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SXSW 2010 ends with a lot of love for Alex Chilton

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For many who attended South by Southwest 2010, the final day of the conference was all about power-pop great Alex Chilton, who died at age 59 on Wednesday.

It only made sense: As has often been said of the Velvet Underground, Chilton's beloved band Big Star never sold a lot of records, but it often seems as if everyone who bought one started a band--or became a rock critic. And the largest gathering anywhere in the world of people who loved his music took place over the last five days in Austin.

The celebration of Chilton's life and legacy began during the day at the convention center with a panel entitled "I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star," moderated by music journalist Bob Mehr, the former Chicago Reader rock critic now at the Memphis Commercial Appeal who broke the news of the musician's death, and who wrote the liner notes to last year's Big Star box set, "Keep an Eye on the Sky."

Mehr started by noting that a very different sort of discussion had been planned, and the initial impulse was to cancel the talk and Saturday night's showcase gig by the reunited Big Star after Chilton's death. Instead, both became a sort of Irish wake.

The surviving members of the original Big Star, drummer Jody Stephens and bassist Andy Hummel (the other key member, Chris Bell, died in 1978) were joined by Ardent Records founder John Fry via Skype from Memphis in recounting Chilton's uniquely musical and bohemian upbringing, and the optimistic early days of Big Star, which Chilton joined after already having had one career as a teen star in the chart-topping Box Tops.

Other participants on the panel--power-pop disciples Tommy Keene and Chris Stamey and Posies bandmates Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, who backed Chilton and Stephens in Big Star Mach II for the last 18 years--contributed anecdotes and insights stemming from their love of Chilton's singing, songwriting and virtuosic guitar playing, as well as diplomatically worded glimpses of his personality, which could rank second only to Lou Reed's in terms of cutting wit, brutal honesty and overall surliness.

Stephens recounted a meeting between Chilton and Charles Manson at Beach Boy Dennis Wilson's house and noted, "Manson had met his match." And Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, who had been invited to come to Austin for Saturday night's musical tribute but could not attend, passed along to the panel that, whatever one thought of his personality, it was consistent: "Alex was Alex all of his life."

Much later in the day--or actually early Sunday morning--the planned Big Star showcase at Austin's storied club Antone's turned into an all-star tribute that began after a few heartfelt words from the always humble and classy Stephens, and the reading of an eloquent tribute written by Chilton's wife Laura. (The two married last August.)

Then the man was celebrated in the most fitting way possible: through his music.

With Stringfellow and Auer leading the way, delivering gorgeous harmony vocals and intricate guitar and bass lines, and Stephens mixing the frenetic chaos of Keith Moon with the spot-on devotion to the groove so common in Memphis soul, a procession of guest musicians helped underscore both the timeless beauty of Chilton's best songs and the wide-ranging influence his music had across different genres and generations.

Relentlessly melodic and at times transcendent, there could have been no better way to bid Alex Chilton farewell (though Paul Westerberg of the Replacements certainly did a fine job with the op ed he wrote for the New York Times on Saturday).

Here is the set list and the roster of guests at Antone's:

1. "Back of a Car"

2. "Don't Lie to Me" (with Curt Kirkwood of the Meat Puppets)

3. "In the Street" (with Kirkwood)

4. "I am the Cosmos" (Chris Bell song, with Chris Stamey of the dB's)

5. "When My Baby's Beside Me" (with Stamey)

6. "Big Black Car" (with M. Ward)

7. "Way Out West" (with Andy Hummel)

8. "Daisy Glaze"

9."Jesus Christ" (with Mike Mills of R.E.M.)

