South By Southwest Austin, TX - March 15 to 19, 2005

South By Southwest Austin, TX - March 15 to 19, 2005
By Joshua Ostroff, Susan Krepart, Jill Wilson Breakestra w/ Dakah Hip-Hop Orchestra This was a gift for anyone who has ever complained about the sparseness of the typical two turntables and a microphone set-up. Two live hip-hop outfits from L.A. joined forces on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Stubb's outdoor amphitheatre, which was likely the only place that could hold this immense troupe. The tuxedo-clad maestro conducted his 60 or so players with aplomb while four singers and five rappers threw down their own compositions as well as a Gangstarr medley and some Roots covers. When people say "all music is hip-hop," this is what they mean. JO Clem Snide Clem Snide's warm and fuzzy afternoon show was a lovely complement to the first warm day of an unseasonably chilly SXSW. Baseball cap-clad singer Eef Barzelay's trademark laconic whine was in fine form, and multi-instrumentalist Jason Glasser showed off his prowess on both the euphonium and the banjo, even attacking the latter with his teeth. In honour of being in Austin, the New York group pulled out one of their earliest tracks, "Yip/Jump Music" from You Were A Diamond, which was written as an homage to Texas singer-songwriter Daniel Johnston. JW Crooked Fingers Singer-songwriter Eric Bachmann pulled out all the stops for his Parish showcase, playing with a band that included a back-up singer/flautist and trumpet player. The full instrumentation gave the necessary richness to the Spanish-inflected tracks from his latest album, Dignity and Shame. As an added attraction for fans of Bachmann's former band, the Archers of Loaf, ex-Archers bassist Matt Gentling was an antic presence at stage left, rocking back and forth on the balls of his feet or bowing a stand-up bass. JW The Diamond Smugglers While most people rip SXSW off like a band-aid and leave by Sunday afternoon, there are the die-hards who need one more Emo's filled night before they call it one. To describe Austin's Diamond Smugglers as a Neil Diamond tribute almost cheapens what they do, though that is certainly what it is. They play every conceivable Neil Diamond hit, with back-up singers who go through varying degrees of undress and a front-man who is the real Neil deal. The gimmick is never put before the music, and for a festival that is no stranger to putting posturing before spectacle, these guys could teach a class on how to tear shit up. The secret seems to be getting out, as the room had nearly three times as many people as the last couple of years, including one Garry Shandling. SK The Duhks While Winnipeg outfit the Duhks already penned their deal with reputable American roots label Sugar Hill, they sealed it at their sophomore SXSW appearance. What a difference a year makes. During their opening slot on a bill packed with iconic roots artists, the Duhks' crowd was attentive and enthusiastic early into the set, which demonstrated their seamless mishmash of Cajun, Acadian, funk, gospel and bluegrass, all carried by Jessica Havey's vocals and atypical (for the roots scene) appearance. Fiddler Tania Elizabeth showed she is no slouch either, adding wonderfully warm harmonies when resting her arms. SK The Frames At an afternoon showcase at Emo's, Dublin group the Frames didn't let their self-confessed hangovers get in the way, putting on a set that veered from the delicate lilt of "Lay Me Down" to the emotionally wrenching bombast of "Fake," with front-man Glen Hansard flailing wildly as violinist Colm MacConlomaire sawed away madly. During an acoustic set at the Convention Centre the next day, the band turned in a gorgeous, heartfelt cover of Van Morrison's "Into the Mystic" and paid beautiful homage to troubled but revered Austin songwriter Daniel Johnston. JW French Kicks Perhaps it was the bad sound that prevented the plucky melodies that drive the French Kicks' boppy rock from reaching the back of the room. The packed venue either didn't seem to notice or didn't care, as they crammed the front of the room (perhaps their only option if they wanted to catch the charm of crowd faves like "Wrong Side"). The set leaned heavily on material from their new CD but dusted off some old favourites as well. SK Goldie Lookin' Chain