Musical genres from ear to ear

Pop: For a few days in March, Austin, Texas, is just chockablock with music groups as South By Southwest comes to town.

March 18, 2002|By Chuck Young | Chuck Young,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

AUSTIN, Texas - The minute you step off the plane here during the South By Southwest music conference and festival, you hear a five-piece band in western attire playing a catchy honky-tonk number. The music swells as you stroll past the Austin City Limits mini-museum on the concourse, and it carries you past the security checkpoint, fading slightly when you descend a floor to get your luggage.

Mere hours later, having never been more than a few hundred yards from another band, you're in a legendary nightclub called Antone's, where the ghost of former regular Stevie Ray Vaughan is an almost palpable presence. You're listening to the Drive-By Truckers, fresh off a four-star Rolling Stone review of their Southern Rock Opera, channel Lynyrd Skynyrd and 1970s-1980s arena rock into a three-guitar attack that transports you from your troubles and reminds you how much music can and does mean to its players and listeners.

If you've ever wished your life had a soundtrack, you've come to the right place.

South By Southwest - SXSW for short - is one of the music industry's largest annual conventions and it's now in its 16th year. Hundreds of entertainment insiders come to Austin for five days each March to schmooze, attend panel discussions and lectures on topics from hearing loss to e-commerce to performance anxiety. A touch of celebrity annually infuses the potentially dry agenda; this year, Robbie Robertson of the Band gave a keynote address describing his myriad musical journeys and Courtney Love of Hole spoke about her tortured relationship with the industry.

But SXSW's biggest draw is a pop music lover's dream: nearly 1,000 artists and groups from all over the country - and others from as far away as Oslo and Melbourne - speed through town in a rapid-fire musical meat market that runs from Wednesday to Sunday. The Huntingtons, a band from Baltimore, were there this year. Industry insiders and music fans can scout tons of talent in a tight time period, and most bands play hard, hoping their Big Break is somewhere out in the smoky darkness.

By limiting bands to 45-minute sets and managing the schedule strictly, SXSW organizers have created an efficient place to sample either a wide variety of music or to mine a deep vein of a single genre. If German music turns out not to be your stein of beer, you're only a short walk or a cheap cab ride from electronica, hip-hop, alt-country or even Mexican metal rap.

The soundtrack continues in the daylight hours, when many of the artists play private parties, or on a stage in the SXSW Trade Show at the Austin Convention Center, or in record stores and restaurants around town, further multiplying chances for exposure. If you're not hearing live music at any given time, it's probably because you're taking a breather.

SXSW may sound like nirvana (if not always like Nirvana), and in many ways it is. But it's not perfect. For six of the last seven years, Austin venues have shrunk in size and number as crowds have swelled. This has exacerbated a longstanding tension between the mostly out-of-town industry conference participants, who pay hundreds of dollars for badges that provide preferred admission to all shows, and locals, who are invited to buy reasonably priced ($80) wristbands that guarantee admission to nothing.

The caste system is most conspicuous at the shows with great buzz, like this year's sets by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Clinic, and the X-ecutioners; badge-wearers generally breeze in while wristband wearers slump against walls, hoping for a break.

As a result, un-badged fans often commit early to a venue where a favored act is playing. Sometimes this yields a surprise discovery among the preceding acts, but as often as not it means enduring one or more bands you'd never cross the street to hear, such as the mopey Hazeltines, described by a pal of mine as "Joni Mitchell wannabe soccer mom rock."

That said, this year held plenty of highlights, beginning with the two revitalizing Drive-By Truckers shows. Then there was Nashville band Bare Jr. After punishing a large outdoor crowd with loud, melodic, countrified rock for 40 minutes, they wrapped up with what became a 2002 leitmotif: the inspired cover.

They started by deconstructing the Cars' 1980s synth-pop hit "My Best Friend's Girl," then you began noticing the chords from the Who's "Baba O'Reilly" lurking in the chorus - and then the guitarists windmilled like Pete Townshend as they delivered one chestnut seamlessly within the other, grinning with subversive glee.

In a similar vein, the Yayhoos, an alt-country band fronted by ex-Georgia Satellite Dan Baird, offered a stripped-down version of ABBA's "Dancing Queen" that should convince any remaining doubters of the song's greatness. Likewise, an Austin band called Grand Champeen applied its power-pop chops to breathe new life into Mott The Hoople's "All The Young Dudes."

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