10. "For You"

11. "I'm in Love with a Girl" (with John Doe of X)

12. "The Ballad of El Goodo" (with a stunningly brilliant vocal by Sondre Lerche)

13. "Thirteen"

14. "Feel"

15. "Thank You Friends" (with Chuck Prophet)

16. "Nighttime" (with Evan Dando)

17. "Try Again" (with Dando and Amy Speace)

18. "September Gurls" (with the Watson Twins, Susan Cowsill, Mills and Hummel)

SXSW Night Three: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

The music industry in general, and SXSW-goers in particular, tend to be consumed by the latest thing. Instead of what's best, the focus is what's next: the next hot song, next buzz band, the next must-see showcase flogged in the next pithy tweet.

We're all guilty of it. But my Friday here in Austin shook me loose from that shortsighted mindset.

For that I can thank Smokey Robinson, the R&B giant and creative force of the Motown era who performed at the Austin Music Hall a day after delivering the conference keynote address. Leading a big band and wearing a Cheshire cat grin, he gave the crowd a crash course in his catalog--in itself a mini-history of American pop and soul that he embroidered with stories of working with Stevie Wonder and the Temptations.

His hits are indelible, and the versions played here were faithful, but Robinson and the band tweaked them just enough to sound fresh. In addition to "The Way You Do the Things You Do," "Get Ready," "My Girl" and "Tears of a Clown," there was a funky "I Second That Emotion," a stripped-down and smoldering "Tracks of My Tears," and a slow-burning "Ooh Baby Baby" that served as a vocal showpiece. The cheers for that one stopped the set, making the 70-year-old Robinson laugh, "Yeah, I still got it."

An inheritor of Robinson's legacy, Raphael Saadiq led off for the legend and nearly stole the show.

SXSW 2010: Night three, the showcases

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Honing to my trusty method of adapting Brian Eno's theory of "happy accidents" in the recording studio to a tired rock critic stumbling from club to club in search of chance musical discoveries, my third night in Austin yielded some great results, as well as a fair share of duds. But I'll mostly stick with recounting the peaks.

Intrigued by the name of a band from Minneapolis called Gay Witch Abortion, I started my night at a club called Soho (pretty much the diametric opposite of the Soho one would find in New York, but that's beside the point).


Gay Witch Abortion

A duo comprised of Shawn Walker on drums and Jesse Bottomley on guitar and (minimal) vocals, the band played a punishing brand of stoner-rock that incorporated just enough of a modern post-rock edge to justify the musicians' short haircuts. (No Sasquatch, these boys.) Touchingly, they also seemed to have their parents selling their merch at the back of the club. (Feel the raw power here.)

From there it was back to Mohawk Patio for a packed showcase of cutting-edge hip-hop and electronic acts promoted by Chicago's Biz 3 publicity firm.

How hip was the room? I spotted an incognito Perez Hilton--he was wearing a hat over his silly hairdo, and he stuck his conference registration badge inside a pocket as soon as he entered the club--frantically rushing to elbow his way in.

I had come for the much-buzzed female rapper Uffie, but things were running so late, I caught two other acts first.


Salem: Heather Marlatt, John Holland and Jack Donoghue

Salem is a trio from Traverse City, Michigan, though they also spent some time in Chicago, which creates a dense, difficult, sludgy but sexy sound that is simultaneously alienating and seductive, with elements of trip-hop, gothic darkwave, Southern hip-hop and electronic pop music. Part of me loved it, and part of me hated, but I certainly am intrigued enough to eagerly seek out their recordings as soon as I get home.



It was much easier to make up my mind about Maluca, a New York rapper of Dominican descent who affected fashion-model cool while wearing a SWAT helmet (don't ask me why) and moving in tandem with two dancers who flanked her. The artist's self-described "electro meringue" was not without its appeal, but her performance was flat and uninspired, and she seemed to be doubling her vocals over canned backing tracks. (Check it out here.)

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Summer Cats

Meanwhile, in the smaller side room at Mohawk--many Austin clubs have two stages, one inside and one outside--a quintet from Melbourne, Australia, called Summer Cats jangled through a delightful set that mixed equal parts vintage Go Betweens' pop sophistication and Beat Happening garage naivete. (Bop along while listening here.)



