Spend your time in Austin wisely

    What’s twenty years when it comes to music? Much is the same and as much has changed. Many of us still listen to some of the bands we listened to two decades ago; they’re a part of what’s shaped our own cultural literacy. Other music of that era falls away, becoming mere detritus alongside a road no longer traveled.


    In 1987, when the city of Austin first opened itself to a week-long festival of unsigned musicians, Starship and Whitesnake both had number-one singles, Whitney Houston was a role model, and Michael Jackson was just kinda pasty. At the same time, Karl Wallinger’s World Party burst onto the scene, scoring a Top 40 hit with “Ship of Fools.” All these years later, World Party is scheduled to play the opening night of the 2006 incarnation of the South by Southwest festival, the music portion of which will start tomorrow and run through Sunday, March 19. (Club Nouveau, however, is not on the bill.)


    While bands have either persevered or withered away, South by Southwest (or SXSW, as it is now commonly known) just keeps getting bigger. Its scope and significance has grown exponentially over nineteen years, a festival’s equivalent of the baby garage band that starts getting good buzz and finds itself playing in larger venues with each show.



    But unlike the early days, this year’s lineup includes plenty of bands that are far past unsigned: Morrissey‘s status does not hinge upon his Thursday night performance. For many already-signed acts, the festival can serve as a publicity boost, a chance to test out new material or a way to validate hipster cred. There are plenty of unsigned bands, as well, hoping that the right people are in the audience. And with tens of thousands of music lovers (and music profiteers) in town, they just might be.


    Often lost in the nonstop concert atmosphere is the convention aspect of SXSW, which involves a music-industry trade show, legal courses and panel discussions about current issues and concerns that plague the music industry. This year’s keynote speaker is among the highest profile in the festival’s history: Neil Young comes before the SXSW crowd at a time when his profile couldn’t be any higher. His 2005 album, Prairie Wind, has received some of his best reviews in well more than a decade, and Jonathan Demme’s documentary, Neil Young/Heart of Gold, chronicling Young’s performance of said album, is also garnering considerable notice. Young is scheduled to play a bit of his music at the Austin Convention Center at 10 a.m. on Thursday, March 16, followed by his keynote address at 10:30.


    Throughout the week, Convention Center interview subjects will include vinegary folksinger Billy Bragg; the ever-tortured Morrissey; snots-turned-activists Beastie Boys; country ‘n’ western chameleon K.D. Lang; the frighteningly powerful Sam Moore; the not-so-frightening-but-still-in-her-own-way-powerful Judy Collins; Southern jack-of-all-trades Kris Kristofferson; solo genius Ray Davies; Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders; and R&B Svengali Mathew Knowles.


    These interviews will undoubtedly create some foot traffic in the Convention Center, but the real draw during the day tends to be the spate of parties hosted by various sundry record labels, magazines and liquor brands. These day parties usually have an open bar, free food, and a handful of buzz bands giving abbreviated performances. Some are wide open to the public and others are top secret (Bloodshot Records, let me in, please). Getting into the more exclusive of these afternoon events is the perfect way to test how cool, or at least resourceful, you really are.


    To those of you making the pilgrimage this year, heed this caution: As part of an entire village’s worth of idiots about to converge upon central Texas, you might be tempted to consider adopting Austin as your town for the week. Allow me to educate you about Austin:


    Austin is the state capitol.

    Austin is a college town.

    Austin is a bohemian town.

    Austin is a blue-collar town.

    Austin is not your town.


    Real Austinites will hate you with the core of their being for coming into their town this week and taking up space. We are sometimes not the most gracious of guests. I remember watching Sam Beam of Iron & Wine give a performance two years ago at a club called Tambaleo. His muted acoustic murmurings were rendered inaudible by the hipsters and industry jackasses shouting at the top of their lungs over him. I was embarrassed for Beam, and I was embarrassed for the audience. This was the moment that I realized that we are disturbing a natural habitat, and perhaps we should try to leave Austin as we found it after the week is through.


