AUSTIN, Texas — Residents of the capital and one of the greatest music cities in America have been doing an unusual amount of griping this year about the proliferation of elitist industry parties and special daytime and afterhours events: With more than 10,000 record biz insiders, DJs and journalists from around the world registered for the conference, it’s hard enough for non-badge-holding locals to see a lot of the incredible music that happens here during the five nights of showcase performances without the added insult of being excluded from snooty guest-list-only VIP shindigs on the one hand and SXSW stamping down on unauthorized soirees on the other.
But moaning about this state of affairs does little good: The fact that SXSW has only gotten bigger every year has become a fact of life through the last 22 conferences. Dealing with the ensuing difficulties builds character, and in the end it’s worth the trouble — if you keep your eyes on the prize.
I generally have always avoided the velvet-rope bashes and stuck to the public conference events, and I remembered why when I tried to see the much-lauded British garage-rock duo the Kills in a warehouse space rented by the New York magazine the Fader for one of the fest's hippest parties. But I gave up after 45 minutes on line, cursing myself for even considering abandoning my usual rule, and walked over to the excellent Mexican and South American folk art store the Tesoros Trading Company to buy a gift for my wife before the next few days get really crazy.
I've been visiting Tesoros for as long as I've been coming to SXSW, 18 years, but this will be the last time I stop at that location: It's being forced to move, along with its neighbor, the homey breakfast cafe Las Manitas, because the entire block of Congress Avenue between 1st and 2nd streets is being torn down for yet another hotel, part of the booming urban renewal slowing chipping away at Austin's eccentric soul.
This is a big reason behind the popular "Keep Austin Weird" t-shirts — and the growing animosity for big business (and SXSW has certainly come to qualify) and waves of outsiders descending on the city.
One more tangible and legitimate complaint about the festival is that the four days of panels at the Austin Convention Center, which started on Wednesday, have become increasingly dull and devoid of the fireworks that used to make for real headlines as well as considerable entertainment when different elements of the industry clashed over the ideals of art versus the realities of commerce.
SXSW organizers should be lauded for including a lot of nuts-and-bolts sessions where veteran lawyers, recording engineers, publicists and other professionals mentor hopeful up-and-comers; a prime example was Chicagoan Martin Atkins' panel on surviving the grueling challenges of life on the road. But gone are the contentious panels about ethical issues and the radical changes in the business, while the sessions with artists have turned into superficial chats with interviewers trying to outdo the fawning obsequiousness of James Lipton on “Inside the Actors Studio.”
Yet if the daytime activities in the convention center are falling short, there are still 100 times more artists performing every night than any one listener could ever hope to catch.
Wednesday night started with another disappointing shut-out: I was eager to see if Scotland’s answer to X, the Glasgow quartet Sons and Daughters, have taken as big a leap onstage as they did on their stellar recent album, “This Gift.” But the long line at the landmark club Antone’s dissuaded me from even trying to get into the Domino Records showcase.
Undaunted, I moved on to La Zona Rosa and endured an hour-long set by Philadelphia’s uninspired techno DJ Dave P before the Columbus, OH trio Times New Viking finally took the stage. Onstage as on its Matador Records debut “Rip It Off,” the band worships at the altar of Guided by Voices, and at its best, it captures a similar mix of lo-fi noise, garage-rock chaos and jaunty melodies worthy of the best Britpop.
Unfortunately, much of that promise was smothered by the sort of pretension that prompted guitarist Jared Phillips to hide his vocals and those of keyboardist Beth Murphy under a smothering blanket of distortion that grew as annoying over the course of a 45-minute set as the band’s demands for “red lights — only red lights!”
Much better and by far the highlight of my second night in the clubs was the Brooklyn quartet Yeasayer, which plays a swirling, melodic and hypnotizing brand of psychedelic rock incorporating gorgeous harmony vocals, exotic computer-programmed polyrhythms and electronic versions of several global drones, from Celtic bagpipes to Indian ragas.
The band was to have performed at the Pitchfork Music Festival this summer, but it was wooed away by Lollapalooza in a bidding war. In any setting, it is a must-see, and after the supreme finale it provided for my second night in Texas, I'm eager to experience it again.