AUSTIN, Texas — "F--- the '80s; we're Queens of the Stone Age," Josh Homme asserted immediately before the colossal opening riff of "No One Knows" caused an audience stampede to the stage.
The sneered sentiment was as much a stiff middle finger to buzz bands indebted to two-decade-old synth-pop as it was a testament to his confidence in the almighty power chord. So what if he offended a bunch of the supposed highlights of the annual South by Southwest Music And Media Conference, not the least of whom were dance-punks the Bravery, who opened the show? This was Homme's party, and anyone who didn't like it could take off and miss what was one of the high points of this year's raucous four-day musical blitzkrieg.
For those lucky enough to secure a spot on the guest list, the best part of the South by Southwest conference didn't take place on Austin's legendary 6th Street, but rather a few miles away in an enormous airplane hangar. In fact, the Queens of the Stone Age's after-hours party at the defunct Austin airport wasn't even an official SXSW event. A day before the conference commenced on Wednesday, the Queens performed in town and decided to stick around two more days to show the thousands of music fans and industry personnel attending SXSW the proper way to blow the roof off a party.
In return for enduring uncharacteristically frigid temperatures, the crowd was treated to a wonderfully brutal (and painfully loud) set that featured an appearance by longtime Queens associate Mark Lanegan. (Complimentary beverages served from carts pushed by attractive "stewardesses," rounding out the airplane theme, were a nice touch, too.)
It certainly wasn't for a lack of action downtown that QOTSA stole the show. The 19th incarnation of the conference brought in music-industry types from both coasts — as well as spring-breaking college students throughout the South — to the Texas capital to catch more than 1,300 artists on 60 stages around town. The breadth of this year's conference kept the streets cluttered with lines of people waiting to see shows, the best of which always seemed to happen simultaneously.
Luckily, the number of afternoon showcases increased from years past, so most artists played several times throughout the conference.
Overcrowding wasn't the reason hundreds of people nearly missed out on another SXSW 2005 pinnacle; blame that on visa problems. Touching down just two hours before her scheduled performance, Sri Lankan-by-way-of-London MC M.I.A. released loads of pent-up frustration on the Elysium stage, much to the delight of a packed house that was moved enough by her oscillating tribal grooves to forgo supposed indie-rock nonchalance and shake their skinny butts. Even more impressive was that M.I.A.'s impact was made at an event where hip-hop's representation amounted to a few backpacker showcases and a curious set at an English brew pub by the self-proclaimed "Big Boss of the South," Slim Thug.
Led by the Kaiser Chiefs and Doves, British rockers in no short supply angled to be this year's Franz Ferdinand, the Scottish quartet who seemed to be strapped to a rocket after performing at SXSW in 2004.
"We're not used to playing in the sunshine; we're from London," announced a squinting Gordon Moakes, bassist for the angular quartet Bloc Party, at the yearly Spin magazine BBQ. The band's layered irregular beats combined with those from like-minded countrymen the Futureheads to make for a hipster anglophile's dream pairing. Louis XIV's brand of sleazy glam (see "Louis XIV: Killers-Endorsed Quartet With King-Sized Egos"), which may not have translated well in broad daylight, was a well-suited appetizer for headliners the New York Dolls, who drew throngs of sing-along fans for favorites "Looking for a Kiss," "Puss N' Boots" and "Personality Crisis."
"We got a record and DVD out on Sanctuary [Records], but I don't see it in stores," complained singer David Johansen in reference to last year's Return of the New York Dolls. "So we're here ostensibly looking for a deal, too," he added, bridging the gap between influential institutions and the artists for whom SXSW is like " 'The Apprentice' for indie bands," to quote Stars singer Torquil Campbell.
For those young bands, SXSW offers the chance for make-or-break exposure, and Los Angeles' the Like, for one, passed their self-imposed test. The teenage trio endeared themselves to a seated industry crowd at a well-mannered KCRW showcase at the Crowne Plaza hotel. The group's rich, jangly pop is punctuated by singer/guitarist Z Berg's beautifully coarse voice, reminiscent of Mazzy Star's Hope Sandoval with a cold.
Sometimes all it takes to generate some buzz is a great name, and whoever thought of the terrific moniker I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness should take a well-deserved bow. The Austin-based quintet was on the lips of just about every attendee who spotted its name on the roster, though most had never even heard a note. The stroke of marketing brilliance achieved its desired result, since a significantly greater number of people now know of the shimmering melodies that lie beyond their intriguing title.
Other artists with one foot already planted on terra firma used their sets to slam the other one down with resounding authority, and this year, no one stomped louder than the Canadians. The Dears, still supporting the nearly two-year-old No Cities Left, executed their swirling orchestral beauty flawlessly, while Tegan and Sara seem to get more musically daring with each performance. Death From Above 1979's loud, dizzying bass-and-drums assault justified their high hipster status. With their new album, Elevator, less than a month away (see "Hot Hot Heat's Ups And Downs Inspire Elevator), Hot Hot Heat spearheaded a night at La Zona Rosa that had fans standing in line for more than two hours just to sample the forthcoming material.
The Raveonettes, too, made lots of noise, though theirs was more of a sultry roar than authoritative stomp. The Danish group, whose principals Sune Rose Wagner and Sharin Foo spent the free time between their two sets checking out other bands, opened their evening Emo's gig appropriately enough with "Somewhere in Texas," off their forthcoming second LP, Pretty in Black.
"We are in Texas, right?" Foo playfully asked, though her low-cut Western-style shirt was clearly picked for the occasion.
SXSW '05 also had its share of indie staples, like Stephen Malkmus, Sleater-Kinney, Lou Barlow and Spoon, all of whom have new albums on the way but are well past having to prove themselves to anyone. And then there were those like Billy Idol, Harvey Danger and the Wallflowers, who needed to show that they've used their time away wisely.
While shows and parties were more plentiful than in previous years, there was a noticeable cutback on the festival's other component, panel discussions. It's hard to fill a room for an inquisitive look at "Ringtones as an Income Stream" or "Living with Hep C" when you're competing with outdoor bashes offering complimentary beer, BBQ and bands. A few were hot attractions, however, including Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant's keynote address, in which he deduced all pop music back to the blues, and Beach Boy Brian Wilson's at-times awkward discussion on last year's release of his infamous Smile album.
The decadence came to a head as it should, at Saturday's closing-night party hosted by Vice magazine. Like the Queens of the Stone Age throwdown two days prior, this exclusive soirée was held miles from downtown and raged well past Austin's bar curfew. The U.K. quintet the Go! Team headlined a set that crashed disco with discordant, energized grooves, which laid the groundwork for singer/pep-squad leader Ninja to lead the crowd in call-and-response exchanges that roared toward 4 a.m.
The lively finale was surprising given the hour, the sensory overload of the last four days, a cumulative lack of sleep and a less-than-healthy diet of alcohol, Tex-Mex and BBQ. But what's a little exhaustion compared to a party that won't be back for another whole year?
Besides, you can always sleep it off on the plane ride home.