There are a handful of eternal verities pertaining to Austin, Texas's South by Southwest music fest: You will inevitably miss several great performances (a corollary: You will always feel a gnawing worry that somewhere else, something better is happening); rock prevails, while hiphop and electronica remain the overlooked stepchildren; you will spend a large chunk of time waiting in lines and overhearing inane conversations that make you envy the deaf; you must always keep an eye on the pavement, lest you step in someone's vomit; and each attendee's experience will be unique, rendering suspect any sort of generalizations (except this one).
One of the starkest cognitive disconnects of SXSW is the trade show's emphasis on bleeding-edge technology to disseminate and produce music and the actual music that's displayed during the festival. Most of the trade-show booths boasted the latest in digital technology to help musicians create and promote their art. In this light, it was positively quaint and touching to see a rep from Dean Markley guitar strings forlornly staring as nobody visited his booth during the hours I wandered around the exhibition hall. Yet in Austin's live venues at least 95 percent of the groups deploy the same guitar/bass/drums/vocals setup that's dominated rock since Chuck Berry first plugged in, and most of said groups' music is simply mimicking tropes established in the '60s/'70s/'80s. Technological advances are far outstripping creative innovation. Musicians! Step up your game!
Stepping off my soapbox, I'll get down to the important business of making you regret you didn't attend SXSW. Or not.
My agenda for this SXSW was not to catch every buzz band with Pitchfork's squeal of approval (though I did see Art Brut, Love Is All, and Serena Maneesh) or to ogle hoary rock veterans (Neil Young, Ray Davies, Pretenders), as rewarding as that might've been. I had much more ambitious goals: to catch unheralded acts that didn't fit the industry hype machine's popular paradigms (and to avoid getting hangovers, at which I succeeded).
Wednesday's highlight was Serena Maneesh's set at a packed Emo's. Sounding like My Bloody Valentine's raunchier offspring come to fruition 15 years after Loveless, SM create blurrily chaotic rock imbued with cyclonic tribal power and sexy urgency. In a sparsely populated Room 710, GoGoGoAirheart ground out flinty, dubby post-punk à la Gang of Four and Liquid Liquid. GGGA beat LCD Soundsystem and the Rapture to the post-punk-funk revival punch by about five years, but nobody seems to care and they remain on the margins.
On Thursday, Seattle's Velella Velella filled the Velvet Spade's cozy, dark confines with upful tropical funk (yay for vibes, flute, woodblocks, and clavinet). Hefty Records' Eliot Lipp offered clipped boom-bap at Elysium, coming on like Dabrye in a more conventional mode, but he triggered no energy from the audience. By contrast, Mush Records' hiphop mavericks stirred the masses at Zero Degrees. Before a 98-percent white crowd, Thavius Beck brought the rough, rugged, and weird El-P/Cannibal Ox steez while Caural and Daedelus injected more whimsical, surreal elements into their instrumentals, making hiphop sound genuinely alien. But the night's highlight occurred at Central Presbyterian Church, where Table of the Elements' aging white gents raised a holy clamor with standup basses (Arnold Dreyblatt Ensemble), guitars and bass (Jonathan Kane's February), and yet more guitars (Rhys Chatham). ADE conjured some of the most luxurious drones ever sawed on catgut, producing a grandiloquent clangor. Kane & Co. loosed tonal avalanches of militarily precise, motorik blues rock. Chatham's guitar army created the most riveting monotonous music ever, harnessing enough power to light Austin for a week.
Friday was all about Audion (Matthew Dear), the sole provider of minimal techno at SXSW. His suggestively pumping beats, undulating bass lines, and sonorous pings and bleeps generated a cosmopolitan sensuality absent from any other artist's performance here. Spank Rock lived up to their considerable hype with Baltimore club music punching up their next-level hiphop/mashup flavor, enhanced by the speaker-climbing, alpha-geek presence of MC Naeem Juwan. Spank Rock's blow-up is imminent.
Saturday brought yet more French hiphop with Birdy Nam Nam's rampantly funky and intricately arranged turntablism. Zombi swirled and throbbed ominously like Tangerine Dream jamming with Italian horror-flick soundtrackers Goblin. The Juan Maclean brought the night to a thunderous end with steamrolling android disco-funk festooned with rococo theremin flourishes, purposeful cowbells, and analog synths to die for.
Conclusion: SXSW would've been much more enjoyable if I had no sense of musical history.