AUSTIN, Texas — If you're on a plane sitting next to a suited-and-booted A&R guy blabbing about the new band he's signed, a sort of "Spanish System of a Down, but with an edge," and British singer/songwriter Beth Orton is seated in an exit row in front of you, it's a pretty safe bet that you're on a flight bound for the South by Southwest music conference in Austin, Texas.
Every March, SXSW turns the college town/state capital of Austin into the epicenter of the music world with a pulsating, weeklong party where bands come to get noticed, get famous, get drunk and get ... some other things too.
But it's not just musicians flooding the city — label bosses, industry yes-men, publicists, writers, party planners and fashion designers flock to Austin as well. And this year, they seemed to outnumber the bands — no small feat considering there were more than 1,400 acts booked throughout the city.
The headline of Friday's Austin American-Statesman asked "Is it too big?" and many who attended the 20th annual incarnation of the festival would probably say yes. SXSW has grown each year — particularly over the last five — and some of the things that had previously made it so appealing (a laid-back disposition, the ability to casually hop between several gigs a night) are no longer present as crowds and pressures have grown. Many of the biggest shows had long lines to get in, and attendees became a lot more selective about which gigs they wanted to see. Indeed, so many people didn't even bother trying to get in to the conference's most buzzed-about show — a set by the Arctic Monkeys — that up to 45 minutes before the band hit the stage, people were still breezing in with a minimal wait.
But make no mistake: SXSW is still the greatest rock combo platter on earth, it just takes a lot more work to get what you want out of it.
On Wednesday night, anyone lucky enough to wander over to the parking lot of local watering hole the Fox & Hound were treated to a surprise gig from the Flaming Lips, who ripped through a surreal, smoke-and-balloon-filled set highlighted by a thundering version of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" and a fuzzy take on "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," the first single from their upcoming At War With the Mystics.
Other highlights included a bubbly set from Athens, Georgia's Of Montreal at Emo's (followed by a screeching onstage workout from Austin's own ... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead), and Norway's Serena Maneesh, a wild-looking band whose feedback-laden fusion of My Bloody Valentine, Spiritualized and Sonic Youth was slightly overshadowed by their striking bassist: a 6-foot tall, rail-thin pale woman with bleached-blond hair and a ferocious stage presence.
SXSW afternoons are rife with parties (inevitably featuring multiple bands), and the Fader's was unquestionably the highlight, held in the backyard of a house on Sixth Street and featuring a mixture of rock and hip-hop artists playing 30-45 minute sets. The odd man out in both of those realms was Argentine/ Swedish singer José González, who performed gentle songs redolent of bossa nova, accompanied only by his classical guitar; the fans up front loved him but sadly the majority spent his set talking. Far removed from Gonzalez were the Eagles of Death Metal — with Queens of the Stone Age's Josh Homme on drums — who must have shouted out the ladies in the house 15 times during their 45-minute set of bone-basic riff rock.
A bit farther up Sixth, at the French Kiss Records showcase, much-buzzed Minneapolis noiseniks the Plastic Constellations played a raw and rollicking 45-minute set full of detuned, ringing guitars and shouted, youthful vocals (plus a guest appearance by the Hold Steady's Craig Finn.)
The Flaming Lips served up another surprise (acoustic) gig on Thursday, but the week's biggest secret show was the Beastie Boys early in the evening at Stubb's — although it was far from secret by Thursday afternoon, when a long line started to wrap around the block. The Beasties — in town to promote their new live film, "Awesome: I F---in' Shot That!" — served up a set peppered with classics like "Brass Monkey," "Paul Revere" and "No Sleep Till Brooklyn," Ad-Rock, MCA and Mike D made inside jokes that they called "banter," which MCA explained to the industry crowd was an "industry term."
Morrissey also trotted out the hits during his not-so-secret show across town at the Austin Music Hall, where — even though he said he'd turned down an offer to reform the Smiths for a $5 million gig — songs from his former band punctuated his set, from "How Soon Is Now?" to "Last Night I Dreamt That Somebody Loved Me." But rather than live in yesterday, Morrissey made a point out of showcasing several new songs from his libido-loaded Ringleader of the Tormentors album, which includes such promising titles as "Life Is a Pigsty."
Thursday wrapped with a stunning set from the husband-and-wife duo Mates of State, whose soaring harmonies and startling dynamic range (their sound consists entirely of keyboards/drums/vocals) are in their best form yet on their brand-new LP, Bring It Back. A quick dash up the street to the Blender bar yielded a raucous set from the very loud and very British Rakes.
Friday got under way with a hushed, mumbled performance from Baltimore teenagers Metal Hearts but quickly shifted into high gear thanks to a fiery (and free) afternoon set from My Chemical Romance, who took the stage to a cacophony of camera flashes and screaming female fans. Frontman Gerard Way — looking a bit like a gothic Elvis Presley — flailed and strutted through it all, acknowledging MCR's apparent rust (they hadn't played live in almost three months) and talking up the band's upcoming new album.
The night ended with the aforementioned Arctic Monkeys, who took the stage at La Zona Rosa riding a wave of SXSW buzz. Despite some snottiness at the beginning of the set due to the overabundance of photographers, they managed to live up to the hype, tearing through songs from their debut, Whatever People Say I Am, That's What I'm Not, with a professionalism and poise that belied their young years.
Saturday started off early with a rousing set from L.A.'s the Color, who dress like the Black Crowes circa 1990 (all scarves, pointy boots and black jeans) and hew a similarly simple but effective rootsy riff rock. Most impressively, they were playing a small bar at 12:30 on a very rainy afternoon to about 20 people, yet they preened and strutted as if they were headlining Madison Square Garden.
A stop at another Fader party featured this month's cover artists, Sweden's Love Is All (who play a kind of angular indie pop heavy on saxophone, percussion and enthusiastically shouted vocals). After an approximately 90-minute wait, Ghostface Killah finished off the party with an hour-long set loaded with material from his forthcoming LP, Fishscale, as well as a couple of Wu-Tang chestnuts and a touching moment of silence for ODB (during which Ghostface had the lights dimmed and asked the crowd to hold their cell phones aloft), followed by a quick version of Dirty's "Shimmy Shimmy Ya."
The festivities closed with a completely unhinged party held by Vice magazine at a warehouse-sized art gallery outside of downtown that had a giant blue genie on its roof. At the show — which stretched well into Sunday morning — Toronto's Stills played their second set of the evening (the first of which had ended less than two hours earlier) loaded with songs from their mature and impressively far-reaching forthcoming LP, Without Feathers. They were followed by Wolfmother, who played a blistering, abbreviated set that left ears ringing, amps feeding back and the bandmembers staggering off the stage. The show came to a close with a hefty performance by Tres Hombres, a portly ZZ Top tribute band that provided some Texas-sized entertainment for those who hadn't already had enough.