Around Hear

“Does anyone remember laughter?” said The Cult‘s pink-eyelined frontman, Ian Astbury, echoing a particularly ridiculous piece of Led Zeppelin concert banter with no evident irony. If anyone in the crowd at Stubb’s, a midsized outdoor concert venue/barbecue joint in Austin, Texas, had forgotten how to guffaw, Astbury’s Monkees-style tambourine antics and obtuse between-song commentary surely led them on the path back to giggles. Still, The Cult’s brief set, which paired hits such as “She Sells Sanctuary” with freshly minted tunes from the band’s impending Atlantic release, was no joke, although members of the post-rock contingent in attendance (who regard arena acts such as Astbury’s as empty ghosts of already extinguished dinosaurs) might have taken it as such.

The Cult’s gig differed from the thousand or so other performances at South by Southwest 2001 in many ways. For one thing, it wasn’t officially part of the conference. Revolver arranged the show, to which the unamused SXSW organizers responded by stripping the magazine’s staff members of their credentials. For another, South by Southwest didn’t belong to established groups, although performances from these bands might have caused the most hype. As 311 and Smashing Pumpkins proved last year with panic-inducing shows at smaller-than-usual area venues, hitting the clubs again provides an instant ego boost for aging buzz bands, the Beatlemania-style hysteria of loyal fans providing a welcome distraction from lagging record sales.

But while the Black Crowes packed Stubb’s with nostalgic followers who took Southern comfort in hearing jangly jams delivered at inexplicably high volumes, adventurous attendees took in the insanity next door at the Red Eyed Fly, where the drummer of the Austin-based group … And You Will Know Us by the Trail of the Dead tossed part of his kit through a banner posted over an open window. The discarded instrument bounced down a series of jagged rocks before plunging into Waller Creek, and its over-eager owner was preparing to heave the rest of his drumset into the void when the club’s staff intervened. The apocalyptic quartet, whose songs are meticulously arranged displays of disharmony, has been known by the trail of its decimated equipment for years, so it’s unlikely that its latest rampage was an attempt to prespend its major-label advance. (Persistent rumors had both Capitol and Interscope following the Trail.) Regardless, ex-Girl, an all-female trio from Tokyo, made Trail of Dead’s break-stuff rebellion seem commonplace. Taking the stage in truly bizarre space-age costumes, the ex-Girls created equally futuristic pop music, injecting squiggly effects into the band’s guitar and bass output and occasionally (without explanation) using stuffed animals as makeshift picks.

Although ex-Girl might have been the most entertaining, many other acts from overseas made lasting impressions. And while many of the writers, publicists and record label talent scouts who attended SXSW might not have been familiar with these performers, the international showcases were among the best draws; they offered a now-or-never must-see urgency that hard-touring American acts — such as, say, All — couldn’t match. Among the highlights: Canada’s The New Pornographers, which welcomed keynote speaker and former Kink Ray Davies onstage for a hook-filled number; Japan’s King Brothers, who didn’t smash anything but nonetheless one-upped Trail of Dead with an even more hectic display of anarchic noise; Spain’s Tony Carey, an erstwhile recluse who emerged from hiding to produce startlingly crisp acoustic renditions of such forgotten early ’80s hits as “A Fine, Fine Day” and “Why Me?”; and England’s Soft Boys, reunited twenty years after disbanding and rewarded for returning with a cushy slot next to moody yet melodic Scottish noisemakers Mogwai and enigmatic yet photogenic former Pavement-pounder Stephen Malkmus.

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Another UK act, Radiohead, inspired its share of excited mutterings, despite the noticeable handicap of being absent. Instead, the group’s label endorsed a listening party, at which critics got their first taste of the band’s June 2001 release, Amnesiac — or, as an unimpressed few were heard to mutter, Kid C+. Not making up the “normal” rock record that optimistic writers had predicted, these six songs merely weave a few more guitar strands into the muddled sea of bleeps, although one progressive epic brought to mind the sprawling majesty of early King Crimson. Still, the best Radiohead songs heard during the conference came from the group’s American doppelganger, Palo Alto, whose apparent thievery of Bends-sessions outtakes can be offensively derivative on record but seems genuinely endearing from the stage.

If one performance verified Austin’s self-assigned and often-repeated status as “the live-music capital of the world,” it was Kasey Chambers‘ outdoor set at Waterloo Park, which drew 7,000 enthusiastic fans. (She often noted that this was the largest audience she’d ever seen, occasionally tittering nervously and blurting, “You’re scaring me.”) Austin’s definitely got the venues to make it a mecca — dozens of clubs, all within walking distance on a single strip — but a scene needs listeners to survive, and that’s where this one shines. In how many cities could a relatively obscure Australian alt-country newcomer attract such an encouraging outpouring on a chilly evening? Granted, a) the show was free, b) more than a handful of the cheering fans were out-of-towners and c) this was Texas, and she was playing country. Still, the scene was inspiring, a purely affectionate valentine from a music town to an overwhelmed visitor, and Chambers responded with a set that justified its love.

Unconditional love was flowing at SXSW, as was forgiveness, which is how Ike Turner, who at one point would have been as well received as Terrell Owens seconds after dancing on the Cowboys’ Lone Star, left the stage to tremendous applause and chants of “We like Ike.” Benefiting from this supportive atmosphere was Kansas City, Kansas, resident and Rooster Blues recording artist D.C. Bellamy, who strutted his stuff in front of one of the four-night music event’s most explosive crowds. The next-best marriage of slot and venue went to Hadacol, which unveiled new material in front of an appreciative throng. Not quite as fortunate was Season to Risk, which drew the short straw, playing one of the rare clubs that was a Texas-sized stroll away from the main drag. Few show-hoppers were willing to venture far from Sixth Street, so the crowd was relatively sparse but, singer Steve Tulipana reports, enthusiastic.

Split Lip Rayfield fared better in the venue lottery, scoring the high-visibility Waterloo Brewing Company, where the band entertained a near-capacity crowd of both die-hard fans and open-minded pragmatists who strolled over after being unable to enter the sold-out David Byrne show next door. Waterloo proved very friendly to area acts because Springfield, Missouri, twangers Domino Kings and The Morrells dazzled fans the night before with stunning feats of instrumental virtuosity. In particular, The Morrells, a group that recently released its first album in eighteen years, seemed to set Austin ablaze, with the band’s name frequently being intoned into cell phones or dropped during the daytime panels. Although coming-out-of-deep-hibernation veterans and tarnished former stars of relatively recent vintage, for better or worse, now steal a bit of the thunder from lesser lights, seeing a band such as The Morrells — decidedly not glamorous or flavor-of-the-month — attract industry attention provides a reassuring sign of South by Southwest’s continuing relevance. The conference might not be devoted solely to unsigned acts anymore, but between the backslapping invitation-only parties and the mega-events, discovery still plays a major purpose. Granted, the local groups that performed at SXSW all are comfortably associated with reliable indie labels, so getting a deal wasn’t really their goal. For these artists, it was all about getting face time in front of genuine music aficionados and the people who aren’t really fans but play them every day at their major-label workplaces, enjoying the appealingly frantic atmosphere and, of course, remembering how to laugh.

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