    So if you promise not to be a jerk-ass, I would also suggest at some point actually leaving the sanctuary of 6th Street and seeing some more of Austin, including the University of Texas campus, South Congress, Lake Austin. It’s a laid-back city, and one where a little bit of money goes a long way. I keep telling myself that sometime I need to visit when it’s not consumed by tourists.


    Nevertheless, I’ll be at SXSW this week and plan to make the most of it. It’s astounding to think of the great music that has been showcased here for the last nineteen years. Some acts at this year’s festival would have been at home during the first one: the Pretenders, the Alarm, Echo & the Bunnymen, the Motels, Rosanne Cash, Kris Kristofferson. A handful of artists were barely born. The beauty of it all is that with literally thousands of performers, no one is out of place, past their prime, ahead of their time, irrelevant. They are all at the 20th anniversary of SXSW, and, if only for one week, they all matter.


    * * *

    Over four nights, South by Southwest’s evening showcases will officially present 1,529 different musical acts for your listening pleasure. (Completists can look here for a full schedule.) From neo-traditional folk to death-metal, from Aberdeen City to the Zutons, there are quite simply too many bands for the individual festivalgoer to adequately prepare. Over the next four days, we’ll attempt to isolate thirty key acts set to play each night, but even that is just the tiniest sample.


    An embarrassment of riches, SXSW’s showcases are front-loaded with many of the week’s best acts competing for my attention on the first night. I would say without hesitation that Wednesday night provides me with my most difficult choices (and this is even with Built to Spill as an eleventh-hour scratch). There isn’t a high-profile embarrassment the entire evening, and that’s rare. Of the thirty noteworthy bands playing this evening, I’ve noted my favorites with an asterisk. As always, I also recommend taking a chance on some unknown bands, because that’s part of the fun of SXSW.


    Here are some potential highlights (dates, times, locations subject to change):


    * And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead

    Emo’s Main Room, 1 a.m.

    603 Red River St. (All ages)

    The Austin band we will know by its ridiculously long name has a homecoming as the members’ native town welcomes them back and allows them to trash the shit out of Emo’s main stage for an hour or so. This could very well be a victory lap of sorts, coming off the heels of last year’s World’s Apart, an album that is as exuberant as it is wrenching. Trail of Dead keeps getting better as a studio band, but it’s deservedly made its name as a live act.

    Trail of Dead Web site 



    Eternal, 10:30 p.m.

    418 E. 6th St. (21+)

    I’m a little fascinated by Norway’s Annie; her songs fit on college radio as well as they would on Radio Disney. Over the years I’ve grown wary of young Euro-pop princesses, but at her worst Annie is harmless, and songs such as “Chewing Gum” are as much a goofy joy as Junior Senior’s singles.

    Annie Web site


    Art Brut

    The Parish, 1 a.m.

    214B E. 6th St. (All ages)

    The British brats in Art Brut are finally putting out their full-length debut, Bang Bang Rock and Roll, and their cheeky Pulp-y sound seems appropriate for the first night of a long week. High on attitude, masters of posturing, Art Brut isn’t the most polished band, but the members don’t care.

    Art Brut Web site


    * Belle and Sebastian

    Stubb’s, 11 p.m.

    801 Red River St. (All ages)

    So close to being written off as an afterthought with the occasional decent single, Belle & Sebastian is now coming off of a brilliant one-two punch with its previous two studio albums, Dear Catastrophe Waitress and The Life Pursuit, with Stuart Murdoch back as the centerpiece. This twee Scot-rock group is eccentric enough to be unpredictable, and its best songs are so solid that they avoid the preciousness that ultimately dooms so many other collectives. This may very well be Belle & Sebastian’s prime.

    Belle & Sebastian Web site


    The Capitol Years

    Soho Lounge, 1 a.m.

    2015 E. Riverside Dr. (All ages)

    Featuring ’60s-influenced pop, Philadelphia’s Capitol Years are not nor have ever been on Capitol Records. However, the band members’ easygoing sound might have made them fine labelmates (if not peers) with the likes of the Beatles, Beach Boys and Badfinger.

    Capitol Years Web site




    Back Room, 1:15 a.m.

