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SXSW: Ann Powers' high points of the annual Texas festival

March 21, 2010 |  9:25 pm

Memorable moments include discovering Seattle's feminist hip-hop duo Thee Satisfaction, and a gracious celebration of Alex Chilton.

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A stranger wandering into the scene that overtakes downtown Austin, Texas,  every year during the music portion of the South by Southwest festival could be forgiven for thinking it was some kind of apocalypse. The din, the trash, the packs of stumblers forming strange clumps of humanity in the middle of each block and then dispersing across the intersections -- the total environment emanates disaster.

It's really a party, of course, a packed gathering of fans jumping from club to club in search of the perfect set from the thousand-plus artists playing dozens of showcases in dozens of venues around Austin's core. Young artists hope to be noticed, older ones renew their connections with fans and one another, and tipsy college kids shove up against music biz moguls in hopes of hearing something unforgettable.

The truth is that, though it can feel uncomfortable to the point of hazard,  SXSW is one of the few settings in which devoted rock and pop lovers can feel as if the music industry is not in a catastrophic state. The daytime panels, though often notably underattended given the stakes, address the problems facing an art form in transition, but once the music starts -- and it really never stops here -- all such concerns are forgotten. Nearly every club door offers the chance of a breakthrough, and each new conversation offers hints that the health of grass-roots music might be just fine.

Some artists, like Los Angeles band Local Natives, rode in on a pretty big wave of excitement and fulfilled that promise with tight, memorable sets. Others -- like one of my favorite finds, Seattle's rambunctiously adorable feminist hip-hop duo Thee Satisfaction -- gained word-of-mouth traction over the course of several performances.

South by Southwest is so big at this point, and so varied, that drawing any conclusions from it is a fool's game. This year had to deal with one terrible tragedy: the Wednesday death in New Orleans of Alex Chilton, who was scheduled to play at Antone's on Saturday with the reunited version of his crucial 1970s band Big Star, and who instead was honored by many of his peers and inheritors at a tribute concert.

But whole strata of festival participants had no idea of Chilton's importance. They were busy with their own concerns, like Perez Hilton's annual to-do, or sets by major artists such as Muse and Hole. They supported their own interests; the heavy metal offerings alone, ranging from the great Motörhead to such young stars as High on Fire and Priestess, could have satisfied a headbanger for a year.

Los Angeles' No Age (pictured above) offered fast, reckless and sometimes abrasive takes on what were probably at one point rather pretty melodies,  exploring shifts in tempo for a forceful punk rock attack.

When SXSW began in 1987, attendees sought singular moments that rewarded full physical immersion or careful, quiet attention. Now, neither of those seems completely possible. People are just too distracted by the phones in their hands, the chatter in their ears and, most of all, the pull to get to another venue where something even more amazing is probably happening. It's frustrating. You just have to claim your own best moments and be content.

A few of mine: Muse, the kind of mainstream band many hipsters ignore, set Stubb's ablaze with a funky, focused version of its current arena set.  The veteran Japanese psychedelic band Acid Mothers Temple climbed atop its speakers, building a mighty drone at Rusty Spurs.

The Jail Guitar Doors event at the Ghost Room launched the U.S. wing of a charity spearheaded by folk-punk paladin Billy Bragg and MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer that brings music into prisons as a rehabilitation tool. It ended with a version of the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams" featuring guitarist Tom Morello that was the best five-minute party of the fest.

Bigstar4_kznm8ync For many, though, the most treasured memory of this exhausting, exhilarating feeding frenzy will be one of the many gracious turns at the Chilton commemoration at the end of SXSW.

Featuring more than a dozen of the semi-secret stars of the indie-rock firmament that remains at the heart of South by Southwest, the show gently, firmly put the emphasis back on that passionate exchange between musicians and listeners that forms the basis for everything that happens here.

An insightful, funny letter from Chilton's wife, Laura, read aloud, set the tone for the evening. "He saw beauty in what other people would just dismiss," it read, mentioning Chilton's admiration for old houses in New Orleans, his love of baroque music and Teenage Fanclub, and his pride in having produced such bands as the Cramps. The players in Big Star -- original drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel, along with Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer of the Posies, who'd completed its most recent configuration -- then began an 18-song set of Chilton's Big Star songs, from howling rockers such as "Don't Lie to Me" to such tender, now eerie elegies as "Try Again."

Highlights included John Doe's homespun take on "I'm in Love With a Girl"; "Big Black Car," quietly rendered by M. Ward; a spirit-lifting run through "When My Baby's Beside Me," with Chris Stamey of the dB's, who'd often collaborated with Chilton during his solo career; and an emotional "Ballad of El Goodo" from the Norwegian singer Sondre Lerche.

At one point, the music stopped and Stephens spoke up from behind his drum kit: "Like Alex taught me, it's OK to have a little silence onstage. Take your time." It was apt advice, not only for Chilton fans, but also for everyone racing through this week of babble and high notes.

-- Ann Powers (staff writer Todd Martens contributed)

Photos: (Top) Dean Allen Spunt, left, and Randy Randall of No Age unleash their style of L.A. punk rock in Austin, Texas. Credit: Jack Plunkett. (Bottom) Members of Big Star — Jon Auer, left, Jody Stephens and Ken Stringfellow — take a bow after a tribute show honoring bandmate Alex Chilton, who died just days before the band was to play at SXSW. Credit: Jay Janner / Austin American-Statesman

RECENT AND RELATED:

- The Alex Chilton panel at SXSW: "Those whom he touched, were touched immutably"
- Festival excess contradicts biz climate, but plenty of acts make an impression
- Hole at SXSW: Courtney Love offers one-liners worthy of the Comedy Store
- Is the future bright for independent labels?
- Alex Chilton remembered on the floor of Congress

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