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SXSW: The 2009 Top Dozen
AUSTIN, Texas — “So, have you seen any good bands here?” Metallica’s James Hetfield asked the crowd at Stubb’s, the grin on his face seeming to imply that who needs another band when ’tallica is in the house.
But the roar from the 2,500 or so who had jammed into one of the special shows at this year’s South By Southwest Music & Media Conference confirmed that, yes, they were seeing plenty of good bands, thank you — some 2,000, in fact, from all over the world playing all genres of music, even a few that have not yet been defined.
The 2009 version of SXSW was down in attendance (10-20 percent, depending on reports) but not in variety or enthusiasm. Day parties, nightly official showcases and after-hours parties paraded the usual array of offerings, ranging from acts drumming up buzz for new or upcoming projects to those who just wanted to join the party — like Kanye West, although he too had an agenda in exposing some young rappers he’s working with when he took the stage at a couple of private parties sponsored by Levi’s and Perez Hilton.
There is, of course, too much for one person to consume the festival in its entirety, but if anyone returned home from a sun-soaked week of beats and barbecue, they just weren’t trying. Here’s a dozen of the coolest things witnessed at SXSW this year, in alphabetical order...
The Portland group performed its entire new album, the rock opera “The Hazards of Love,” at its official showcase at Stubb’s, but the night before it played a small club showcase at Pangea —sponsored by the IFC channel — that was filled with old favorites (“The Mariners Revenge,” “Days of Elaine,” “The Apology Song”) and some oddball covers. The quintet covered the Pogues’ “Sickbed of Cuchulainn” in honor of St. Patrick’s Day, then encored with the Velvet Underground’s “I’m Sticking With You,” for which frontman Colin Malloy switched to drums. Both shows affirmed the group’s place as one of the most potent and creatively daring in rock today.
Devo Most anyone showing up at the Austin Music Hall to hear Devo’s set there was likely looking for some ’80s nostalgia and a chance to whip-it — good, of course — one more time. What they got was an eye-opening show by a renewed band with fresh material (three new songs) and playing like it had something to prove. Look for a new album and a documentary later this year, and the continuation of devolution in the new millennium.
Gomez used its SXSW opportunities — including the same IFC party as the Decemberists — to play a selection of new songs from its forthcoming “A New Tide,” which hits stores on Tuesday. The group’s Tom Gray told the Pangea crowd that “we’re here to inaugurate South By Southwest,” which the quintet did an hour-long set that stirred together new album tracks such as “Airstream Driver,” “Win Park Slope” and “If I Ask You Nicely” with established fan favorites like “Detroit Swing 66,” “Girl Shaped Love Drug,” “How We Operate” and “Whippin’ Picadilly,” the latter of which Gray noted Gomez played at its first SXSW show, 11 years ago.”
The Heartless Bastards
The earnest, rootsy rockers from Cincinnati played several shows during SXSW, but caught a particular break at a day party sponsored by Paste magazine. When Superdrag, which was slated to play later in the afternoon, was stranded on the runway in Nashville, the Bastards were asked to stretch their set — and no one under the outdoor tent that they were playing minded a bit.
The semi-secret special guest headliner of Playboy’s Rock the Bunny party celebrated a reunion with bassist Eric Avery — back with the band for the first time since 1991 — with a stomping 55-minute set marred by sound problems but still pleasing the packed house (and attendant Playboy Bunnies) with late ’80s and early ’90s fare such as “Three Days,” “Been Caught Stealing,” “Mountain Song” and “Ocean Size.” It definitely stoked expectations for the quartet’s summer tour with nine inch nails (May 31 at the DTE Energy Music Theatre).
It was blatantly promotional — for the Guitar Hero: Metallica video game that comes out Tuesday. It was an Event that hijacked attention from virtually anything else going on at SXSW that day. And, as one SXSW purist noted during the encore break of the heavy metal quartet’s show, “This is SO not roots music.” All that was true, but Metallica’s 90-minute late-scheduled slam through early favorites and a pair of tracks form last year’s “Death Magnetic” was a wakethe-neighbors sensation made all the better by the small — by Metallica standards — locale. “It’s pretty cool to be part of the energy here,” drummer Lars Ulrich said earlier in the day. “We love playing these small places. Listen, we’ll show up at a backyard barbecue,” noting Stubb’s is a barbecue restaurant, he added, “I guess this IS a backyard barbecue.”
Quack Media/Found Magazine Party
The Ann Arbor-based label and the hip mag it publishes had ’em lined up around the block for headliners like the Hold Steady, No Age and Lucero. But it was also ground zero for the Michigan SXSW contingent, and there were plenty of folks there to check out local heroes like the Hard Lessons, Great Lakes Myth Society and the Javelins.
School of Seven Bells
The New York trio — signed to Ann Arbor’s Ghostly International label — rode into SXSW on a strong buzz thanks to U2 guitarist The Edge’s praise for the band’s Benjamin Curtis, late of Secret Machines. Curtis and company — twin sisters Alejandra and Claudie Deheza — made good on the spotlight with an arresting set of airy, spectral songs from their debut album, “Alpinisms,” at a showcase sponsored by Santa Monica, Calif., public radio station KCRW.
Doug Sahm Tribute
The late Doug Sahm — the Sir Douglas Quintet frontman who was dubbed “the father of Americana music” during SXSW, was honored twice. The Austin Music Awards paid homage with a set by his son, Shawn Sahm, and Alejandro Escovedo, but the real salute took place two nights later at Antone’s, one of Sahm’s old haunts in Austin, when a cadre of friends (Jimmie Vaughan, Dave Alvin, the Gourds) spent two hours playing his music — some of which they’d recorded for the new album, “Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm.” The definite highlight was a six-song closing set that reunited Augie Meyers and Flaco Jiminez, surviving members of the Texas Tornadoes with Sahm and the late Freddy Fender. And the best news of the night came when Shawn Sahm announced there will be a new Tornados album this year — the group’s first since 1996 — that will include some tracks Fender recorded before his death in 2006.
They’re strange bedfellows: ex-Smashing Pumpkins guitarist James Iha, Cheap Trick drummer Bun E. Carlos, Adam Schlesinger of Fountains of Wayne and...Taylor Hanson. Of that Hanson. But Tinted Windows showed its power pop mettle during a taping of DirecTV’s SXSW Live, paling deceptively cheerful sounding songs (“Take Me Back,” “Dead Serious,” “Cha-Cha,” “Doncha Wanna”) that will appear on its debut album, a self-titled effort due April 21.
The Travelin’ McCourys meet the Lee Boys
The “mash-up” between the Nashville bluegrass troupe (fronted by the sons of legend Del McCoury) and the soulful Florida sacred steel group could have gone either way — and fortunately it was heavenly. The two acts each played their own set before joining forces for an electrifying nine-piece jam that sounded like they'd been playing together for years. The two acts plan to tour this fall, including a don’t-miss stop at the Ark in Ann Arbor.
The British quartet peppered one of the downtown Austin hotels, the Hampton, with key cards and CD samplers hyping the group and its just-released debut album, “To Lose My Life...” Then, White Lies delivered stirring sets that were among the talk of SXSW, including a Saturday night stomper at Stubb’s with countrymen Razorlight and PJ Harvey & John Parish
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