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SXSW '07 -- Bigger And, Yes, Even Better

Of the Oakland Press

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AUSTIN, Texas -- As he wound into his set at the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference here last week, soul veteran Archie Bell told his audience that this was "where all the groovy people meet."

And a lot of them at that.

The 21st edition of the nation's pre-eminent music gathering drew more than 11,000 conference registrants, plus another 12,000 who purchased wristbands for the nightly showcase performances. More than 1,400 bands from around the world played more than double that number of gigs, saturating the festival's five days with everything from Japanese speed metal to the fierce Dutch funk (words you never expect to place in the same phrase) of Kraak and Smaak to more mainstream brands of rock, R&B, blues, Americana, hip-hop, electronic and virtually every other genre one could think of.

With its abundance of sponsorships, day parties and other extra features -- such as four days of DirectTV concert broadcasts from a special studio set up at the Austin Convention Center -- it's a far cry from SXSW's modest beginnings as a vehicle to showcase the Austin region's indigenous music.

"It's almost too hard to comprehend now," noted Chris Johnston, who manages the Detroit band the Hard Lessons and played SXSW in the mid-'90s with his own band, the Hannibals out of East Lansing. "It was a lot more organic way back when. We didn't realize how cool it was."

But bigger has allowed SXSW to become bigger in some cases, particularly in providing more portals for the general public to enjoy the festival -- such as free concerts at the Auditorium Shores park that this year included a much talked-about show by the rap group Public Enemy. And, noted singer-songwriter Rachel Fuller (girlfriend of the Who's Pete Townshend, this year's SXSW keynote subject), "the energy is so great with so much going on. It's very corporate, but with all this music how can it really be bad?"

If there was no one particular act or theme that captured the general SXSW buzz this year, there was a definite sense that the British were coming. Again. That's hardly a new trend in popular music, of course, but it certainly was a significant flavor at the festival.

Tattooed soul singer Amy Winehouse justified the hype surrounding her new album, "Back to Black," with several appearances, including some that showcased her rich vocals accompanied by just an acoustic guitar. But Winehouse was best when fronting her smooth 10-piece band, complete with horn section and dancing backup singers. Despite claiming that, "I'm drink," Winehouse was in fine form and channeled influences from Motown, Memphis and Philly into a fluid and convincing presentation that should lead to a big year for her.

Lily Allen, a Winehouse rival of sorts, was entertaining but not quite as convincing with her short (25 minutes) set of reggaefied pop. Allen and her band certainly had the crowd dancing, but she seemed almost more concerned with slagging off her showcase's sponsor -- Britain's New Music Express, who she called "spineless punks" -- than with her performance.

The Good, the Bad and the Queen, an all-star group whose members hail from the Clash, Blur, Gorillaz, the Verve and Fela Kuti's band, brought the heavy-lidded pop ambience of its self-titled debut album to life with stronger results than on disc. Scottish group the Fratellis were a frenetic rock 'n' roll delight, and Mika's flamboyant dance pop, a kind of Rufus Wainwright-meets-the Scissor Sisters hybrid, kept crowds moving during his set.

Even Townshend got into the act, taking guitar in hand to serve as a kind of elder statesman/godfather throughout the festival. In addition to the keynote presentation, he joined former Faces/Rolling Stones keyboardist Ian MacLagan at the Austin Music Awards to pay tribute to their late mutual friend and collaborator Ronnie Lane. Townshend played the Who favorite "The Seeker" with the Fratellis at a Spin magazine party and helped Fuller host one of her Attic Jam shows, a "hootenanny" where he performed a Who song, "I Can't Reach You," which he said has never been played live and also backed younger musicians such as Mike, Martha Wainwright, Willy Mason, Alexi Murdoch and Joe Purdy, a Los Angeles artist with whom Townshend performed a duet version of his solo hit "Let My Love Open The Door."

Other highlights from this year's SXSW sojourn included:

* A fierce Stooges performance at an Esquire magazine-sponsored showcase that was considered the festival's headline gig, a 50-minute fusillade that showcased the group's new album, "The Weirdness," and finished with frontman Iggy Pop bringing a couple dozen fans on stage to mosh and dance to the band during "No Fun."

* Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello turned the Thursday night showcase for The Nightwatchman, his folk-singing alter-ego, into an unexpected rock-out with Guns N' Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash, Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, Extreme alumnus Nuno Bettencourt, and Primus' Les Claypool. Simply put, they kicked out the jams...brothers and sisters.

* Kings of Leon, whose live performances often didn't live up to its albums, raised the bar at both the Spin and Esquire showcases, playing with arena-sized power as it debuted songs from "The Cause of the Times," which comes out April 3.

* Despite new costumes and choreography, Dallas choral rockers the Polyphonic Spree was its bombastic self -- and that's a good thing -- at several performances to preview its forthcoming album, "The Fragile Army," due out in June.

* Albert Hammond, Jr., rocked after-hours at Blender House, showing an even greater dynamic attack as a solo artist than he does with his band, the Strokes.

* An Americana all-star bill -- Alejandro Escovedo, Rick Trevino, Rosie Flores, Chip Taylor, Bob Neuwirth, Augie Meyers, Chuck Prophet, Charlie Sexton -- and Latin luminary Ruben Ramos bid farewell to Las Manitas, one of Austin's legendary eateries, with a long show on the venue's back porch, closing with a moving version of "Rosalie" from Escovedo's theater piece "By the Hand of the Father." Las Manitas is being torn down to make room for a new hotel but will likely open in another spot.

* Emmylou Harris was the subject of a sublime tribute by a group of friends and admirers, including country grand olde man Charlie Louvin to longtime collaborator Buddy Miller, Charlie Sexton and proteges such as Allison Moorer, Paula Cole, Kelly Willis, the Watson Twins and Elizabeth Cook. Accepting a plaque at the end commemorating sales of 15 million albums, Harris -- who releases a box set called "Songbird" in September -- quipped that "I think I might have a career."

* Rickie Lee Jones turned her public interview at the convention center into a performance, answering all questions musically as a way of demonstrating the improvisational process she used in making her latest album "The Sermon on Exposition Boulevard."

* Brooklyn's jazz/funk/world music collective Antibalas provided some of the best dance parties of the festival, including a closing set for the NY2LON party at the picturesque Habana Calle 6 that featured a charged vamp through Fela Kuti's "Gentleman."

* And the old school shined at the Ponderosa Stomp, a showcase for "unsung" R&B and roots musicians performing at the May 2 festival in New Orleans. Latter day Funk Brother Dennis Coffey burned through a set that featured his "Scorpio" and an instrumental rendition of the Temptations' "Just My Imagination" that had the crowd at singing the choruses. The aforementioned Archie Bell got the crowd to "Tighten Up" in a good way, and the likes of Barbara Lynn, Tammy Lynn and Big Chief Roddy kept the joint jumping all night long.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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