Two young bands that are part of the latest British invasion, the Editors and the Subways, walk away from the 20th edition of Austin’s SXSW fest with the loudest buzz, followed closely by a guitarist-singer, Sweden’s Jose Gonzalez, whose haunting solo work has been heard on “The OC.” Gonzalez is the unique one, though: Once his music is more widely available, he’ll certainly catch on with the NPR world and, quite possibly, those indie-driven soundtracks in search of a track that just screams poignancy. But most of SXSW wasn’t like that. It was loud and overwhelming, out of proportion to the city of Austin — a misfit in many cases — making the undiscovered gems that much harder to find.
Deep down, and SXSW organizers must know this, the goal is to find people who will create music that has no expiration date. The music world has seen how little has happened with last year’s buzz band, Be Your Own Pet, so perhaps the crowning of the Editors and the Subways as the Next Big Things will be done on the QT. And besides, beyond those two bands, the real keepers are a Spaniard with a global sound and a 58-year-old guitarist who quit his band a decade ago to concentrate on songwriting, Gecko Turner and Al Anderson.
There are realistic expectations: Nobody thinks they are about to see the next big thing as they shuffle from spacious halls to lawn parties to covered parking lots and cramped barrooms that next week will be doing dollar drink night with college basketball as the mainstage attraction. At best, they’ll see bands that people will be talking about or getting a fair amount of ink in the year to come. With more than 1,350 bands performing in at least three dozen locations, it takes a concentrated effort, good timing and the ability to stand for at least 12 hours for a person to catch 50 performances.
In the long run, are there truly 50 performers worth seeing?
So many bands believe they have something distinct to offer, yet it becomes remarkably clear that many musicians have landed on a sound that, ultimately, is just a small tweak away from something already established.
Need something a little harder than the Posies and slightly more melodic that Husker Du? Try the Long Winters. Interested in an Avril Lavigne-styled rocker with a great look, guitar chops and ability to bounce between English and Spanish? JD Natasha is the answer. Impressed with Teddy Thompson’s shift to suave, country-tinged balladry but need someone unsigned? Down the street, recently arrived Austin residents Big Blue Hearts were delivering a similar heartfelt sound. Progressive Scandinavian psychedelic stoner folk metal? Probably not. Besides there’s only one Dungen and they weren’t that good. They did, however, draw a big crowd.
And far too many acts are clamoring for attention by using songs that appear unfinished, a sound that lacks direction and questionable musical knowledge. Some even manage to get into the “buzz” category, such as She Wants Revenge, which sounds like a reassembled collection of samples from Echo and the Bunnymen and early Cure. Their dull live show was so extraordinarily similar to their album, one wondered where the play button was hidden on their instruments.
Labels such as Warner Bros., Saddle Creek, Verve Forecast, Columbia and Epic Records, New West, Astralwerks and Alternative Tentacles showcased artists in a single block. Generally, SXSW performers are inked in a single territory and looking for distribution elsewhere. Three of the week’s most intriguing discoveries fit that bill.
Merz, who made a splash in England in 1999 and then split from Epic, delivered his single U.S. perf at one of Austin’s smaller venues, the Pecan St. Ale House. Merz uses a computer and synthesizer to complement his voice and folky, finger-picked guitar. The music is quite humble at its core, with the electronics surrounding him in a wash of orchestral sounds. Through the manipulation of his voice, a choir comes in. Quite heavenly. Something went very right for him in terms of soliciting exposure: Of the 20 or so people in the club, about 30% of the attendees were writers for significant publications.
Gemma Hayes, who hails from Tiperarry, Ireland, released her first disc on Virgin in the U.K. She has relocated to Los Angeles as conversations continue over the disc’s release Stateside. A charming presence, Hayes plays the confessional card the old way: She brings lyrical and musical depth to compositions as she parlays diary entries into tunes. Her voice goes in a number of directions — as much as she echoes the dark timbre of Mazzy Star’s Hope Sandoval for a few minutes, she can turn and deliver the brightness that used to be heard in Joni Mitchell followers.
