Austin's most electrifying music conference in years. A horde of hopefuls headed to Texas for South by Southwest

By Evan Serpick and Brian M. Raftery
Updated March 28, 2003 at 05:00 AM EST
Credit: Iron and Wine: Rahav/

It says something about the state of the music biz that the most hyped show at this year’s South by Southwest music conference — the industry’s premier event for scouting new talent — featured vet Britpoppers Blur, whose popularity peaked around 1996. No rookies garnered the preconvention buzz that Norah Jones and the Strokes did in the past, as skittish major labels reined in their promo efforts and waited for the next big thing to emerge on its own. That left the door open for talented newcomers, making this year’s convention, held March 12-16 in Austin, one of the most stimulating and varied in years.

”As I talk to other A&R people at this year’s South by Southwest, the overriding theme is that there’s more good music here than ever,” says Capitol A&R exec Ron Lafitte during one of the week’s forums, which included a key-note address by producer Daniel Lanois (U2). ”As the business starts to suffer, it’s all about music again.”

And while Blur was more ho-hum than woo-hoo, there were lots of smaller acts to fill the void. The lo-fi Iron & Wine had even the booziest biz types in awe, though the quiet was shattered when Canada’s frenetic, keyboard-fronted Hot Hot Heat took the stage.

Equally crowd-kindling were sets by the D4 and the Datsuns, two rocking collectives from down South — New Zealand. ”There’s nothing like this anywhere in the world,” D4 frontman Jimmy Christmas says of SXSW. After selling their worldly possessions to play 2002’s festival, the band netted a contract with Hollywood Records and returned this year at the start of a five-week tour. ”It’s just a constant stream of great music.”

The D4 were matched in power-chord prowess by Georgia’s Drive-By Truckers, whose Skynyrd-style riffs inspired down-home devil signs, and Detroit’s Paybacks, with laminate-curling vocals from Wendy Case. With more than 1,100 acts, SXSW made good use of the city’s clubs: Garage revivalists like Denmark’s the Rave-onettes and New York City’s the Mooney Suzuki packed the tiny Venue, while England’s the Coral busked on a street corner before a gig at Stubb’s BBQ.

As usual, hip-hop and dance pickings were slim, but a capacity backpacked crowd thrilled to a show with fierce female MC Jean Grae, avant-rapper Beans (ex-Anti-Pop Consortium), and Def Jux’s El-P and Aesop Rock. Electronica fans turned out to see Athens, Ga.’s I Am the World Trade Center, whose Dan Gellar heads indie label Kindercore. Gellar says his acts are getting more attention as the industry searches for new sounds.

”We’re just doing what we always do,” he says. ”Bad times make good bands come to the surface and give people like us a chance to shake things up.”