Roughly 3,000 people flooded the streets of Austin, Texas, last week for the annual South by Southwest music conference with the exhausting goal of catching as many of the 1,000 bands as possible.
The traditionally eclectic lineup ranged from the unsigned, like Philadelphia's the Capitol Years, to the unjustly unsung, such as New York's the Realistics. But there were also veteran acts, including new-wave piano man Joe Jackson and the Yardbirds, who, with only two original members intact, performed for the first time in 35 years behind a new album. A favorite of many guitarists, the Yardbirds drew Slash, Steve Vai and Jeff "Skunk" Baxter to their set, which featured selections from Birdland, due April 22.
Austin favorite Willie Nelson headlined the Lost Highway showcase, which also featured Lucinda Williams, the Jayhawks and Tift Merritt. (Earlier in the week, Nelson and Williams recorded a duet of her song "Over Time" for the country legend's next album.) The Americana twang was balanced by Brit rock from the likes of Supergrass and surprise guests Blur, who performed without bassist Alex James because of a visa ensnarement. But it's the "next big things," such as Hot Hot Heat, the Rapture, the Coral and Junior Senior, that make SXSW a music fanatic's fantasy.
Vancouver's Hot Hot Heat performed at Saturday's Sub Pop showcase with Iron and Wine, who were pleasant but far too quiet for such a rowdy affair. A day earlier, they heated up Spin's afternoon barbecue with Sahara Hotnights, the Black Keys and D4. Surging beats and the ebb and flow of Steve Bays' vocal melodies had the crowd frenzied on both occasions, especially with "Get in or Get Out" and "Talk to Me, Dance With Me," two swaggering tracks from Make up the Breakdown. When Bays used his keyboard as percussion, the crowd couldn't help but surge to the whining pulses. And when the keyboard melodies combined with Dustin Hawthorne's rolling bassline, it was impossible for anyone to stand still.
The Coral used their outdoor stage show to soar with their throwback garage quirk — something of a cross between Alex Chilton's Box Tops, Middle Eastern subtleties and Mersey beat bop. "Goodbye," with its slightly Byrdsian verses, and the gritty "Dreaming of You," both from the band's self-titled debut, were the biggest crowd pleasers.
The death knell of chunky, three-chord indie rock sounded Friday night when the Stills proved to be as dull as their name, despite performing amidst free-flowing complimentary brew at the ultra-hip Vice magazine party. Their successors, the Rapture, succeeded where the Stills fell short by underlining most songs with a dance beat and punctuating others with avant-garde sax farts.
Goodtime music was on the rise with Denmark's Junior Senior, who played a showcase for their Danish label, Crunchy Frog (where the Raveonettes got their start), and had everyone in the room raising the roof to make room for the elevated adrenaline levels. Even the most jaded rock critics were on the dance floor shaking it to Michael Jackson's Off the Wall-era "Move Your Feet," from D-D-Don't Stop the Beat.
Also on the feel-good tip, the Polyphonic Spree, whose 24 robed members looked like a cross between a cult and a church choir, never fail to inspire awe and good cheer with their assemblage and orchestral twee pop. St. Louis native and all-around concert freak Beatle Bob even abandoned his traditional dancing in the front row for some onstage kung fu a go-go.
Other highlights included an afternoon set by twang-rockers Drive-By Truckers, who offered glimpses of their new Decoration Day and favorites from the 2001 double LP Southern Rock Opera; Mooney Suzuki singer Sammy James Jr. throwing a tantrum when their plug was pulled prematurely because of a scheduling lag; Bigger Lovers kicking off a Yep Roc showcase that also featured the Minus 5, led by Young Fresh Fellows' Scott McCaughey and R.E.M.'s Peter Buck; Yo La Tengo kicking things off with the frightening but funky "Nuclear War"; and the furious Puny Human, which features MTV News' very own Iann Robinson on drums.
Live music is just a portion, albeit a large one, of SXSW. Producer Daniel Lanois (Bob Dylan, U2), who said he's staying out of the studio for a year to support his Shine LP, due April 22; gave the keynote address. And Liz Phair, who performed a few tunes from her June 24 eponymous LP, hosted a Q&A session.