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Local Bands Ready To Rock SXSW Conference

Of the Oakland Press

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Some 20 acts from the Detroit area music scene are packing up for their own brand of spring break this week — with instruments and other gear in tow.

They’re headed to Austin, Texas, where they’ll join nearly 1,900 of their brethren at South By Southwest, the annual convention and festival that’s often referred to as “spring break for the music industry.” Last year’s installment drew 12,650 musicians, industry executives and media members for five days of meetings, panel discussions and — mostly — performances and parties.

There’s business to be done, of course, but Al McWilliams of Ann Arbor’s Quack Media — whose three SXSW bands include the Hard Lessons, the Javelins and the Great Lakes Myth Society — says he counsels his bands “to have a really good time.”

“That’s really all you can expect,” says McWilliams, whose company will host a day party on Thursday. “I think it’s a good place to cement some relationships you already p have, but I don’t want people to go down expecting to get a booking on Conan O’Brien or anything like that. That rarely happens.

“I just think about this time of year all these bands usually need a morale boost. So I tell them that all they really need to expect from it is a really good time, and then anything that comes out on top of that is a bonus.”

For a band with an agenda, however, SXSW can indeed be useful — just as it was for Jason Stollsteimer of the Von Bondies. Last year the group went down to Austin without a label deal but with an EP and another album’s worth of new recordings, financed by the frontman and drummer Don Blum. In March that album, “Love, Hate and Then There’s You,” came out, and Stollsteimer says it was the half-dozen or so gigs the Von Bondies played at SXSW that helped make that happen.

“We actually went down there for fun; we weren’t even interested in labels at the time,” Stollsteimer recalls. “Those shows were some of the best we’ve played in a long time, and a lot of people saw us who didn’t know we were available or we had a record done. We got so many calls from being down there.”

Von Bondies will be playing at SXSW again this year, including a high-profile spot at 6 p.m. Thursday on DirecTV’s “South By Southwest Live” broadcast. Among the others flying the Detroit and Michigan flag will be the High Strung, Human Eye, Deastro, the Deadstring Brothers, Easy Action, the Dogs, Outrageous Cherry, NOMO, Whitey Morgan & the 78s and Chiodos frontman Craig Owens.

And former MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, who resides in Los Angeles, lists himself as a Detroit artist in tribute to his hometown.

Though Stollsteimer contends that record companies “aren’t really searching for new bands ’cause nobody’s making money,” all of the acts are traveling to Austin with some sort of agenda — if only to drum up some attention for new releases, such as Outrageous Cherry’s “Universal Malcontents” or the Hard Lessons’ upcoming “Arms Forest.”

“We’ve been laying low recording for the past two years and haven’t been seen very much,” explains Outrageous Cherry’s Matthew Smith, a SXSW veteran who’s taken his countryrock group the Volebeats to the conference as well. This year, Outrageous Cherry will play showcases for its record company, Alive, and for Little Steven Van Zant, the guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band who’s supported Outrageous Cherry on his syndicated “Underground Garage” radio show.

“The new album came out a couple weeks ago, so it seems like a really good idea and important to get down there and play for people who haven’t seen us for quite a while.”

The Hard Lessons, meanwhile, will be working overtime to generate buzz for “Arms Forest,” which comes out May 26. In addition to its official showcase performance, the Detroit trio will play at the Quack party and also has been tapped by Dickies — whose clothing the group has championed — to be part of a special lounge the company is hosting during SXSW. Dickies, meanwhile, is putting the group up in a house in Austin and filming its stay at SXSW for its music Web site, www.dickiesupstart.com.

“There’s nothing sinister in this (sponsorship),” says the group’s Augie Visocchi, who’s also doing a daily tour blog on the Web site. “I’ve been wearing Dickies since I was in elementary school. I have no problem talking about products or companies that I actually use.”

Visocchi isn’t going to SXSW — the Hard Lesson’s third — with delusions of grandeur. “I think the days of David Geffen popping into your showcase and going, ‘Wow, I’m gonna sign you to my record label,’ if it ever really happened, are over,” he says. But Hard Lessons’ multiple performances in 2008 did generate attention for the band, including a photo and blurb in Spin magazine, that helped to elevate the group’s profile.

“I guess there might be some people who come out to see us who aren’t going to fly to Michigan or try to catch us in their hometown on a Tuesday night or something,” Visocchi says. “And I know our manager has been contacting some people that we’d like to work with — producers, booking agents, distributors, all over the map like that.

“And we get to expand the group of bands that we know and support each other, which really pays off, too.”

Outrageous Cherry’s Smith, meanwhile, notes that “there’s just so much music there it’s kind of overwhelming.” But, he adds, there’s value in being among so many music lovers.

“You have both fans and industry people, people from other cities and other countries, all with their lists of bands they want to see,” says Smith, who’s met musical heroes such as Roky Erickson, the Shangri-Las’ Mary Weiss and former Motown session guitarist Dennis Coffey at previous SXSWs.

“Wherever I go there I run into everyone that I know in the music business. You have them all at the same place at the same time. It doesn’t hurt to be seen, I guess.”

Look for Gary Graff’s regular reports from South By Southwest Wednesday through March 23 at www.theoaklandpress.com and www.goanddomichigan.com.

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