    2015 E. Riverside Dr. (All ages)

    Along with Slim Thug, Chamillionaire is the current poster boy for the power that solid mixtapes hold in the rap game. In the right place at the right time, Chamillionaire is among the inner circle of Houston’s hip-hop resurgence, and along with Slim, he can count Paul Wall and Mike Jones as mates. Following the buzz from his mixtapes, Chamillionaire will be at the Back Room showing off rhymes from his major-label debut.

    Chamillionaire Web site


    * Friends of Dean Martinez

    Oslo, 1 a.m.

    301 W. 6th St. (21+)

    Austin stalwarts Friends of Dean Martinez and their dreamy brand of instrumental space rock are again represented at SXSW. Noodle-y without being hippy-dippy, Friends make the steel guitar sound like a strange offshoot of the theremin and are on a short list of bands that feel truly original. If you’re a fan of the avant-garde, this is an act that’s worth checking out.

    Friends of Dean Martinez Web site


    Goblin Cock

    Habana Calle 6 Patio, 12:45 a.m.

    709 E. 6th St. (21+)

    San Diego’s Goblin Cock merits your attention if for no other reason than possibly having the best name of the week’s acts — and certainly having the best album cover. (You can actually see the goblin’s cock.) The music? Would you be surprised if I were to tell you that it’s metal? This band is fronted by, of all people, Pinback‘s Rob Crow.

    Goblin Cock Web site



    The Go! Team

    Exodus, 1 a.m.

    302 E. 6th St. (21+)

    Coffee and illicit drugs will be readily available over the course of the SXSW week in Austin, but if these still don’t satisfy your stimulation requirements, you could always catch the Go! Team‘s hipster pep rally on stage. Either an exuberant sugar rush or a test of your patience, depending upon your disposition, this British coalition undeniably throws down the good cheer.

    The Go! Team Web site


    Jean Grae

    La Zona Rosa, 9:50 p.m.

    612 W. 4th St. (All ages)

    The laziest comparison would be Lauryn Hill, but Jean Grae has a focus that’s solely on hip-hop. She’s also a much rawer performer, spitting out verses with an intensity and attitude. She and Talib Kweli will be a fine one-two punch, sharing the stage at La Zona Rosa. Grae’s among the cream of the select few rap acts at SXSW this year.

    Jean Grae Web site


    The Gris Gris

    Club de Ville, 11:50 p.m.

    900 Red River St. (21+)

    Another bitching band name, the Gris Gris’ name is Creole, but the members hail from Oakland, California. Their sound is dirty psychedelica, simultaneously groovy and grungy. Formed by Greg Ashley, the Gris Gris is likely to provide a loud, jam-heavy set that’ll shake out any cobwebs that gathered from the flight into town earlier in the day.

    The Gris Gris Web site


    Head Automatica

    La Zona Rosa, 11:20 PM

    612 W. 4th St. (All ages)

    After that ingrate Damon Albarn kicked Dan the Automator to the curb, the Gorillaz-less Dan has been working with Daryl Palumbo on Head Automatica, a project that merges electronica beats and rock vocals in a manner that resembles the Crystal Method as a power-pop unit. Head Automatica hits SXSW with a full live band and some head-bobbing new material.

    Head Automatica Web site: www.headautomatica.com


    Hockey Night

    The Velvet Spade Patio, 11 p.m.

    912 Red River St. (21+)

    Lookout Records’ Hockey Night hails from St. Paul, Minnesota, which helps explains the band name. Everything else about Hockey Night is less easy to explain. Formed by Paul Sprangers, the band is an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink post-punk band, bizarre but catchy. They’re taking a detour on their tour with Clap Your Hands Say Yeah to play Austin.

    Hockey Night Web site


    Curt Kirkwood

    The 18th Floor at Capitol Place, 11 p.m.

    500 N. IH 35 (18+)

    It seems like so many years ago that the Meat Puppets were finally on the verge of rock ‘n’ roll superstardom, until Curt Kirkwood’s brother and bandmate, Cris, succumbed utterly to the oblivion of drug addiction. While the Meat Puppets as they once were will likely never be again, Curt is left to pick up the pieces as a solo artist. Currently living in Austin, Kirkwood’s sound has shifted more toward that of the alt-country troubadour, but his new work has much of that sun-baked texture similar to his band’s best work.

