AUSTIN, Texas -- Nobody came right out and said it, but the subtitle to the 13th annual South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas, could well have been "Man Vs. Machine."
The five-day conference, which wrapped up Sunday, was overstuffed with more than 900 bands from all over the world playing everything from hip-hop and pop to electronica and blues
Still, despite the emphasis on electronic rock, nobody seemed more
willing to make a bold statement about the state of music today than keynote speaker and earthy folk-rocker Lucinda Williams.
The singer/songwriter showed no mercy during a scathing address at one of many conferences held over the five days. She lashed out at the increasing corporate music mergers, the music industry and those who choose commerce over art. "Keep the power," Williams said in between performing acoustic renditions of songs such as the
(RealAudio excerpt) from her award-winning 1998 album, Car Wheels On a Gravel Road.
"Don't let anybody take your power," she insisted. "With all the mergers [in the music industry], all the little mom-and-pop stores are being bought out ... and this country is dying a slow death."
Though some might agree that things are looking grim, a group of high-profile acts demonstrated that the computer age may be opening up a new door for music. And while the United States may have given birth to DJ culture and the art of the turntable-as-musical-instrument, most DJs and techno-rock bands on display at SXSW were British.
The Lo Fidelity Allstars and Freestylers -- two London-based groups -- aimed to prove Thursday that two turntables can live alongside guitars, bass and drums. While the Lo Fidelity Allstars tried to hide that their set relied on pre-recorded material, with smog machines and flashing lights used as a veil for their minimal live instrumentation, the eight-member Freestylers reveled in the prefab nature of their rock-and-rap songlist. That set even featured retro moves from a pair of breakdancers.
The festival's creative director, Brent Grulke, a five-year SXSW veteran, said while not much has changed this year, the staff has had to scramble to find enough equipment for all the burgeoning electronic/dance acts performing at SXSW.
"It's hard as hell to find enough turntables for all the artists," Grulke said.
Even Jeff Beck's opening act, an Austin DJ named K-Hole, would need some wheels of steel. "It's the same tortilla with a different taco inside," Grulke said. "We've added more electronica because we've become a more viable showcase for those kinds of artists."
The best example of how technology and rock can mix and coexist, however, came when Oklahoma's Flaming Lips and London's Asian Dub Foundation took the man-machine mix to a higher level.
Performing Friday night to the accompaniment of trippy, stock video footage and pre-recorded drum and orchestral tracks, the Lips presented an eardrum-bursting, multimedia extravaganza that relied heavily on material from their upcoming album, A Soft Bulletin.
The Lips presented a similar show at an early Sunday morning bash for the rock magazine Spin. This time, they employed a novelty they had intended to use the night before -- an army of 500 FM headsets. When tuned to the right frequency, the sea of headphone-wearing fans could receive a soundboard-quality feed of the show, adding the necessary head-trip factor to such new songs as "Race For the Prize" and "Suddenly Everything Has Changed."
On the other end of the spectrum from the Lips' lush, orchestral psychedelic rock, the five-member Asian Dub Foundation crew mixed metal, rap, traditional Indian music, dance-hall reggae and deep dub basslines into their Saturday night set.
The energetic performance blended the right amount of pre-recorded material and live instrumentation for the band's highly politicized tunes.
Even as those groups set out to prove machines can be our friends,
artists such as English techno-acoustic chanteuse Beth Orton,
experimental Virginia rockers Sparklehorse and urban troubadour Tom
Waits took the less-is-more route. Orton, well enough to perform after a recent battle with a nagging genetic illness, wowed a hushed audience Thursday night with a mesmerizing, all-acoustic set of her songs.
The next night, sandwiched between the bombastic, psychedelic rock of Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips extravaganza, the low-key Sparklehorse, led by singer/songwriter Mark Linkous, performed a dynamic set that ranged from an acoustic whisper to a distorted, punk-like screech.
Waits relied on piano, drums, bass and guitar during his stunning two-
hour performance early Sunday morning at the Paramount Theater. It was
the most sought-after -- and heavily hyped -- show at the festival. "My
wife says I've got two kinds of songs," Waits cracked just before playing
"Jockey Full of Bourbon" midway through the set, "grand weepers and grim reapers. This next one's a bit of both."
Growling, snapping and stomping his way through such career highlights as "Heartattack and Vine" and
(RealAudio excerpt), Waits played a vaudevillian show that had touches of Tin Pan Alley-style ballads, jazz, rock, piano-bar serenades and stand-up stream-of-consciousness comedy.
As usual, more traditional punk rock came in heavy doses at clubs such
as Emo's and the Electric Lounge. New York's Grand Mal crowed loud and
proud Thursday night, emphasizing the contention that rock doesn't need
vinyl or breakbeats to be relevant in the late '90s. Their blistering
set seemed heavily influenced by punk-rock progenitors the Stooges.
The Austin band ... and you will know us by the trail of dead managed to
howl and stage-dive their way through a similarly Stooges-inspired set. San Antonio lifers Sons of Hercules, old enough to have opened for the Sex Pistols in the late '70s, bashed out Ramones-inspired punk rock Friday night at Emo's. A Thursday night performance at Babe's by The Gravel Pit from Boston mixed '60s mod styles and garage rock to create a '90s blue-eyed soul sound.
Perhaps the biggest pop tart of all was former British teen heartthrob Robbie Williams. The former member of the hit vocal group Take That played an invite-only party Friday. He easily won over the crowd with his mix of laddish humor, good looks, soulful crooning and self-deprecating songs such as his U.K. hits
"Millennium" (RealAudio excerpt) and "No Regrets."
The digital download revolution inspired by MP3s, the future of the music business and increasing record-label consolidations were the topics of several panels throughout the conference.
A victim of one of those industry consolidations seemed surprisingly upbeat about his band's prospects, since it was dropped by its label during a recent merger.
Jeff Robbins is guitarist and singer of the Boston-based alternative rock band Orbit, dropped by A&M Records in the wake of the recent $10 billion teaming of PolyGram and Universal. Robbins said his group was still in the hunt, despite the corporate tumult that has spawned desperate times for some artists.
"There's a lot of bullsh-- networking that goes along at these things," shouted Robbins over the din of a set by Mercury Rev. "But we're just here trying to get a bunch of people to see us, and this is the epicenter of the music business right now."
Orbit did their best to drum up interest by hanging a "Band for Sale" sign onstage at their Saturday night showcase. Word has it several record-label "weasels," as Robbins referred to them, approached the trio after the set.