A bittersweet chorus at SXSW

24th annual fest concludes with moving tribute to Alex Chilton

by Greg Kot

Chicago Tribune (MCT)

22 March 2010


AUSTIN, Texas — The 24th annual South by Southwest Music Conference began somberly Wednesday as word spread throughout this gathering of 13,000 artists and industry professionals that the iconoclastic singer-songwriter Alex Chilton had died. But in the early morning hours Sunday, South by Southwest came roaring to a celebratory close with some of Chilton’s closest friends singing and performing one of his greatest songs.

“September Gurls,” a classic song from Chilton’s days leading the Memphis band Big Star, rang out at Antone’s, one of this music city’s most revered clubs. On vocals were Susan Cowsill, R.E.M.‘s Mike Mills and the Watson Twins. Jon Auer was on guitar, joined by Andy Hummell, one of the founding members of Big Star who had not played publicly in decades. Ken Stringfellow played bass, anchoring the rhythm section with Big Star co-founder Jody Stephens, who smiled wanly as he attacked the drums. The song capped a night of glorious music, the type of music — melodic, yearning, concise — that can transform a wake into a celebration.

It also was a signature moment in South by Southwest’s history, the kind of event that serves as a poignant reminder of the role music plays in our lives. As a multitude of voices — including Evan Dando, M. Ward, John Doe, the Meat Puppets’ Kirk Kirkwood, Sondre Lerche, Chuck Prophet — came together to pay homage to one of their own, the tribute concert offered perspective at a time of deep anxiety and disorienting transition in the music business.

Originally divided into panels by day and music showcases at night, South by Southwest is now a four-day marathon of around-the-clock music-making, with ancillary parties all over town. With more than 1,900 bands registered at the conference, there was no shortage of options.

Sleep was rarely an option, for fear of missing something great.

The old-school industry still uses the conference as an opportunity to roll out new projects by veteran artists. Courtney Love resurrected her ‘90s band Hole and performed with focus, a triumph of sorts in the face of predictions that the infamously mercurial artist would sabotage herself yet again.

But is a professionally competent Love really what the music world covets right now?

At 53, Sharon Jones has had a long, distinguished career without anywhere near the notoriety of Love, but the veteran soul singer’s star has been on the upswing ever since Amy Winehouse used Jones’ backing band, the Dap Kings, to make her own record. Jones remains a dervish in a yellow dress and high heels, dancing up a storm while singing with wall-shaking fervor and made the case that her next album, due in April, deserves wide attention.

Also leaving a deep impression was Montreal’s Besnard Lakes, whose soaring vocals and triumphant guitars signaled the arrival of a powerhouse album, “The Besnard Lakes Are the Roaring Night.” And roar the band did, with husband-and-wife team Jace Lasek and Olga Goreas trading lead vocals over towering melodies.

In-demand producer Danger Mouse unveiled his latest project, Broken Bells, a collaboration with singer James Mercer of the Shins. The duo was part of a seven-piece ensemble that precisely replicated the songs from the band’s self-titled debut album, without bringing much life to the occasion.

Broken Bells had the misfortune of performing in a dusty, bowl-shaped outdoor venue called Stubb’s, which has all the charm of a sandbox. With hundreds of venues of varying sizes hosting showcases, bands were sometimes overwhelmed by their surroundings. A solo set by JJ singer Elin Kastlander at a noisy bar sabotaged her whispery orchestral-folk tunes. But others rose above, most impressively Danish art-pop band Efterklang, whose multipart songs and hymn-like interludes won over a noisy 6th Street bar crowd.

Many of the most-buzzed-about bands played multiple times at multiple venues, sometimes three or four in one day. Among the most active were Florida anthem-rockers Surfer Blood and U.K. trio The xx. Seeing The xx beneath the vaulted ceiling of an 8th Street church was just about perfect — I can’t imagine a better venue for these minimalist masters.

Other bands and artists who stood out amid the noise:

—Bear in Heaven: Electronic rhythms underpinned well-constructed pop-rock tunes and dreamy, melodic vocals from this Brooklyn quartet.

—Holly Miranda: With a four-piece band that didn’t get warmed up until late in her set, this singer won me over with a soaring cover of Etta James’ “I’d Rather Go Blind.”

—Washed Out: Fresh-faced Georgian Ernest Greene took his bedroom synth-pop to the stage, first performing solo to create a chilled, late-night vibe, then working with a band to jack up the energy.

—DamFunk: The Los Angeles-based Damon Riddick mixed electro-funk grind with hard-knock-life lyrics.

—Capsula: Co-ed trio from Buenos Aires that took fans on a rollercoaster ride that split the difference between acid rock and punk.

—Nneka: Nigerian-German artist delivered fiery, politically charged lyrics with a hip-hop cadence over rolling reggae grooves.

—Telephunken: Electro-dance trio from Madrid who at times channeled the U.K. “Madchester” dance scene, circa Happy Mondays. But when they ripped into a technoflamenco hybrid, they made the music their own.

—60 Tigres: Yet another fine band from the fertile Monterrey, Mexico, scene, this one a quintet specializing in multipart harmonies over intricate arrangements.

—Broken Records: Scottish street corner rock with cello, violin, mandolin and accordion augmenting a double-guitar lineup for a series of songs that just kept getting fiercer and wilder as the set sped toward the finish.

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