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An Englishman in Austin: A SXSW report

NME’s new-music editor picks highlights from his busy time at Austin’s SXSW music fest

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Tim Mosenfelder/Getty Images

This week’s missive comes to you direct to you from South by Southwest in Austin, Texas, where I’ve spent the last four days watching band upon band, developing extreme tolerance to peach-flavored cocktails, and eating my own weight in barbecue. More specifically, I write this from the parking lot of the Mean Eyed Cat, a ramshackle bar on the outskirts of Austin — a place with more Johnny Cash memorabilia on the walls than wallpaper and dudes who look like Willie Nelson pretty much everywhere you look. Oh, and amazing salsa…

Somewhere in the distance, brilliant new Oxford punks Foals — think Blur at their most esoteric, only raised on a diet of D.C. hardcore — are larking around on the train tracks next to the bar and goofing off in between having photos taken for a forthcoming NME feature. And me? Right now, I’m on ”train watch” (which essentially involves keeping an eye out for any oncoming locomotives that might nub a promising career stone dead). After 10 minutes of gazing aimlessly at the horizon, I’ve decided this is a rubbish job and that I’m going to write to you guys about what I’ve been up to instead. Anyway, if someone dies, that’s a story, right? Um, I am a journalist, you know.

This week we’ve caught shows by Bloc Party (returning to the city and showcase that made their name two years ago), Damon Albarn’s new outfit The Good, the Bad and the Queen (featuring a spectacularly suave Paul Simonon from the Clash on bass), the ever-ace Cold War Kids (who really are getting better every time we see them), and incendiary rock noir types The Horrors (who, um, threw a dustbin into the crowd). Yet if you associate SXSW with new, predominantly unsigned artists, then you’ll be wanting to know who the buzz bands of the festival were (and if you’re an A&R man, we’re basically just about to do your job for you).

And so, Pennsylvania-based quartet Illinois (that’s confusing, non?) were the buzz band of the festival, akin to an American take on the Beta Band, or Fountains of Wayne cribbing the Mercury Rev songbook. Then there was The Octopus Project, widely touted by local types as Austin’s best new band, in the spirit of scene legends the Butthole Surfers (their shows proved their experimental boy/girl/boy trio schlock to be an eccentric, exciting Theremin-heavy treat).

But my favourite new band of the week was New York’s Ra Ra Riot, a group we were already well aware of from the week we spent rockin’ and rollin’ at the CMJ fest in NYC last year. Finally, a chance to make sure we hadn’t just drunk too much in Brooklyn and merely invented a kick-ass band that sounded like Dexy’s Midnight Runners playing R.E.M. We didn’t, they’re real after all, and their show in Texas was truly astonishing. Can someone hurry up and sign them, please?

The Brits were out in force too — Lily Allen‘s appearance as part of NME.com’s shebang at Stubb’s BBQ (alongside The Bravery, The Automatic, and the Kirsten Dunst-snogging Johnny Borrell and his band Razorlight) saw her become the talk of the town, while my perennial faves Gallows played a whopping 11 shows, making friends all week long and filling in for poor old Enter Shikari when that band couldn’t get into the country due to visa problems. Then, later in the week, Brit rock legend Pete Townshend joined The Fratellis on stage at Stubb’s, while Americans retorted by uniting Rage Against the Machine man Tom Morello with Perry Farrell and Slash onstage at the Parish, and offering up the re-formed Stooges for the closing-night show at Stubb’s.

And my highlight? Well, I saw Buffalo Tom. My favourite band that aren’t Nirvana or Slayer. And were they good? Man, they were utterly amazing! In an ideal world they’d play every single night of the week, just for me, while I sat in front of them on a throne and barked out requests.

Um, there’s a train coming — I better scoot…

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