Finally, Uffie took the stage back outside. Born Anna-Catherine Hartley in Florida but raised in Hong Kong and now based in Paris, the globe-trotting rapper mixes synth-pop, electronica and hip-hop on her forthcoming debut album "Sex Dreams and Denim Jeans," a title that hints at the often very salty language and in-your-face sexuality of her lyrics. The word in the dance underground is that Ke$ha! pretty much ripped off her act from Uffie, but so far, I'd say Lady Gaga has it all over both of them.

From there, I headed back to Elysium, which was now hosting SXSW's "Japan Nite," for an artist called Omodaka.



A solo project by electronic composer Soicchi Terada, Omodaka mixed entrancing electronic sounds, strange video projections and a reworked space-age take on Kabuki theater, making for a set that was otherworldly both musically and visually. (Sample the music here.)

Night three ended for me back at Stubb's again (ugh) with a fascinating Bay Area act called Beats Antique.

Beats Antique.jpg

Beats Antique

Musically, producers David Satori and Sidecar Tommy create an unlikely mix of electronic burbles, live trance drumming and Middle Eastern drones, but just as important is the non-musical third partner in the core trio, bellydancer Zoe Jakes, who helps turn the already entrancing sounds into a full-fledged tribal fusion bacchanal. Recently signed with managers C3 Presents, it's a pretty fair bet they'll win a sweet slot at Lollapalooza. (Sample the music here.)

SXSW 2010: Day Three, the panels

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Though there were fewer newsworthy sessions during the penultimate day of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center, I did catch two entertaining roundtables entitled "Meet the New Soul -- Same as the Old Soul?" and "Music Journalism in the Post-Print Era."

As with so many of these sessions attempting to answer open-ended questions, nothing much was decided during either talk. But the soul panel was notable for an appearance by Chicagoan Che Smith, better known as rapper Rhymefest, who pretty much stole the show.



The other panelists--Bob Davis of, New York attorney Judy Tint, Claudette Robinson of the Miracles and Motown fame, and rock critic Dave Marsh--all offered different definitions of what constitutes "soul music," and where it can and cannot be heard today. But with the tenor of all of his comments, as well as with an a cappella rap of a stunning new tracks about his child custody battle, Rhymefest made it clear:

Soul music is music made by people who are not afraid to bare their souls.

"Unless you've spent time in the south or the midwest, it's hard to grasp not the academic definition of soul music, but the blue-collar working-class definition of what it really is," Rhymefest said.

The co-author with Kanye West of "Jesus Walks," Rhymefest condemned the rampant sexism and consumerism in much of the best-selling hip-hop, and attacked the business model of an industry where an artist can sell 130,000 records, as he did with his debut "Blue Collar" in 2006, "and they still make you feel like a loser."

Rhymefest has parted ways with Clive Davis and J Records and is gearing up to release his next album "El Che" independently on May 18. And the sample he provided, two verses of "The City is Falling," indicates that he isn't backing off from telling it as he sees it--though he didn't exactly square how his support for Walmart jibes with his attacks on commercialism in music.

"Artists are supposed to mean something," the rapper said. "It would have killed me if Stevie Wonder had sold 'Ribbon in the Sky' to a cologne and an energy drink and made a reality TV show."

Here, here.

The post-print music journalism panel offered no such rallying cry as a group comprised mostly of young journalists (some excellent, such as Maura Johnston ex- of Idolator, and some verging on annoying gimmickry, such as Chris Weingarten) bemoaned the shrinking number of paying media outlets and the simultaneous proliferation of blogs that are more about promoting free MP3s than providing critical insights or significant journalism.

These are problems no music journalist would contest. But other problems went unmentioned. As noted in another post on this blog, the top Justice Department official responsible for approving the Ticketmaster/Live Nation merger spoke at SXSW about 24 hours before this session, presenting herself to be questioned about one of the most important, far-reaching and controversial stories in the music industry during the last 25 years. Yet few journalists, online or otherwise, bothered to cover it.