Purporting to be the Welsh Wu-Tang Clan, Goldie Lookin' Chain are eight white "rappers" in awesome old-school track suits and preposterously fake bling specialising in an exuberant, chaotic and often downright hilarious comedy-rap shtick. Bouncing about the courtyard of a BBQ restaurant to '80s beats, they gave away free GLC rolling papers while trading rhymes and break dance moves on such novelty tracks as "Your Mother's Got a Penis" and their UK top-five hit "Guns Don't Kill People, Rappers Do." Of course, if they weren't from Wales, their on-point parody probably wouldn't be so funny. JO Harvey Danger Led by curly-haired Jack Osborne look-alike Sean Nelson, who has the all-embracing stage presence of a Vegas legend, this sorely underappreciated Seattle band showed off its softer piano pop side in songs from its upcoming album. The group also performed some, but not enough, of the spiky, hyper-literate, melodic songs from its out-of-print back catalogue, including "Sad Sweetheart of the Rodeo" and a vigorous, hiccupping version of "Meetings With Remarkable Men." JW M.I.A. Unable to get into her night-time showcase, which had line-ups four hours before her set time, I weaselled into a private party where Maya Arulpragasm delivered a dynamite set that withstood a few train wrecks from her DJ/boyfriend Diplo and got the industry crowd dancing and singing along to an album that hadn't even been released yet. Though "Amazon" came off strongest, M.I.A. didn't have a single weak song in her repertoire and her fast-improving live skills, widely (and unfairly) dissed at a Toronto gig the month before, made clear that her hype is to be believed. JO Magnolia Electric Co. There's no disputing the enthusiasm of former Songs: Ohia singer Jason Molina and his motley - and hairy - band of Magnolia men. Enthusiasm isn't everything, however, and the band got a tad carried away with the joys of guitar wankery - at least one-third of every song was dedicated to the fancy fretwork of the Sammy Hagar-esque lead guitarist. Molina's quavering voice is a perfect fit with the fragile meanderings of Songs: Ohia but it sounds oddly out of place next to wailing solos. JW Stephen Malkmus Look, I know dude was in Pavement and everything but, as Malkmus's impending Face the Truth warns, a cool pedigree does not guarantee that one's cool can persist indefinitely. Malkmus has apparently come to the end of his creative rope, or maybe he just took the old slacker tag to heart and doesn't care anymore, because his set seemed to consist of the same bland song repeated ad nauseam with no enthusiasm from the stage and even less from the audience. Though not necessarily the worst thing I saw all week, Malkmus handily claims most disappointing. JO Mark Mallman The promise of free beer can lead even the most discerning of SXSWers to showcases unplanned. Though the (free) beer didn't pan out, the happy accident of discovering Mark Mallman sure did. Whether riding his keyboard like an untamed pony and lassoing a fan with his mic chord or exuding the sheer passion and energy that belied what was actually on stage (it was just him and former Willy Wisely Trio drummer Peter Anderson), Mallman delivered the wild'n'crazy goods. Sounding at times like what would happen if Elton John penned a lost track for Hedwig and the Angry Inch, "Mr. Serious" (as he calls himself, tongue obviously in cheek) has all the workings of next year's SXSW buzz band. SK Mood Ruff The night after this Winnipeg hip-hop trio played to a rapt audience at the Manitoba/NXNE BBQ, they played to a less packed house as part of an international hip-hop showcase. Set highlights included "Rocketship," from the band's new I Do My Own Stunts. As always, Odario's MCing was smooth, ICQURI kept the funky beats going and Spitz's delivered with an arena-size-crowd enthusiasm. SK New York Dolls "This is like the Vanity Fair party for whatever this thing is," mocked New York Doll David Johansen, rocking a midriff shirt, a skeletal Iggy Pop physique and a still-strong voice while headlining the invite-only Spin magazine BBQ. Johansen and Syl Sylvain ("he tunes now") may be the sole survivors from the "reunited" proto-punk act, but songs like "Looking for a Kiss" and "Personality Crisis" held up amazingly well, and when they dedicated a song to the