SXSW: Lasting impressions in a down climate*
As much as reporters sought to apply a theme to this year's South by Southwest, the musicians and industry reps in Austin, Texas, for the four-day music extravaganza just weren't making it easy. The economic realities of 2009 were a relatively obvious topic, but life for the many of the artists in Texas this week -- a record-setting 1,900 of them this year -- has never exactly been easy.
"During hard times, I didn't have much education or stuff like that to rely on," said the New York Dolls' Sylvain Sylvain, reminding attendees at one of SXSW's numerous panels that artists are comfortable with recession-time living even in flush decades. "I wanted to take a job where I could still do my performances, or if I got drunk the night before, I wouldn't get fired."
There's always been a class system among artists -- a gap between the superstars who pack arenas and the unknowns who play somewhere between five and 10 mini-sets over the course of SXSW. Norwegian dance-pop act the Casio Kids played the last of its 10 shows Saturday afternoon, and cow-punk newcomers Those Darlins began their SXSW week before the fest even started with a pre-party gig on Tuesday night. Their manifesto in these difficult times: "Slut it up."
Yet there's little time for play to make it in the music biz in 2009. SXSW wrapped Saturday night with an explosive performance from Kanye West (at a non-SXSW show), but he was here not to hype his "808s & Heartbreak," but to use his power to get some ink for the up-and-coming artists he's championing, most notably the thoughtful Kid Cudi. And the man worked it, spending two hours as one of the world's most powerful pitchmen.
Portia Sabin, head of the Kill Rock Stars label, told a roomful of optimistic artists that they had better be playing at least 90 live shows per year -- and not all in their home state -- if they wanted a deal. "A lot of people in bands are hobbyists," she said. "They want to play in a band and play once a month in their local club."
The hustling doesn't end when the deal is signed, either. NBC Universal's VP of music creative services Alicen Schneider enjoyed a private concert from one America's most recognizable stars before coming to SXSW: Dave Matthews. She said she was hearing the artist's new songs before his record label. Album sales have been in decline for years, but such a tidbit made it clear that they are no longer an artist's first priority.
If one isn't selling 50,000 albums or more, former Touch & Go Records staffer Howard Greynolds said, getting the album in any major stores isn't going to be easy. Expect to make more sacrifices, said L.A.-based singer-songwriter Mandi Perkins. "You give up meeting Tori Amos last night because you have to play five shows today," she said.
Below is a look at some of the artists who made a lasting impression on me at this year's SXSW, some of whom were covered on this blog over the last four days.
Kanye West. Putting such a superstar on this list is a bit silly, considering he needs no more love from the press. But there's no denying that the live takes on songs from his "808s & Heartbreak" were riveting stuff. West transformed the songs from thoughtfully moody, snyth-heavy orchestrations into more positive statements. "Love Lockdown" became a crowd singalong, turning from a song of desperation to a tale of survival. West didn't need any electronically modified vocal effects here, instead pulling from the frantically powerful rhythm.
Those Darlins. There's plenty of silliness here -- a desire to eat some fried chicken is enough to fuel some guitar-driven rage -- but Those Darlins' rock 'n' country works, as whenever the girls get sloppy, they deliver a swoon-worthy harmony or a pint-raising chorus. "Wild One" is the group at the top of its game, turning its nonchalant swing into a should-be crowd sing-along.
St. Vincent. Singer-songwriter Annie Clark debuted songs from her forthcoming album "Actor," and her chamber-pop arrangements arrived like material from a long lost Disney film -- albeit one a bit twisted. A melody may be laid out by a flute, but Clark twists and distorts each of her lullabies -- a flash of guitar noise will suddenly appear, or the rhythm will momentarily feel out of step.
Titus Andronicus. "Innovation, I leave to smarter men," spat out singer Patrick Stickles with a nicotine-scarred voice, staying one step ahead of the frenzied, spastic and completely infectious two-minute tunes. Full of fade-outs, false starts, sarcastic lyrics and glorious guitar riffs, Titus Andronicus brought SXSW to a close with a blistering set late Saturday night. (Special shout-out to the Chicago Sun-Times' Jim DeRogatis, who insisted I see them, and has some stellar coverage of SXSW here.)
Janelle Monáe. Monáe's songs are a genre-hopping mix of vintage psychedelic soul -- part OutKast's "Hey Ya!" and part Gnarls Barkley's "Crazy." It's easy to get lost in the sampled orchestrations of her sci-fi-referencing songs, where scorching guitar riffs collide with big-band saxophones. But just when you think you've got her figured out, she drops the trappings to sing over a lounge-y, jazz-guitar accompaniment and breaks you're heart with "Smile," a strikingly simple ballad.
Handsome Furs. The duo of Dan Boeckner and Alexei Perry married sharp guitar riffs -- punk-rock tones lifted equally from early Clash and the sewer -- with excitedly cherry electronic club sounds. Boeckner wailed his guitar around the stage and nearly popped the veins out of his neck each time he took to the microphone. Meanwhile, the barefoot Perry attacked her snyths as if she were a gymnast, kicking her legs into the air to emphasize the beat.
Kid Cudi. Kanye West promised that Kid Cudi soon would be filling 500,000-seat arenas. Perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but it was easy to see why the Chicago rapper was excited about this Cleveland newcomer. Performing as part of West's G.O.O.D. Music showcase, his spacious, downbeat "Day 'N' Nite" was a stand-out. It transformed multiple times on stage, morphing with ease from a somber number with a subtle, gloomy guitar into a rousing techno club cut.
BLK JKS. The biggest strengh of the band, a South African import, is its rhythm section, where the act's world-music trappings are most present. A bit jazzy at times, the BLK JKS came off as a psychedelic jam band, letting high-pitched guitar notes bounce off a rambunctious rhythm one moment, and then riding it out into an extended dubby groove the next.
Uglysuit. The six-piece act had some of the lushest songs I've heard at the fest, and songs such as "... And We Became the Sunshine" and "Chicago" are built around luxuriant keyboards and the soft vocals of Israel Hindman. There are anthems in this band's future, as guitars sparkle, harmonies soar and arrangements elegantly evolve.
And one P.S. With West taking over Austin on Saturday night, three acts I had marked on my schedule to see that evening had to be sacrificed. One was the power pop of Telekinesis, as well as Australian rock duo An Horse. I heard rave reviews on the latter, which will play the Echo on March 24. An Horse, was one of the bands at the top of my list when I arrived in Austin, but it wasn't meant to be. Those who saw them came back with rave reviews.
The other act I missed on Saturday was England's Theoretical Girl, whom I still don't know much about, but I like almost everything on her MySpace page.
And one final P.S. M.I.A.'s protégé Rye Rye entertained with her high-speed club rap, and the L.A.'s Silversun Pickups showed off songs from its forthcoming "Swoon." Look out for new song "Growing Old Is Getting Old," the Pickups at their most murky and mysterious.
-- Todd Martens
Photo: St. Vincent. Credit: Associated Press
*UPDATED: An earlier version of this post wrongly identified Titus Andronicus' lead singer as Andrew Cedermark.