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SXSW: Power Pop Past or Present?

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Sloan_lI always find some inner conflict at South By Southwest. With literally hundreds of bands to choose from, do you skip shows by some of your favorite artists to catch a glimpse of the latest buzz? I, like many others, try to find a balance between old and new, and this year’s lineup certainly boasted a wealth of seasoned acts — the Stooges and Pete Townshend among the bigger names. But when I’m looking for a little blast from the past, I almost instinctively head for mid to late ’90s power pop. And the place for that was Friday at the Dirty Dog bar for the Yep Roc showcase, where acts from four corners of the world — Great Britain, Canada, Australia and the US — convened for one glorious guitar-riffic evening. The lines outside weren’t nearly as long as some of the other clubs, but the anticipation indoors was explosive.

The night started out with Robyn Hitchcock, joined by R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Sean Nelson of Harvey Danger for an acoustic set. Short but sweet, Hitchcock ran through a stable of fan favorites, including the Soft Boys’ classic “I Wanna Destroy You.” For Nelson, who has to walk with a cane due to a back injury, the mellow set was just what the doctor ordered. As for the audience, it was a nice warm-up, but no match for the next band.

addCredit(“Sloan/Cross: Shirley Halperin”)

Australia’s You Am I had a short-lived American career when theywere signed to Warner Bros. in 1995 as part of the indie rock wave. Twoalbums were released here, 1996’s Hourly Daily and 1998’s #4 Record.The latter is as close as you can get to the perfect power-pop record.Seriously. So it was nice to see the fierce and poignant Tim Rogers,who fronts the band, make a rare US appearance and ripthrough a set that made up for years of absence. Anyone in the audiencewho’d never heard You Am I before, was certainly never going to forgetit.

Next up: Sloan. Canada’s answer to the Beatles and one of myall-time faves. Riding on the critical success of their latest release,the epic, 30-track album Never Hear the End of It, the guys were welcomed by an enthusiastic crowd full of devout fans and supporters (including Arrested Development‘sDavid Cross, pictured at right, with Sloan’s Jay Ferguson). And withthe addition of a fifth touring player on harmonies and keys, the bandnever sounded better. Segueing seamlessly from one new track toanother, pounding through a couple classics including “Penpals” (a songborn out of broken English letters written by fans to Nirvana, whichthe Sloan guys rummaged through when they were signed to Geffen in theearly ’90s) and “Money City Maniacs,” this is a band who knows how toget a crowd going. It’s no wonder, they’ve been together for 15 years.Here’s to 15 more.

The grand finale was Colorado’s own Apples in Stereo. Another bandthat’s been around the block a few times and never lost its luster. Infact, their latest, New Magnetic Wonder, which Yep Roc put outin conjunction with Elijah Wood’s label, Simian Records, is beinghailed as one of their best yet. They’re known for their kooky stageoutfits, irresistible synth licks, hooky melodies, and unabashed popsensibility, all of which were on display. Feeding off an audience thatcouldn’t get enough, Robert Schneider and crew  went way past theirscheduled finish time. That was cool with the crowd, but what didn’tsit as well were the club’s many burly security guards who literallysnatched drinks out of people’s hands at the strike of 2:00 a.m. Still,the Apples continued to rock until almost 2:30 a.m.

This was no power-pop graveyard, my friends. These bands, and manymore like them who perform year after year at SXSW,continually challenge themselves to find a pop-centric, indie rocksound among a sea of hip-hoppers and auto-tuned pop stars. It’s nosmall feat, but it’s a mission they gladly take on, and they’re in itfor the long haul. Why not take a moment to rediscover these and otherunder-the-radar ’90s bands. Which are your favorites?