late Johnny Thunders, the performance did no disservice to their friend's memory. JO No Luck Club Van City's finest turntable trio travelled all the way to Texas to play to a mostly empty room, which was a damn shame since hip-hop-starved festival-goers missed one of the finest performances of the entire week. With one Club member playing a pair of laptops and the other two cutting and scratching their vinyl collection to pieces, NLC eschewed their sample-filled recorded work for a demonstration of turntable virtuosity, even dropping "Staring At The Sun" into the mix for a little added ecstasy. JO Novillero You know you're in Texas when new fans of Winnipeg band Novillero pronounce the moniker's double Ls as a Y, giving it an unexpected Tex-Mex flair. Unfortunately, the band's early set time meant not enough people saw its tight, bright Kinks-influenced set full of sparkling melodies and sturdy rhythms. The band's affection for the '60s was a nice break from constant stream of new wave revivalists who seemed to define "retro" at SXSW. Even nicer was the way they weren't content merely to ape the styles of the era but redefined them and gave them a fresh, modern gloss. JW Smoosh Kids grow up so fast today, especially when they're pre-teens with an album already on shelves and a list of opening slots for such bands as Death Cab for Cutie, Sleater-Kinney and Pearl Jam. As beloved by Vice as they are by Tiger Beat, the Seattle-born Smoosh sisters may seem like a gimmick but their Luscious Jackson-esque indie pop is no joke. Eleven-year-old drummer Chloe hits the skins better than Meg White and the just-turned-13 singer/keyboardist Aysa is so good - balancing unintentional cool with precocious emotion - you can't wait to see what she'll write once the angst kicks in. JO Trachtenberg Family Slideshow Players This year marked 12-year-old drummer Rachel Trachtenberg's fifth SXSW showcase playing in her family's band - no small feat when you do the math. Sharing the stage with her mother, father and the slideshows that accompany their quirky music, it seemed as if Rachel may be realising that the freakish charm of her father, while delighting crowds, may make it awkward for her to meet boys, and it showed in her stony face the entire set. The whimsical pairing of irreverent play-by-play lyrics set to slides of deceased anonymous people is as always entertaining to watch, even when dampened by poor sightlines. SK The Wailin' Jennys The smallish venue proved a perfect size for the Jennys' brand of intimate harmony-driven folk. The room was jam packed, and though much of the audience was still lined up in vain outside, they got to enjoy the set thanks to some open front windows. If there were any doubts about how new member Annabelle Chvostek would fit in, they were put to rest this night. Her song, "Swallow," plays so beautifully live, as do the pretty harmonies of the Jennys' existing catalogue. Several camera people (including one from the CBC) were jockeying for position while the girls were setting up, as was much of the crowd, almost like they knew the group would win a Juno some two weeks later. SK Willard Grant Conspiracy Robert Fisher is an unlikely front-man when you finally see Willard Grant Conspiracy live. The man is of considerable stature - he sat in a chair for the entire performance - and it almost makes his tales of unrequited love more poignant. This night, he did all he could to apologise for the sound problems - problems that had the band go on late, causing annoying schedule conflicts. All was soon forgotten in the swoopy mix of deep vocals and lush violin for tracks like "Fare Thee Well" and a stirring, if not macabre, lullaby, "Days Past and Gone." SK The Wrens The New Jersey quartet's Parish set started off deceptively gently, with bassist Daniel Whelan sitting at the piano and singing, while guitarist/vocalist Charles Bissell created blissful noises. The rest of the band gradually joined in as they launched into a radically changed-up version of the Meadowland's "This Boy is Exhausted," proving themselves to be anything but. The truly goose bump-inducing performance by these "elder statesmen" saw them jumping about like rockers half their age, especially Whelan, whose violent pogoing and wild microphone shenanigans were especially invigorating. JW