The music industry may be reeling, but the musicians are still rocking. That's the message that came out of this year's renewal of South By Southwest, the Austin, Texas-based conference that has become the standard by which popular music conventions are judged.
Musicians from all points of the globe gathered from March 14-17 at this bustling Texas capitol for a nonstop celebration of the glories of rock, R&B, hip-hop, jazz, blues, electronic, country and folk music. Though attendance was down 15 percent from 2001 and the talk was largely about the industry-wide slump, quality music was showcased in force at scores of local clubs and informal backyard parties.
These purveyors and fans of largely independently produced and distributed music had good reason for optimism. When the top acts aren't running up the big numbers, the smaller audiences for roots music and niche markets become more important.
Howard Gabriel, a veteran music business insider who's worked with some of the biggest names in the business, was ecstatic about the success he's been enjoying with the modest-selling acts on the latest label he's working with, New West records.
"Sure I'd like to be working with double platinum projects," said Gabriel as he watched his label's flagship attraction, the Flatlanders, play at Club De Ville. "But this is more satisfying. It's about the music first and foremost, and these groups are on an upward trajectory while many of the big acts are flattening out. Last year was one of the best I've ever had."
The Flatlanders is a supergroup of legendary Texas songwriters -- Joe Ely, Butch Hancock and Jimmie Dale Gilmore -- who will be touring the country this year in support of a new album. One of the ideas the company is working on is booking the band for a tour of minor league baseball parks around the country through the summer months.
The New West showcase also included performances by Randall Bramblett, a gifted writer and multi-instrumentalist whose critically acclaimed albums date back to the 1970s and who has played on scores of albums as a sideman, including work with Gregg Allman and Widespread Panic; John Dee Graham, a dyed in the wool Texas rocker who is a dynamic songwriter and performer; Chuck Prophet, a great singer/songwriter/guitarist strongly reminiscent of Tom Petty; and the band's newest signing, the widely respected songwriter Vic Chestnutt.
Bands from Japan, Europe and Australia were well-represented, with an especially strong showing from the Swedish contingent. The all-girl group Sahara Hotnights really impressed with their hard-edged punk sound, but several other Swedish groups also played with a sophisticated understanding of rock technique, including The Soundtrack of Our Lives, a bright guitar-based pop group, the garage rockers Citizen Bird, hard rockers Left Hand Solution, and the Jack Brothers, who play an interesting arrangement of John Coltrane's "Blue Train."
Bloodshot Records showcased several of its best groups at a party headlined by Chicago's Waco Brothers and featuring a set by the Bottlerockets that featured songs from the band's latest record, a tribute to the late Texas songwriter Doug Sahm. The Yahoos, another Bloodshot act featuring former members of the Georgia Satellites and the Dictators, ripped it up with a ferocious set that ended with a wild cover of Abba's "Dancing Queen."
Slewfoot Records put together another highlight showcase presenting several talented new bands, including the can't-miss alt-country act Porter Hall, TN, the extremely talented Honky Tonk Chateau and Kristie Stremel and label stars Hadacol.
The Captiva Group also mounted an impressive showcase at Stubb's, a barbecue joint with a large, comfortable stage setup. The most impressive set came from the Austin Chronicle's SXSW pick for 2001, the Alex Woodard group. Heavy rock was the watchword for much of the showcase, with downthesun, Manic, Pavlov's Dog and the San Antonio-based Cinderleaf rattling the rafters. Hip-hop was also presented in this showcase by I-45 and Platinum A.K.
The most impressive showcase of the festival, though, was left to New Orleans hard rockers Supagroup, who incited an overflow crowd at the Red Eyed Fly to near-riot with a stunning set of material from its outstanding "Rock & Roll Tried to Ruin My Life" album.
Led by the guitar-playing Lee brothers, Chris and Benji, the band plies classic rock licks culled from the Rolling Stones, Yardbirds, Who, Humble Pie, Johnny Winter and Ten Years After and arranges them in a style that has observers comparing them to ACDC and KISS.
Though they rock as hard as any band to ever set foot on stage, Supagroup refuses to take itself seriously ("Hi, we're the Strokes, from New York," Chris Lee said by way of introduction), a stance which costs them valuable critic points. Maybe the best thing about them is that they don't care.
Each year SXSW produces at least one buzz band that the assembled critics and talent scouts froth over as the Next Big Thing. This year's model is Kinky, a catchy, groove-oriented techno-influenced group from Monterey, Mexico, with a fresh, contemporary sound and just enough roots showing to keep them from seeming contrived. Their showcase was an unqualified success and the eponymous debut album is a delight that keeps getting better with repeated hearings. Look for it on the charts soon.