Run, Lassie! Go tell the others that rock-and-roll is still alive in Texas!
Since 1987, thousands upon thousands of fans have flocked to South By Southwest each March in hopes of discovering their favorite new bands. Now in its 26th year, the annual music festival has metastasized into a branding circus where corporations scramble to attach themselves to the cred of artists who already have established their cool online. This year, the festival is hosting a few superstars who have presumably flown to Texas with similar intentions — Jay-Z, Bruce Springsteen and Lil Wayne among them.
But through rosier-colored Wayfarers, SXSW is still the best place on Earth to renew your vows with rock-and-roll. You just have to know where to look. Trailer Space and Beerland, a grimy downtown club, have booked scores of high-energy, little-known rock bands from all across the country, none of which seem to have trekked to Austin for their big break.
“It’s just like a vacation,” says Liz Liles, drummer of Sacramento foursome G. Green. “There’s no point of trying to get famous from it anymore.” Frontman Andrew Henderson butts in, saying he came to SXSW “to party, to have fun, to play with cool bands, to eat barbecue and regret it.”
And that slouching sense of anti-ambition feels completely detached from most 21st-century major-label rock music — the chest-puffing Shinedowns and Chevelles that have made so many fans feel as if the genre is doornail dead.
But SXSW reinforces the idea that vital rock-and-roll is still with us, even if it has regressed to its murky, primordial state. The most exciting rock bands gathered here in Texas recall the golden age of garage rock captured on “Nuggets,” the influential compilation album of ’60s psychedelia assembled in 1972 by Elektra Records founder Jac Holzman and guitarist Lenny Kaye. Four decades later, these bands are delivering a similar cocktail of mischief, desperation and fun. They embody a sort of rock-and-roll invincibility — the invincibility of cockroaches.
On an early Wednesday afternoon at Beerland, G. Green’s endearing guitar scuzz inspires golf clapping from an audience of 14 who seem to be pacing themselves for the noisy hours ahead. Next up is Cruddy, a punky three-piece outfit from Austin whose fast, claustrophobic music gives the impression of a band heroically attempting to squeeze too much song into too little time. Later, Puffy Areolas frontman Damon Sturdivant closes the Ohio band’s squalling, psychedelic set by lodging his guitar into the ceiling while Indiana’s Apache Dropout set up out on the Beerland patio and howl into the cosmos, stopping a few dudes biking down Red River Street in their tire tracks.