    Curt Kirkwood Web site



    Antone’s, 12:30 a.m.

    213 W. 5th St. (All ages)

    If pressed, you’d call K-os hip-hop, but his draw is his ability to defy categorization. K-os hails from Ontario, but he can show off the reggae so strong that you can forgive Canada for Snow’s “Informer.” His albums tend to embrace a soul/R&B mentality that has probably made it more difficult for K-os to blow up, but I’d be willing to bet that his rejection of hip-hop assimilation is why his set at the Astralwerks showcase will be one of the night’s more memorable.

    K-os Web site



    * Talib Kweli

    La Zona Rosa, 10:15 PM

    612 W. 4th St. (All ages)

    It seems that everyone who listens to Talib Kweli loves the man, and what’s not to love? He’s been one of the freshest voices in hip-hop for years now, and has always had the right people in his corner (Mos Def, Kanye, Jay-Z). Kweli comes to SXSW and will reaffirm that you don’t have to be hard, or platinum, to hold respect in the rap game.

    Talib Kweli Web site


    Amos Lee

    Exodus, 10 p.m.

    302 E. 6th St. (21+)

    Last year, Blue Note’s Amos Lee was on the verge of breaking in the same manner of labelmate Norah Jones, thanks in part to a concerted promotional effort with Starbucks. While certainly yuppie-friendly, Lee shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed as MOR snoozery. His music has an easygoing charm, and his voice is warm and soothing. I caught his set last year without knowing a thing about him, and I walked away a casual fan.

    Amos Lee Web site


    Mary Lou Lord

    Soho Lounge, 8 p.m.

    2015 E. Riverside Dr. (All ages)

    Currently on Bloodshot Records, Mary Lou Lord has managed to sustain quite a career out being the sweet-voiced gal with guitar. While occasionally cutesy, Lord conveys a warmth in her voice and music that can be quite appealing.

    Mary Lou Lord Web site: http://www.maryloulord.com/


    The Low Lows

    Nuno’s Upstairs 12 a.m.

    422 E. 6th St. (21+)

    One of what must be several thousand SXSW bands from Athens, Georgia, the Low Lows was known previously as Parker & Lily until said duo split up. Now Parker Noone’s new band has continued with the dreamy Galaxie 500/Sparklehorse sound that was a trademark of his last incarnation. If low energy is your thing, check it out.

    The Low Lows Web site


    * Mogwai

    Stubb’s, 1:00 AM

    801 Red River St. (All ages)

    Awfully full of themselves for a bunch of guys named after a puppet, Mogwai nevertheless is a pretty damn good rock band. Like their billmates Belle & Sebastian, the members hail from Scotland. Unlike their billmates, there isn’t an ounce of fey to be found in their music. Don’t be surprised if in between songs  they threaten to beat up Stuart Murdoch backstage or call out Snow Patrol as a bunch of pansies.

    Mogwai Web site


    * The New Pornographers

    Stubb’s, 10 p.m.

    801 Red River St. (All ages)

    The good news: The New Pornographers are a blast and a half live; their hooky power-pop is perfect for head-bobbing (or if uninhibited, dancing like a happy idiot). The better news: They’re sure to perform plenty of material from their wet dream of an album, Twin Cinema. The absolute best news: With Neko Case performing this week as well, chances are very, very good that she’ll be joining Carl Newman and Dan Bejar onstage, rounding out those sick harmonies.

    The New Pornographers Web site


    Of Montreal

    Emo’s Main Room, 12 a.m.

    603 Red River St. (All ages)

    Possibly named so because “Of Athens, Georgia” doesn’t have the same level of exclusivity, Of Montreal has helped continue the uncanny track record of that small Georgia town that spawns bands with big ideas. Kevin Barnes’ band has a breezy, bouncy way about them that will probably lead to a winning set of new millennium pop music.

