In an unexpected twist that caught many jaded music bizzers off guard, the 15th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, held March 14-18 in Austin, was — for the first time in recent memory — mostly about the music. Imagine! The mainstream marketplace’s current obsession with dumbed down fare has helped free the more serious and indie minded festival from the burden of commercial expectations (or at least from some of the Next Big Thing major label events of the last few years), leaving a diverse and promising lineup of more than 900 primarily obscure artists. ”The festival has kind of returned to its roots, showcasing a lot of unsigned bands instead of up and coming signed acts,” says Columbia Records Senior VP of A&R Tim Devine. ”We looked at a lot of new acts this year, and we found a few surprises.”
Although there were semi big names in town (the Black Crowes and the Cult performed, while two Hanson brothers were spotted at the breakfast mecca Las Manitas), most of the hottest acts were hardly gossip column fare. Canadian power poppers the New Pornographers capped off a muy bueno performance at rock club La Zona Rosa with an unbilled appearance from festival keynote speaker Ray Davies, who joined them on stage for a vintage Kinks tune. The night before, Colombian rock en español perennials Aterciopelados brought a bit of Bogotá to the Living Room, attracting an enthusiastic crowd that included David Byrne (who played a well received set two days later). ”They started as a punk band, but they’ve gotten a lot more sophisticated,” says Byrne. ”I went because I knew I’d have a good time.” Byrne was also impressed by bizarre Japanese collective Noahlewis’ Mahlon Taits. ”Everyone said, ‘This is the strangest thing I’ve ever seen,’ and it was,” says Byrne. ”They wore tuxedos and kind of played jug band music, but super slow. It was totally beautiful.”
Also making noise was the Detroit psychobilly duo the White Stripes, who wowed a packed house at the club Room 710. ”They rocked,” says Ryan Adams, whose own blistering, Replacements style gig at the Austin Music Hall was another highlight. ”The drummer may be the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen. They were really, really, really great.” Other bright spots included Mark Eitzel’s short set in a Doubletree hotel room, French popsters Tahiti 80’s rocking show at Waterloo Brewing Company, the long defunct Soft Boys’ reunion at the Austin Music Hall, and Oranger drummer Jim Lindsay’s Keith Moon impersonation during his group’s afternoon gig at Fat Tuesdays.
But perhaps the biggest buzz emanated from New Yorkers the Strokes, an attitudinal punk band inspired by Television, Lou Reed, and Sonic Youth, whose performance at Iron Cactus teemed with A&R folks (others attracting label interest included unknowns Schatzi and Travisty Theory). What’s it like to play for seen it all execs? ”They’re not really receptive, but it doesn’t matter,” says Strokes bassist Nikolai Fraiture. ”We didn’t come here to get signed. We came to play and have a good time. It was really cool.” And it was, even for those of us not at the center of a bidding war.