This year’s models: South By Southwest debuts new flavors

By Mark Guarino

Natural selection engines the recording industry and the annual cycle begins every March in Austin, Tex. That’s when bands and labels flock to the South By Southwest Music Conference to showcase over five nights with hopes that the buzz generated will last through December.

The 19th annual conference wrapped Sunday and featured over 1,300 bands, rappers, and singer-songwriters playing before new audiences as well as old school rock stars (Billy Idol, Elvis Costello, the New York Dolls) vying for late career respect.

The key veteran this year was Robert Plant. He kicked off the conference with a keynote address Wednesday, pumping a forthcoming album and sharing stories from his days as the golden god in Led Zeppelin. He recounted his childhood worship of Elvis Presley and the brief time Led Zeppelin spent in the King’s Las Vegas court. “He knew that he was locked into this self-parody,” Plant said. “He was so, so, so cool. He wasn’t supposed to be cool.”

Plant admitted Led Zeppelin was prone to plagiarizing the blues heroes they worshiped, including Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters who both filed lawsuits against the band for copyright infringements. He said even the songs by those icons aren’t immune to evolution. “‘Spoonful’ by (Howlin’) Wolf can go back to Charlie Patton. So you have all this stuff that has gone back, back, back in time There is no end to plagiarism, really,” he said.

Radio prevented Zeppelin from sounding fresh, especially with its incessant rotation of the band’s staple “Stairway to Heaven,” the most played song of all time. Plant said he is sympathetic. He once contributed to a Portland radio station’s pledge drive after he heard them promise never to play the song again. “It’s not that I don’t like it. It’s just that I’ve heard it before,” he said.

The majority of bands showcasing at South By Southwest arrived with the intention of simply being heard. As in previous years, a select few acts already had the hype machine churning before they even arrived, which accounted for the long lines streaming outside clubs for shows by British rapper M.I.A., Nashville teenagers Be Your Own Pet, San Diego glam rockers Louis XIV, Scotland’s Dogs Die in Hot Cars, London rock duo the Kills and UK rock bands the Kaiser Chiefs and Bloc Party. If the buzz lasts throughout the year, they’ll all enjoy the careers of last year’s South By Southwest buzz bands Franz Ferdinand, the Killers and others who went from anonymity to commanding mainstream attention.

The most assured of star status later this year is M.I.A. At her late night set at the Elysium Thursday, she followed in the footsteps of hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa by matching catchy hooks with political venom. The nine-song show set the party level high, but her playfulness and her music’s sophisticated textures, from Brazilian to reggae, gave wider accessibility to her rebel postures.

Rock bands dominated the conference and they arrived in every configuration imaginable. Two of the most compelling were Wolfmother, from Sydney, and the Kills, from London. Wolfmother demonstrated they were far greater than the tiny stage they were booked to play at Club Deville Saturday. The Australian trio created a torrent of sound reminiscent of the guitar psychedelics of the Jimi Hendrix Experience and the gutter blues of the White Stripes. Although some songs ended swallowed up in prog rock dementia, most were full tilt and howling, an immediate rock experience intended to mess with your mind.

As a male-female duo, the Kills were all about dynamics. The raw beauty of their processed drum beats and industrial guitar noise was thrilling to witness at Antone’s Friday, but the energy was pushed higher by the interplay between guitarist Jamie Hince and his partner-singer Allison Mosshart that became an interchange suggesting sexual intimacy and spontaneous violence. However preconceived their stage show was, the Kills artfully wielded aggression like a tool to both provoke a reaction and also keep all eyes focused on the stage every second of their set.

Other bands that gave notable performances included By Divine Right, from Toronto, that, at Exodus Thursday, performed catchy, tightly-wound pop reminiscent of the Kinks. The Amsterdam duo zZz (humorously not to be confused with the new Chicago band ZZZZ that also played the conference) abandoned guitars entirely for a set at the Flamingo Cantina Thursday where drums and organ battled as if in a death match. Their brief set was all gonzo boogie blues straight from a spy movie soundtrack, ending in a flood of noise and the organ player balancing atop his instrument. Dogs Die in Hot Cars, from Glasgow, was a pop band that made dancing along a priority. Their set at Buffalo Billiards Friday had the sweet jerky hooks of vintage XTC but set inside the world rhythms of the Clash.

The most punk moment of the weekend came, not from a band, but from a single performer. Scott H. Biram, from Austin, looked like a folkie at Yard Dog Friday, sitting in his chair and positioned to sing into a vintage microphone. Except when he played, he was a frenzied one-man metal machine, creating noise with his fretboard, stomping foot and hellhound wails that together battled in constant motion. With a recent album out on Chicago’s Bloodshot label, Biram combined spiritual hollers with metal doom in a brief set that left anyone witnessing it up close winded and disturbed.

South By Southwest was also a place where bands could regroup to write a new chapter. That was the case with Son Volt, the band from central Illinois that disbanded seven years ago, launching a solo career for leader Jay Farrar. Farrar is still technically solo as the renewed Son Volt is comprised of himself and three new players entirely. He debuted the lineup at Emo’s Saturday, headlining after sets by Aimee Mann and the Wallflowers. The set had its glitches as the new players are obviously still learning their parts, but Farrar’s rock steady voice and resilient new tunes proved he remains one of the touchstones of American roots music.

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