The 16th annual South by Southwest music conference drew to a close Sunday, and the only thing that lasts longer than the seemingly perpetual hangover that results from four debauched days of a music industry on spring break is the buzz emanating from the bands and key moments that defined this year’s festival.
Of the more than 1,000 bands showcasing their chops before press, radio programmers, managers, lawyers, label execs and promoters in 48 venues strewn throughout Austin, Texas, a handful traditionally rise above the chaff to become the targets of hype hucksters and topics of critical discussion for weeks following the conference.
Liverpool’s Clinic, who kicked off their latest tour two days before their Friday SXSW showcase, were one of this year’s must-see performances. The hype surrounding this synth-punk quartet was so intense that the line wrapped around the block and even Courtney Love, who was scheduled to speak at the conference the next day, was denied backstage access.
Newly signed Roadrunner Records artist Jerry Cantrell’s gig attracted all those who would gleefully trade the twang that pervaded much of the conference for something a little heavier. Among those who came to support the Alice in Chains guitarist were Pantera’s Vinnie Paul and Dimebag Darrell, who made the drive from their hometown Dallas and joined Cantrell onstage toward the end of his set.
The country-fried Drive-By Truckers turned more than a few heads of label A&R scouts with fired-up selections from Southern Rock Opera, the Athens, Georgia, band’s ambitious double concept album about the history of Dixie-rock legends Lynyrd Skynyrd. It’s safe to say that discussions with labels larger than their current indie are eminent.
The Shins, with a style equally linked to the Kinks and Beach Boys – that is, if Brian Wilson reinvented himself as the original emo survivor and Ray Davies never made it out of the garage – provided some decent audio buzz to accompany the alcoholic kind that surrounded their afternoon party as well as their 1 a.m. showcase. Following a similar though definitely rockier road, the neo-garage scene made it’s presence felt this year, led by New Yorkers the Mooney Suzuki and Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs.
An annual SXSW staple, the Columbia Records showcase displayed the label’s hopefuls with a night that included pop-punkers the Ataris, the aggro-fueled Riddlin’ Kids, Icelandic beat-conscious rap-rockers Quarashi, turntablists X-ecutioners and big-beat electronic conductors Lo Fidelity Allstars. Prior to their exhilarating exhibition, the Kids served as the house band for a karaoke tribute to the Ramones during the label’s pre-showcase soiree.
Meanwhile, a separate bash sponsored by Capitol Records and MTV2 featured sets from the Feds, OK GO, Ed Harcourt and Starsailor.
More than just four days of concerts, SXSW is double-billed as an industry schmooze-fest and workshop promoting the exchange of ideas and advice. Besides the required entry-level how-to classes, most panel discussions reflected the industry’s current state of affairs. Gone are the throngs of dot-com diatribes – both the “next big thing” and “why they fell” discussions – that pervaded years past, replaced by debates on copyright ownership, digital downloads and artist contract reform.
The hour-plus speech/rant/discussion by self-described expert on almost everything industry-related, Courtney Love (her pending lawsuit against Universal Music Group provides some actual validity) repeatedly strayed off-course and started fashionably late, of course. While reiterating claims about contract limitations and unfair business practices made in her suit, Love, complete with dangling cigarette, name-dropped (Bono, Gwen Stefani, Sheryl Crow) and trash-talked (“… and I saw you doing an 8-ball off the back of the Limp Bizkit record!”).
But the real rock and roll mayhem was provided by Aaron North, guitarist for the Icarus Line. Near the end of the band’s set at the Hard Rock Cafe, which followed a blistering performance by At the Drive-In offshoot Sparta, North broke a display case containing a guitar that once belonged to the late Stevie Ray Vaughan and attempted to plug in and play. Considering that the name Stevie Ray Vaughan is spoken with the same reverence as God in Austin, the crowd didn’t take too kindly to the blasphemous act, and North and singer Joe Cardamone were chased from the stage by security.