The former drummer of the fine Minneapolis folk-rockers the Jayhawks, Tim O’Reagan, has recorded his first solo disc as a leader, which Lost Highway will issue June 27. His showcase, in a Hilton Hotel ballroom, was one of the week’s more civilized outings. While it’s hardly new ground he’s treading, he delivers rich, harmony-laden twists on “Rubber Soul”-era Beatles infused with an appealing airiness. Unlike so many others, his songs have completeness and a soul-enriching simplicity to them.
Anderson, the 58-year-old guitarist who left NRBQ in 1993 and moved to Nashville to further a songwriting career, has a new disc, “After Hours,” a 2 a.m. affair that straddles blues, country and even light pop that Columbia Legacy will release. His show at the Speakeasy was a hard-driving, joyous and rocking affair that touched on the signature Anderson Q sound and showcased his ferocious guitar style.
Turner, whose debut will come in the States on Quango, is best known for his Spanish-language rewrite of Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues.” He is a bilingual force who draws on North and South American styles, from Brazilian samba to reggae to the blues and soul music with room to spare for some jazz trumpet. He was perhaps the most distinct voice at the entire festival.
Major stars also delivered, for the most part, well-received shows. Morrissey, who had concertgoers lining up seven hours before showtime, delighted a packed house with a healthy dose of new material. The Beastie Boys did a surprise 50-minute set that took in all the faves, opening with “Brass Monkey” and closing with “Intergalactic.” The Flaming Lips did two short unannounced gigs, complete with assorted costumed characters onstage. As with so many other bands, getting the sound mix to a reasonable level ate up so much time, they were limited to six or seven songs.
The real delight, however, was a multimedia treat from Ray Davies, whose solo debut after 40-odd years of Kinks recordings was released last month by V2. To tell the story of the creation of “Other People’s Lives,” Davies played some of its songs acoustic, read from his writings about his experiences on the road in the U.S. post-9/11 and prior to his moving to New Orleans and showed a film that covered nearly six years of his life. His disc is one of the highlights of the young year, and his film was an eye-opener about a veteran rock act and recovery — for America from 9/11 and for him from a gunshot wound he suffered in an attack in New Orleans.
In the hipster world, Belle & Sebastian delighted a sparse crowd with new material, while the band of the minute, Arctic Monkeys, was hardly discussed the day after their Friday showcase.
The complaints, which seemingly start on every flight heading out of Austin on Sunday, may bear some heeding. No. 1, the festival is indeed too big, with too many bands performing. Considering the mediocre to poor quality of the sound systems in the bulk of Austin’s nightclubs, performers are given short shrift on sound checks. They either use a portion of their set, which generally runs 15-40 minutes, to get the sound close to where they want it, or else forego the exercise and wind up sounding, quite often, incoherent.
That’s a disservice to the artists that could be alleviated with an extra 15 minutes added to their timeslots, which would of course mean fewer acts.
Longtime attendees tended to find the real Texas treats at bars and record stores not involved in the official program.
The daytime parties, thrown by Levi’s, Yahoo!, several of the rock magazines and other peripheral players, were often the most crowded and the best places to see performers. Kris Kristofferson’s perf of “Me and Bobby McGee” on Thursday afternoon had people talking for days; the Eagles of Death Metal were astonishingly tight and melodic; the Magic Numbers continue to sharpen their tunes from last year’s debut; Alejandro Escovedo astonished even his ardent fans with new material at a 5 o’clock showcase; and the Subways, based on an appearance videotaped for Yahoo! Music, makes one long for a good old-fashioned Kinks-Who-Beatles rivalry.
The good old days are what a lot of vet SXSW attendees long for: Austin’s scene was built on songwriters, and the bar that Townes Van Zandt and Guy Clark held up has been replaced by a bar that replaces songwriting with attitude and business practices. The only way SXSW can get back to its old self is to the put the brakes on this thing and start to scale back.