And as of this writing, only one blog, run by activists the Future of Music Coalition, has posted an account of Varney's appearance -- that is, if you discount those hosted by the big, old, dead-tree-media institutions of the Sun-Times, the Tribune and the Los Angeles Times.

SXSW Night Two: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

I suppose it can't be called an epiphany if I knew what I was in for. Whatever the phrase, the raw beauty and intense emotion of Thursday night's performance by the New York songwriter Sharon Van Etten felt like a spiritual experience. For me, it's hands down the high point of SXSW so far.

Fittingly, it happened in a church. Van Etten stood by the altar at St. David's, a modest old Episcopal sanctuary just up the hill from the mad carnival of 6th Street; here a few dozen rapt converts crowded in the front pews. Playing a hollow-bodied red Gibson guitar, she struck stark chords and let them ring or picked arpeggio patterns that glittered as they rolled. They perfectly framed her voice, which floated from a confessional whisper to a tingling ghostly cry.

Van Etten is a relative newcomer to performing and recording with just one album to her credit, last year's self-released disc Because I Was in Love. It's an intimate, inner-directed set of songs as the title implies, and it provided most of the fodder for this set. The standout track is the devastating, gorgeous "Much More Than That"; here its painstaking lyrics came to the fore--"I sigh and then I frown/I write this moment down/'Cause I cannot paint pictures with my tongue"--but the real magic was in Van Etten's ethereal, wordless sighs between each verse.

It's hard to imagine that she'll be playing for tiny clutches of listeners much longer. She certainly shouldn't be. Whether your tastes run to Sixties folkies Sandy Denny or Joan Baez, the pointillist intensity of Low or the elegant string-laden art-rock of The Velvet Underground and Nico, seek out Sharon Van Etten.


Elsewhere Thursday, I saw some new artists, checked out a few familiar faces, and caught several foreign bands.

SXSW 2010: Night two, the showcases

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Musically, round two of SXSW was much stronger for me, with the highlights starting during the day in the convention center with a group called Mumiy Troll, a long-running Russian rock band formed in Vladivostok in 1983 by the insanely animated vocalist and songwriter Ilia Lagutenko.


Mumiy Troll

The SXSW Web site had reported that the quartet had canceled its festival appearance and a short U.S. tour after Laguteno underwent an emergency appendectomy earlier this month. But there he was on stage, bounding about like a madman as the group churned out rollicking New Wave grooves behind him, bringing to mind a looser, more joyful version of early Public Image, Ltd. crossed with Devo.

Apparently, after years of surviving bans and persecution by the local Communist party, a burst appendix was nothing. (You can hear a sample of Mumiy Troll's joyful noise here.)

My evening started out back at Stubb's, which once again proved to be the wrong venue for the sublime Canadian rockers the Besnard Lakes, though the group fared slightly better in conveying the lush subtleties of its sound in that big dirt bowl than Broken Bells did on Wednesday.


The Besnard Lakes

Led by the husband-and-wife team of guitarist-vocalist Jace Lasek and bassist-vocalist Olga Goreas, the band has crafted one of the most winning albums so far this year in the stunning "Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night." As they delivered its gorgeous harmonies and haunting melodies while enveloped in clouds of stage fog, I couldn't help but think how incredible the group will sound when it performs a free show in Millennium Park on May 24.


The Soft Pack

Next up at Stubb's was the San Diego indie-rock quartet the Soft Pack, formerly the controversially named Muslims. The band's deceptively simple but rhythmically driving sound was better suited to the backyard frat party vibe of the venue, but it remains to be seen whether it holds up on record.

From there it was on to a club called Mohawk, where the restrained but powerful post-rock of the Madison quartet All Tiny Creatures evoked Tortoise jamming on Philip Glass. (Listen here.)


