism, sketches of songs as finished work) as it was earlier this decade. Look at Grand Archives. Seattle quintet has a light and breezy take on Laurel Canyon country rock from the very early ‘70s, complete with four-part harmony. It’s unlikely a major would take a flyer on them, but their image-laden music and the warmth of the sound should easily woo music supervisors, and their well-documented artistic integrity could be a springboard for alignment with like-minded orgs.
And that remains the reason bands flock to Austin each spring to play 30 or 40 minute sets for free, which they hope to piggyback on paid gigs at sponsored parties outside the SXSW confines.
SXSW organizer Roland Swenson has continued his crackdown on outsiders swooping into town and pulling confab attendees away from sanctioned events, luring them with free booze, food and VIP treatment. His biggest beef is with party sponsors that fly in high-priced talent to play at competing shows; a Mess With Texas party, for example, was the only place to see the reunited Breeders.
U.K. chart-topper Kate Nash flew in for a couple of parties on Saturday – her appearances were unannounced – and a steady stream of young bands made their way to town to play other peripheral events. One of those acts, teen band Drive A from Los Angeles, which has attracted significant label interest, swooped in and gave three appearances in a 14-hour period with no fest affiliation.
Billy Bragg, the multi-hyphenate whose descriptors include protest singer, activist and love song composer, was again a voracious troubadour, performing multiple shows daily including his own showcase gig and appearing as part of the multi-artist Body of War program.
Like keynote speaker Lou Reed and interview subject Daryl Hall, Bragg is skeptical about how young musicians will survive in the future as systems of support continue to crumble. At a show for an international music managers’ org, Bragg urged the career shapers to take a stand for “the kids facing their first contractual opportunity. Their careers are the ones on the line. … The public doesn’t care about rock stars, but they care about kids. Overcome cynicism. Stand up for them.”
If they could have heard the speech, thousands of young musicians in Austin would have greeted Bragg with a standing ovation.