AUSTIN, Texas -- "This is the future -- forget the guitars!" was the Lo Fidelity Allstars' rallying cry Thursday night at their South by Southwest music festival showcase. The English band held true to that motto by wielding drums, keyboards, bass, turntable and sampler but no guitar.
For the most part, the sold-out crowd at La Zona Rosa didn't seem to miss 'em. In the front, shaved heads bobbed in a Froot Loop-colored light bath, while other audience members stared at the stage wearing intense, rapt expressions.
Not that there was a whole lot to see. The massive, high-ceilinged stage had vanished into a pastel cloud, a nearly opaque wall of smoke and color. The musicians were merely shadows, which suited their dramatic, funkified soundscapes. This also helped blur the already fuzzy line that the Allstars apply to the division between man and machine -- real drummer, playing partly mechanized drums; real singer, using robotic effects and mimicking pre-recorded loops (including a phrase repeated dozens of times: "What the Allstars feel/ It's the real deal").
Fan Sarah Niemi of Phoenix, who showed up despite torrential rains that forced another club, Stubb's, to shut down early, praised the Allstars for being "different from other types of electronica. Everything's not sampled ... It's actually a live band doing it."
But in a festival and a town that have made their names on guitars, there was some dissension.
"They suck!" Austin concert-goer Chris Jones said, as he sat out the Allstars' set in a wet, muddy tent attached to the club. In the tent, the enemies of electronica lingered, angrily pulling on soggy Camel Lights, shouting into cell phones and registering complaints.
"They're horrible," said bemused San Franciscan Jay Buenaventura. "It's a culture I appreciate, but this is dated. Stale. Nothing new. We came to see [the bands set to follow the Allstars onstage] Old 97's and Built to Spill."
The Lo Fidelity Allstars' battle against the Les Pauls of the world clearly was a losing one, at least in Austin, where the sounds of barre chords echo in the night no matter where you stand.
You could have been inside Antones Thursday, sipping a Lone Star beer beneath a larger-than-life painting of the late blues-rocker Stevie Ray Vaughan -- holding his guitar, of course. And if you were there, you'd have watched Chuck E. Weiss and his skewed blues band take the stage.
Weiss -- the subject of the Rickie Lee Jones hit "Chuck E.'s In Love" -- recently released an album, Extremely Cool, which Tom Waits produced and helped write. The spirit of Waits (this SXSW's totem -- coveted tickets for his Saturday night performance are nearly impossible to get) seemed to hang over the festival. It was there in the endless rain, it was there in the bizarre, gravel-toned stylings of doppelgänger Weiss that made some listeners do double-takes.
Or you could have been at Emo's, standing in a puddle watching the Donnas act out their naively charming Ramones-style punk-rock fantasies to a tightly packed crowd.
"Rock 'n' roll! Rock 'n' roll! Are you feelin' it?" the Donnas shouted, fists in the air, hips cocked jauntily to one side, healthy Breck Girl hair gleaming beneath the stage lights in unprocessed glory.
Just a step away from the central crush of bouncing, screaming fans, the legendary Seattle guitar-pop band the Fastbacks (Kurt Bloch, Lulu Gargulio and Kim Warnick) rocked out to the Donnas. The Fastbacks play here Saturday (March 20). In admiration of the Donnas, Bloch said, "The guitar player plays guitar like she really means it!"