All Tiny Creatures

Even better was the enigmatically named jj, which has released two widely acclaimed albums of seductive electronic pop music. On record, jj is the Swedish duo of Joakim Benon and Elin Kastlander, but onstage at SXSW, Kastlander performed alone with digital backing tracks, bringing to mind a more cheerful and more zaftig version of Velvet Underground chanteuse Nico, with a laptop replacing the harmonium.


Elin Kastlander

My final highlight of day two came at a showcase for the stoner-rock record label Small Stone at the club Encore courtesy of the Los Angeles band Sasquatch, which sounds exactly like you would want a band named Sasquatch to sound.



Led by the whiskey-chugging, fire-snorting guitarist and vocalist Keith Gibbs and featuring former Chicagoan Jason Casanova on bass, the group's sound is rooted in classic Grand Funk Railroad, in terms of the arena-rocking melodies, though it's augmented with all manner of twisted psychedelic/metal chaos, from hints of Monster Magnet to touches of Blue Cheer. You can sample it here--and be sure to turn it all the way up for maximum impact.

For the second time since news of the merger of giant national concert promoters Live Nation and monopolistic ticket brokers Ticketmaster was first announced 14 months ago, the heads of those two companies, Michael Rapino and Irving Azoff, declined to speak to the assembled music industry at South by Southwest about the alleged benefits to the consumer and the music world.

However, Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney, the Obama administration Justice Department official who approved the settlement paving the way for the merger in late January, did travel from Washington, D.C., to take part in a panel discussion Thursday afternoon entitled "Creative Capitol: Music, Culture and Policy under Obama."


Christine Varney

SXSW Night One: Anders Smith Lindall reports

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Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:

It's been a day and a half in the SXSW zoo. I haven't been run over by a pedicab, doused in patchouli, arrested, sunburned or succumbed to gout. In other words, in the big picture, all is well.

On the music front, as always here, you win some and lose some. I wasted 40 minutes on Denmark's Choir of Young Believers without catching a single song; instead I stood around through the end of the act before them--a petite Parisienne named Seko who played ukulele, sang about loving you as much as peanut butter, and was just as deadly twee as you imagine--and was treated to 20 minutes of the Young Believers tuning and checking sound before I split. On the plus side, I'd never come across Austin's Strange Boys but liked their woolly jangle, all sloppy, scrawled Chuck Berry riffs, ragtag guy-girl vocals and even a chugging sax.

In short, when trying to grasp and enjoy an event of such daunting scale, plenty of hoary tropes apply: Go with the flow. Follow your nose. Be in the moment. So an overflow crowd kept me from catching Nas with Damian Marley, and a few songs of Spoon seen from the back of a dense, milling throng left me cold. That only meant I lucked into hearing a last few songs from Via Tania, the buzzing art-pop project of adopted Chicagoan Tania Bowers. Shutouts at jam-packed gigs by Surfer Blood and Billy Bragg found me ending the night with Flying Lotus, nom de turntable of Steven Ellison, whose rolling blend of warm funk, hip hop and spongy dub stoked and chilled onlookers in a low room hung with red velvet and lit only by flickering images--outstretched arms, foliage, a drill bit entering a skull--projected on an overhanging screen.

Among other notable acts I saw later Wednesday:

SXSW 2010: Smokey Robinson's keynote address

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The music industry is in the midst of the biggest technological revolution since Thomas Edison invented the phonograph in 1877, and almost everything about the business is undergoing radical change. But attendees at its biggest annual gathering wouldn't necessarily know that from the keynote addresses at the last few South by Southwest Music Festivals, which have spotlighted venerated elders and musical heroes of the past rather than current movers and shakers.

Last year, Quincy Jones reveled in self-serving anecdotes about his storied history, and this year's keynoter, Motown great Smokey Robinson, didn't seem to hold much more promise for addressing this historic and unprecedented upheaval. A much better choice for the agenda-setting address would have been producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, whose new project Broken Bells already is one of the big hits of the fest, and who also has scored with Gnarls Barkley and Beck and had his own dramatic run-in with the changing industry via his controversial "Grey Album" mash-up of Jay-Z and the Beatles.

