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SXSW: Jakob Dylan, Neko Case give the music fest an unofficial opening

March 17, 2010 |  8:47 am

J_DYLAN_3 The music portion of the South by Southwest industry conference and festival officially begins on Wednesday, although that starting date has become blurred in recent years. As SXSW has grown to encompass film and interactive events, the latter has gradually started to steal some of the spotlight away from four days of indie-leaning showcases. 

Tuesday marked one of the most-talked-about music events of the festival, with an appearance for Spotify chief Daniel Ek. Though it was a closing keynote for the interactive events, Spotify's success in Europe has led many an industry observer to put faith in all-encompassing streaming music services as an area for business growth -- if and when labels, publishers and Spotify can sort U.S. licensing agreements.

Ek's appearance meant as much to the music business as it did the tech industry, and many music registrants arrived early. Yet as the day turned to night, there was plenty happening to keep the first music arrivals entertained. The most-in-demand-act (sorry, Motorhead) performing on SXSW Music Eve was Jakob Dylan, as the singer/songwriter debuted his new band with Neko Case and Kelly Hogan, the Three Legs. The seven-piece group was appearing at one of the many corporate-sponsored events that run parallel to SXSW's officially sanctioned showcases.

The demand to get in the PureVolume/Paste Magazine-led event was large, with a slow-moving line that stretched a full block, and even attracted its own check-in point on location-based social networking service Foursquare. All that was needed to gain entry was a RSVP, and it's a safe bet that most guests were there for the free booze rather than the unveiling of Dylan's new slow-burning country-based songs. Early in the set, for instance, my pen and notebook were hijacked by one guest who agreed to return them only after I promised her that I would mention that Dylan had a "cute hat" (fulfilled).

But what to make of Dylan's new songs? In about an hour-long performance, the full set-list of which has been posted on the Paste site, the initial impression is that his backing vocalists, two artists with the ability to stun, were under-utilized. Make no mistake, Dylan's Three Legs are a potent band, with the son of a legend borrowing some of Case's collaborators, including guitarist Paul Rigby and steel guitar specialist Jon Rauhause. 

Yet the new songs are long removed from his more rock-leaning work with the Wallflowers. In fact, the Tuesday night SXSW party was probably not the best setting for them, with an overly talkative crowd in attendance and a rather flat concrete room deadening any of the subtitles in the pieces. A track called "Standing Eight Count" went over well, yet it was also the most forceful cut of the set, with bluesy, spiked notes from Rigby leading the charge. 

Due on April 6, Dylan's 11-song "Woman & Country" album features both Case and Hogan, and was produced by T-Bone Burnett, who manned the board on the Wallflowers' 1996 debut, "Bringing Down the Horse." Though Dylan's vocals weren't always clearly audible at the venue -- his hushed singing on the new songs, especially on "We Don't Live Here Anymore," more closely resembling his father than ever before -- the songs seemed to tend toward reflective, sometimes dark, adult relationship themes. 

"I'm the last man," Dylan sang on "Truth for A Truth," "that you want to know," a break-up song that could have doubled as a murder ballad. Rauhause has plenty of freedom to play on Dylan's new songs, as they're slower, moodier numbers, and the singer's own guitar work is used to shade rather than lead. 

Yet one couldn't help but feel that Dylan wasn't fully taking advantage of the weapons at his disposable. Rarely did Case or Hogan take the charge, their harmonies and shadowing confined strictly to the background. With a pair of show-stopping talents at his side, Dylan has turned in his most serious, contemplative and quiet work to date. 

Stay tuned to Pop & Hiss throughout the remainder of the week for more SXSW coverage. 

-- Post and terrible iPhone photo by Todd Martens

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