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SXSW 2010: There's a whirr of music emerging from the clubs of Austin, Texas

March 18, 2010 |  6:24 pm

Cellphones chime as everyone chases the nebulous next thing.

Boywonder3_kzi1ofnc Sometime after midnight Wednesday, the Florida band Surfer Blood took the stage on the rooftop of a club on Sixth Street in Austin, bashing out high-spirited power punk in a bid to become the breakout band of this year's South by Southwest festival. It seemed to be working: The room was so packed it looked like kids were climbing on the soundboard and trying to push right through the glass of the doors in the back.

But this is South by Southwest on the weekend after the revolution, where artists claim their moments and move on beyond any familiar definition of acceleration. Surfer Blood is not the band of the fest, or the hour, but of the Tweet: excitement builds for such young artists over the course of minutes, only to be instantly  superceded by a new chime on everybody's smart phones.

But even that image feels clichéd when applied to this year's mood at the gathering known for propelling artists out of obscurity. There's no feeling of hierarchy of talent emerging, no one comet tail everybody has to grab. Instead, ask a dozen of the music industry insiders wandering around for a must-hear tip and you'll get that many different answers. There needs to be a new word for "buzz," something even more diffuse. Maybe "whirr."

Step into the whirr and no one voice, indeed no one musical style, seems more relevant or filled with potential than another. Last night, in 45 minutes, I heard not just Surfer Blood but the  super-crafted dance rock of Spoon, the ranting art-punk of Everybody Was in the French Resistance, the precise heavy metal of High on Fire and the deep, trance blues of Acid Mothers Temple. Each offered the  thinnest slice of available sounds, all excellent, none singularly great.

This wealth of good music, none of it better or best, reflects the general mood of this year's festival. The music industry may still be in crisis, but by now, panic is old hat. People are busy talking about how to reinvent the fundamentals of music-making and distribution.

The person who best captured this pragmatic mood was Thursday's keynote speaker, Smokey Robinson, who talked with author Dave Marsh about working with Berry Gordy to conceive Motown. Robinson gave lucid, clear advice to the young songwriters in the room, the gist of which was: work, work, work. "You didn't start this, and you're not going to finish it," he said of the big whirr of pop. And the room, hearing truth, exploded in applause.

-- Ann Powers

Photo: Andre Coles, left, and Jake Dean, of the Philadelphia band Boy Wonder perform in front of a mural on 6th Street during SXSW.  Credit: Associated Press

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