Coolness is the compass to navigate field of 1,980 acts at South by Southwest

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 20, 2010

AUSTIN -- One by one, the hands came thumping down on Matt Lamkin's plaid-clad shoulder.

"Good show, bro!" Pat-pat-pat.

"Amazing set!" Pat-pat-squeeze.

Lamkin had just led his band the Soft Pack through 30 minutes of brawny rock in the basement of a downtown wine bar in Austin, one of countless venues hosting concerts at this year's South by Southwest music festival. Bright-eyed fans were eager to reach out and touch the guy.

The annual spring festival used to be about discovery -- a five-night binge of gigs where fans, journalists and record-label executives scoured Austin's frenzied nightclubs in hopes of tripping over their favorite new band.

Not anymore. Now in its 24th year, SXSW has become the one place on Earth where ephemeral blog buzz turns corporeal -- a marathon of live music where doubting Thomases can poke their fingers into rock-and-roll's pulsating guts.

For so many artists here -- including the much-buzzed-about Soft Pack -- playing SXSW is no longer about finding an agent or scoring a record deal. Much of that business now happens exclusively online, where acts can build a devoted following in the digital realm without ever hitting the road.

But artists still flock to SXSW in droves. It's become a declaration of existence -- not to mention pop music's biggest, most boisterous party. "It's cool to see all the bands that you hear about," Lamkin said as his band mates hustled their gear out of the wine bar en route to a Thursday evening gig. "We just think of it as a fun way to see our friends."

And the whole gang is here. This year, more than 10,000 acts applied to perform at official SXSW showcases and a whopping 1,980 were accepted. Scores of others came to play unofficial showcases, too. And although SXSW officials don't release exact figures until the festival's Sunday finale, they confirmed that attendance exceeded last year's, despite the bleak economy.

SXSW may no longer be a place where stars are born, but some hoped it would be a place where they could be reborn. Courtney Love was scheduled to bring a new version of Hole to SXSW on Friday. Meanwhile, gearing up for the release of a comeback album, reunited rock dudes Stone Temple Pilots performed to elated fans at Austin Music Hall on Thursday night. Frontman Scott Weiland peacocked across the stage in a satin vest, black necktie and wrap-around shades while STP faithful sang along to post-grunge hits "Vaseline" and "Wicked Garden."

The band sounded fine but looked fantastic. Perhaps they should shelve that comeback disc and release a workout video instead. Stone Temple Pilates, anyone?

Doors guitarist Robby Krieger joined the Pilots later in the set, but by then sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison of the Dixie Chicks were premiering their new side project, Court Yard Hounds, a few blocks away. The two women have probably sold more albums than about 95 percent of this year's SXSW performers combined, but they unveiled their new songs to a modest crowd. The tunes were rich with resplendent vocal harmonies -- the kind that can come only from a lifetime of singing together. Forget about their platinum pedigree. Maguire and Robison had what so many newcomers at SXSW often lack: chops.

Sixth Street has historically been the nexus of activity for SXSW, but, in recent years, some of the festival's most talked-about performances have taken place during daylight hours -- and without SXSW's official blessing. This year, almost all of them are happening east of Interstate 35, and there were plenty of newcomers to be found.

On Thursday afternoon, a sprawling queue had formed outside the French Legation Museum, where British band the XX was scheduled to perform. The line had stalled, causing impatient fans to scale the stone walls around the museum's beautifully landscaped grounds.

Gotta get in, right? So over the wall we jumped, and tromped up the grassy hill to see the band Dum Dum Girls. The Los Angeles quartet swaddled classic girl-group harmonies in garage-rock fuzz while exuding a glamorous, sexy cool that felt refreshing compared with the hordes of hardscrabble rock troupes that had descended upon Austin.

After the Girls' set, the crowd quadrupled in density to catch a glimpse of the XX. One of the most hyped groups at this year's festival, the trio's songs felt both diaphanous and lovelorn -- imagine the Cure and Everything but the Girl evaporating into a blurry, curling mist. Each tune was incredibly delicate, immensely satisfying and ended with a louder, almost startling sound: ravenous applause.

It's tricky to pull off such fine-grained music in the churning sonic mess that is SXSW. Rambunctious comes across much easier. A young Cleveland band called Cloud Nothings proved it rather brilliantly on Wednesday night, performing sloppy, anthemic indie rock anthems in an ugly lot adjacent to an east-side restaurant called Cheer Up Charlie's.

"This is like a hipster internment camp," one woman remarked to her friends, but judging from the garbage cans overflowing with empty cans of Lone Star beer, everyone was having a pretty marvelous night. The show soon moved indoors to the restaurant where New York trio Vivian Girls and San Diego outfit Best Coast delivered raucous sets.

But it wasn't all good times on Wednesday evening, as news of rock icon Alex Chilton's death began to travel across Twitter. Though Chilton's legacy can be heard in almost any band at SXSW trying to coax a melody out of a distorted guitar, many festival-goers were mourning the fact that they wouldn't be able to see the man himself. Chilton's genre-defining rock band Big Star was scheduled to perform here Saturday. Now, there will be a tribute concert with the surviving members of Big Star performing the same set they had been planning with Chilton -- only with a slew of surprise guest vocalists in his stead.

There was plenty of chatter about Chilton's passing in Austin's swarming streets Wednesday night, but not much from the city's stages. Spoon, the Austin-born rock troupe whose punchy, shimmering guitars feel like a direct echo of Big Star, performed an elegant set at Stubb's Bar-B-Q.

But singer Britt Daniel never mentioned Chilton directly. Instead, his band gave a Freon-cool performance that kicked off the group's U.S. tour -- (it hits Washington's 9:30 club on Monday and Tuesday). And although the gig was regarded as one of SXSW's marquee events, by the end of Spoon's set, the crowd had thinned considerably.

Often at SXSW, the smaller the venue, the better -- as evidenced by Colombian group Choc Quib Town, which performed at the tiny bar Momo's in the wee hours of Friday morning. With buoyant beats and playful melodies, the musicians posited themselves as the Fugees of Latin pop -- or perhaps the heir apparent to Puerto Rican genre-mashers Calle 13. The trio had summoned less than 50 people onto the dance floor, but almost all of them were throwing their limbs around with abandon.

"This is world music," vocalist Tostao declared from the stage after stomping through the band's splashy, irresistible single "El Bombo." At SXSW, the world of music can feel bigger than ever. And at that moment, we were all dancing at the center of it.

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