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Lose Yourself in the Music 

Highlights, revelations and observations from SXSW 2008

Each year, we send a pack of music-geek correspondents to Austin, Texas, for the South by Southwest music conference and festival, and publish their experiences so that you, too, can feel like you were there.

That, and so they can write the trip off their taxes. Here's what they came back with this year.


THEY'RE PLAYING YOUR SONGS

By Linda Ray

In his interview officially kicking off SXSW, Pete Townshend held forth on how we unquestioningly permit our music experiences to be processed, mediated, delayed. He gave a contrasting example about how he had once jammed with Lou Reed in a small New York venue; he cherished the immediacy of the experience and the reverberations of energy from the audience.

Townshend elaborated on the deeply personal nature of experiencing music, and how even that experience is filtered--through the performer's creative impulses and whatever experience each listener brings to the music--but the whole point of it is to move you, to touch that place that needs touching and needs release. Your response is as magical and mysterious to the band as their music is to you. He wrapped up thusly: "The music must speak for those who listen, not who plays."

The next evening, he sat in with his partner, Rachel Fuller, for a casual, drop-in set at La Zona Rosa, highlighted by a performance by fellow Brit Mika, a cross between Ben Folds and Rufus Wainwright. Townsend beamed, but no more so than the 500-plus crowd, who clearly got the point he'd made earlier.

There's no question that these days, we're all especially addicted to the relatively immediate, if highly processed, experience of downloads. If you'd like your own taste of the overwhelming scope of SXSW, you can stream 739 tracks by as many showcasing bands via a torrent from 2007 (sxsw.com/toolbox). Caveat: it'll take a couple of days, and you may need to download some freeware to handle it. (Azureus is pretty easy.)

Be sure to listen to the folks whose showcases knocked me out this year: the weightless, fun pop of Oh No! Oh My!; the over-the-top, character jazz, marching band zaniness of Tokyo's Asakusa Jinta; the kid-friendly perkiness of The Jellydots; the exciting, new complexity of crunchy Grand Champeen; the shimmering power-pop perfection of +/-; the Jeff-Tweedy-like, songwriterly pop-rock of the whimsically named Get Cape.Wear Cape. Fly.

Who knows why my other tops--the reunited Smoking Popes, the reclusive Jandek or Norwegian pop-star Marit Larsen--aren't in the streaming torrent? No matter; you can sample the Popes' unique mix of crooning vocals and burn-the-landscape arrangements, Jandek's thoroughly dissonant dirges and Larsen's pearly pop songcraft on MySpace. Although I only accidentally caught the last 15 minutes of Larsen's set, because showcases were running late at Uncle Flirty's (I was early to see Chris Mills), her sparkling cover of "My Boyfriend's Back" will probably hang in my memory as one of my Top 10 SXSW experiences of all time.

So here's the most important message I have for you from SXSW, and I can't tell you urgently or compellingly enough: Go see live music. Townsend would tell you the same. Make the time; you can sleep when you're dead.

Stand up close, where you can feel the bass flap your pant leg and the drums beat your heart. Let the music fill you up until a shout rolls from your belly or a tear slinks down your cheek. Lose yourself in the music until you find yourself in it.

They're playing your songs.


ESSENCE OF SIMPATICO

By Carl Hanni

I went to Austin for SXSW looking for the essence of simpatico among musicians, their audiences and their surroundings; this is a little of what I found:

· At Stax Records' 50th Anniversary showcase, Booker T. and the MG's members Steve Cropper, Donald "Duck" Dunn and Booker T. shared such effortless ease that their music came off like one of the Eight Wonders of Soul Music. Less is more was never so sweet. And Isaac Hayes showed up--how awesome is that?

· Donovan's connection to audience is still a very personal thing. Kids born decades after his hits were singing along in ecstatic harmony.

· I stood 40 feet away from Jandek and still have no idea what he really looks like, due to a hat brim cocked just perfectly to shade his face. He did nothing to dispel his image as an enigmatic mystery man.

· Kid Koala: a mixer, three turntables and no headphones. Absolutely simpatico with his vinyl, his gear and his jaw-dropping skill. Impressive doesn't even get close.

· Has any group of guys ever enjoyed each other's company on stage more than the Waco Brothers? None that I've ever seen ...

· At Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label showcase, Magik Markers played the most riveting set I saw all week. Bypassing entertainment and going straight to psychodrama, this duo were definitely tapping into something other-dimensional and brutally personal on stage that rendered everything else around it tame and conventional by comparison. Even Moore was leery at having to follow them.

· KTU: Take two members of King Crimson, add a Finnish avant-garde accordion player, shake, and turn loose on the world. The audience went nuts, as KTU's fabulously entertaining show put to death the notion that prog rock has to be academic, soulless or not fun to watch.

· It's hard to explain why the three Finns of 22-Pistepirkko were just so terrific, but really, they were. Years of playing together pay off in the intuitive flow between the two brothers that front the band.

· A sea of heads, banging in unison, greeted the Japanese three-piece Boris and their furiously aggressive afternoon set.

· Mary Weiss of the Shangri-Las, back and looking and sounding great 40 years after their hits.

· The Buzzcocks' Pete Shelley and Steve Diggle looked like they were having the time of their lives, 25 years after they probably were having the time of their lives.

· Meat Puppets: Much to everyone's surprise and delight, both Curt Kirkwood and his long-lost brother, Cris, showed up and played an amazing set. Stay tuned to see if their current reunion continues. "We recorded a new record," Curt told the crowd. "Now we have to learn the songs."