But the 70-year-old Robinson, a former Motown vice-president as well as leader of the Miracles and a prolific solo artist, turned out to be a welcome surprise. Famous for his warm and winning personality, he not only was much more charming than Jones or 2008 keynoter Lou Reed, but in between the usual stories of a celebrated career, he imparted a fair amount of timeless wisdom equally relevant to an up-and-coming young gospel singer or an aspiring composer of cutting-edge electronic sounds.

SXSW 2010: Night one, the showcases

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News of the death of Alex Chilton cast a pall over the first night of showcases at the South by Southwest Music Festival, with word spreading instantaneously via Twitter and cell phone text messages. But the music went on, as it always does.

My plan had been to start the night with Plastic Crimewave Sound. Though I usually make a rule of avoiding Chicago bands in Austin, since I can see them at home any time, Steve "Galactic Zoo Dossier" Krakow never fails to deliver a splendid psychedelic bacchanal, and I figured he'd really rise to the occasion for SXSW. Alas, writing up the news about Chilton caused me to miss their set at a club called Rusty Spurs (how very Texas), but I did see the group that followed them, the San Diego quintet Blessure Grave.

Blessure Grave.jpg

Blessure Grave

The group's mournful, synthesizer-driven dirges seemed appropriately funereal at the moment, and their hypnotic trance grooves proved that it isn't only bands from Brooklyn that are mining the Joy Division sound. (SXSW posts sound clips from almost every band playing the festival; sample Blessure Grave here.)

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Broken Bells

My next stop was the much-buzzed showcase for Broken Bells at Stubb's. Irresistible on their recent self-titled album, I was curious to see if the gorgeous melodies created by unlikely collaborators James Mercer of the Shins and superstar producer Brian Burton, a.k.a. DJ Danger Mouse, would translate in concert.

Hiding in dark, moody lighting beneath impressionistic video projections, the duo and a drummer expertly recreated the lush pop of "Sailing to Nowhere" and "The Ghost Inside." But Stubb's hardly was the ideal venue for the group. The sound was excellent, but the venue--really a fenced-in sloping dirt bowl behind a barbecue joint, open to the elements and supremely uncomfortable--didn't allow listeners to really lose themselves in the cascading waves of sound. (The club is run by Charles Attal, one of the "three Charlies" behind Austin-based Lollapalooza promoters C3 Presents.)

From there I hit a lovably dumpy dive called Elysium (apparently a goth dance club when SXSW hasn't taken it over) to catch up with old favorites the Muffs.


The Muffs

Powerhouse frontwoman Kim Shattuck formed the group in 1991, and it had a brief moment as a buzz band when it was signed to Warner Bros. during the alternative-rock feeding frenzy. But the Muffs' ultra-melodic yet raw and raunchy garage rock always was too good for mainstream consumption, to say nothing of modern rock radio play.

Now a trio, the Muffs are gearing up to release a new album. And as evidenced by a rollicking SXSW performance, nearly two decades on, they remain an undeniable grungy good time.


Surfer Blood

Finally, the word of mouth about the West Palm Beach, Fla. quintet Surfer Blood compelled me to end the night at their showcase at a truly dreadful, cramped and poor-sounding joint called Wave Rooftop.

Blame it on my poor choice of which venue to see the band at--they reportedly hold this year's record for the most showcases by any band at the festival: an astounding 12 at different times and in different clubs, including sanctioned and unofficial gigs--but live even more than on their recent debut album "Astro Coast," Surfer Blood came off as yet another generic indie noise-rock band desperately wishing it could be the Pixies. (Hear for yourself here.)

Overall, a less than overwhelming start for this year's musical experiences. But there are three more days and nights and at least three dozen more bands to go.

About this Archive

This page is an archive of recent entries in the SXSW 2010 category.

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