    Of Montreal Web site


    * Beth Orton

    Antone’s, 11 p.m.

    213 W. 5th St. (All ages)

    Beth Orton picked a fantastic time to move in the direction that Comfort of Strangers has taken her. With the focus now on her voice and the barest elements of her songwriting, Orton is finally showcasing her biggest strengths. Comfort of Strangers is one of the best albums of the year thus far, and I’d think the material will translate well in a live setting. In a festival that loves its singer-songwriters, Beth Orton’s a real prize.

    Beth Orton Web site


    The Plimsouls

    Exodus, 12 a.m.

    302 E. 6th St. (21+)

    One of many reasons to pack your skinny tie with you on your Austin trip, the Peter Case-led new wave notables the Plimsouls come back from a million miles away. While Case’s post-Plimsoul solo career has been quite accomplished (in fact, he’s playing alone at the Soho Lounge at 10 p.m.), his return to his biggest fame should at the least satisfy nostalgia junkies and at the most tear the roof off of Exodus.

    The Plimsouls Web site



    Friends, 12 a.m.

    208 E. 6th St. (21+)

    Plus/Minus is in the unenviable position of being confused with the Minus 5 and Minus the Bear, both also playing this week. If you need help differentiating, perhaps I can help: Plus/Minus (they go by the symbol “+/-“) is the one that has James Baluyut on fuzzed-out guitar and employs a sound influenced by Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth.

    Plus/Minus Web site


    Saturday Looks Good to Me

    Emo’s Jr., 1 a.m.

    603 Red River St. (All ages)

    A rock collective in the vein of Arcade Fire and Belle & Sebastian, Saturday Looks Good to Me comprises a baker’s dozen of Pet Sounds-lovin’, tambourine-shakin’, horn-section blarin’, good-times-havin’ kids. The brainchild of Fred Thomas, Saturday Looks Good to Me is one of the more sonically ambitious bands to come from the musically fertile state of Michigan in recent years, and its live shows tend to be a bit of a spectacle.

    Saturday Looks Good to Me Web site


    The Secret Machines

    La Zona Rosa, 12:45 a.m.

    612 W. 4th St. (All ages)

    The Secret Machines are the next in a line of rock experimentalists. Not all of there work is entirely coherent, but I suppose that’s the point. With Built to Spill mysteriously bailing out, the Machines have taken their plum closing spot at La Zona Rosa, and that will give them a little more time to go off on strange, compelling musical tangents.

    The Secret Machines Web site


    * Wolfmother

    Eternal, 12:30 a.m.

    418 E. 6th St. (21+)

    Psychadelicock-rock future superstars Wolfmother, almost certain to be one of the buzz bands of this year’s festival, will have its coming-out party. Singer/axeman Andrew Stockdale, bass/organ abuser Chris Ross and drummer Myles Heskett are heavy on the Sabbath and Zeppelin worship, light on the smug irony of other recent break-out retro-metal acts, and are, quite simply, the shit. I can’t recommend this enough.

    Wolfmother Web site


    * World Party

    Exodus, 11 p.m.

    302 E. 6th St. (21+)

    You’re going to pay tomorrow if you don’t catch the reunited World Party (sorry, I couldn’t help it). Karl Wallinger’s band returns after a six-year hiatus with a set that will hopefully include some of their incredible work from the ’80s and early ’90s, such as “Ship of Fools” and “Put the Message in the Box.” World Party is one of the elite veteran acts of the week, hands down.


    Steve Wynn & The Miracle 3

    Carribean Lights, 1 a.m.

    614 E. 6th St. (21+)

    More than 15 years since disbanding the Dream Syndicate, Steve Wynn continues to release numerous shape-shifting works, and with his backing band, the Miracle 3, Wynn could very well captivate audiences with his wealth of material. It’s hard to say what to expect; Mr. Wynn changes his sound with the frequency that some people change their bed sheets. But he’s earned my curiosity.

    Steve Wynn Web site


    * * *

    A rundown of Thursday’s highlights will be published tomorrow.

    Discuss this feature at the Prefix Message Board