· Lee "Scratch" Perry is still crazy after all these years. The diminutive dub master is a one-man permanent vacation, but that didn't stop him from taking shots at George W. Bush, drug testing and whatever else is not irie.

· As the final act of my weekend, outside of town and under the stars, Sunday night at The Elms, The Hacienda Brothers were not only Western-soul kingpins, but everyone knew it. Perfectly simpatico with each other, with the crowd and with Texas.


CHEF, BEEF BACON AND WHAT MADE MILWAUKEE FAMOUS

By Curtis McCrary

SXSW boasts more than 1,400 officially showcasing bands that run the gamut from provincial nobodies striving to Make Something Happen to the fat and sassy overlords of Rock Stardom--your Pete Townshends, your Iggy Pops/ (I mean "fat" in the figurative sense, Ig. Don't worry--you still have better abs than Jesus.) Spread atop this absurdly large, moveable feast like so much sweet creamery butter are your day parties, your barbecues and unofficial showcases, plus the buskers and street performers, making the number of individual sets played by musical performers approach infinity (well, actually, let's call it 4,000 performances). This means that the absolute best a dedicated rocker--using maps, charts, sextants and druid-like prognosticative ability--can do is catch maybe 1.5 percent of the festival's music. And that's only if you skip the convention panels, the cable TV in the hotel with such offerings as Kate and Leopold and other nonrocking recreation.

And yet, somehow, this fractured, almost schizoid stretch of 4 1/2 days feels remarkably cohesive, each moment indelibly part of the totality. Everyone, from industry shitbird to casual fan, feels part of the whole. Having never been to the giant, outdoor festivals (Bonnaroo, Coachella, Lollapalooza, etc.) wherein the names are bigger and one "sees" a higher percentage of the festival's performances, I still can't help but think that the SXSW model is a better one, especially if you can get past the nagging, nigh-constant feeling that you're missing something awesome. (You probably are; get over it.)

So with that said, here are a few highlights from MySXSW:

· Suspecting that Isaac Hayes, resplendent in his red Scientology smock, is too drugged up to remember the chorus to "Dock of the Bay" (despite the best coaching efforts of Stax stalwarts Eddie Floyd and William Bell), I'm later disappointed in myself when I learn that Hayes has recently suffered a stroke. Attention, Germans: Please make up a word for when "schadenfreude" goes wrong and leads to guilt. You know, like "schadenfreudegüiltenhaben" or something.

· During a pleasing Saturday repast at the delicious South Congress Café (Thanks, Phil and Pam!), I get the heads-up from Josh Rosenfeld of Barsuk Records that the excellent Austin band What Made Milwaukee Famous will be playing in the nearby San Jose Hotel parking lot at 8 p.m. Figuring I wouldn't have enough time to make it to Emo's to catch the Buzzcocks' 8 p.m. showcase (despite having rented a bike while in Austin), I watch most of WMMF (very satisfying!) and bust ass over to Emo's in enough time, it turns out, to see the Buzzcocks tear into high-energy renditions of "Ever Fallen in Love," "Orgasm Addict" and "What Do I Get?" What do I get? Rocked, is what.

· Seeing the Stooges, despite the distance from which we took them in, was a treat, especially when the aging prima donna Iggy brought about 100 people onto the Stubb's stage. This was closely mirrored by the Ibiza-esque atmosphere over at Elysium, where Girl Talk closed out my SXSW with another dose of sweaty, writhing bodies brought onstage.

· Finally, a note to my Jewish friends, in particular Stephen Seigel: Beef "bacon" is glorified pastrami and has nothing on the real thing. If Katz's Deli couldn't convince me otherwise, you never will.


THE FAMILIAR AND THE NEW

By Stephen Seigel

SXSW is the only vacation I've ever taken in which I feel like I need a vacation when I get back. The aching body, the swollen feet, the enduring hangover--why do we keep doing it? Because we love to rock, that's why. Here, then, are a few things that rocked me this year.

· A good chunk of my time was dedicated to geezer-rock, or seeing bands I've loved for years but never got the chance to witness. Aussie rockers the Hoodoo Gurus couldn't have sounded any better 20 years ago than they did on Friday night at the Blender Bar at the Ritz. The Buzzcocks set I saw was like a greatest-hits collection from my junior high days. Even the pair of new songs Buffalo Tom sprinkled into their performance were great. After the hell he's been through, Cris Kirkwood got more than his share of moral support from the crowd as he joined his brother Curt for a typically awesome Meat Puppets gig, despite the fact they hadn't played together in years. I can finally scratch Lee Perry off my list of performers to see before I die. And the only way that Stooges set at Stubb's could have been any better would be to cross the new songs off the set list and pencil in, say, "1969" and "Search and Destroy." I can't remember the last time I found myself in the middle of a mosh pit, not only without being thoroughly annoyed, but actually loving it.

· One of my favorite things about SXSW is that there's so much stuff going on, you can talk to 20 different people, and they'll tell you about 100 great new bands they saw, all of which you've never heard of. My two favorite discoveries this year were Elvis Perkins, who reminded me not of Leonard Cohen, to whom he's often compared, but to Fisherman's Blues-era Waterboys; and Mando Diao, a pack of Swedish kids whose tight, blistering set blew the doors off Antone's, and who I never would have caught if things were running on time. Ah, happy accidents.

· No matter how jaded people may be in their normal lives, everyone just seems to be feeling the good vibes at SXSW, which made a comment I overheard by some random guy on Sixth Street seem staggeringly incongruous: "I'm not into anything. That's what I'm into." Dude, maybe you should have spent your Spring Break in Padre instead.

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