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SXSW Day 1: All Aboard!


AUSTIN — The South by Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas, kicked off last night. As has been custom, a slightly later start than we wanted, a long drive, the need for food, working our way through the cattle-drive-like registration process, and wading into the mass of gnarled humanity out on 6th street caused us to miss the early Wednesday night showcases. Two early observations we can offer: Ironic mustaches seem to be trending down, while pizza-by-the-slice is on an uptick. Good trade-off! On the latter, you seem to be able to tailor your pie to fit your cultural identity down here. Death Metal Pizza, anyone?

But our trip was normal compared to a lot of Memphians making the scene in Austin this week. Late Tuesday night, a large, diverse group of local musicians and other music-industry types met up at Central Station to board a bus to Austin sponsored by the Memphis Music Foundation. The bus pulled out around midnight and around after noon on Wednesday, when photographer Justin Fox Burks and I stopped for lunch in Texarkana, I called one bus-rider to ask how the trip had gone. "Still going," was the answer I got back. More than 12 hours in, they were still a couple of hours outside of Austin.

One reason the trip took so long apparently was a long breakfast stop somewhere in Texas at a Cracker Barrel restaurant. Frankly, I don't think anything that happens in Austin this week is going to be as entertaining as the mental image of a motley bunch of local musicians including Harlan T. Bobo, Al Kapone, Jack Yarber of the Tearjerkers, and members of the Bar-Kays milling around a Cracker Barrel gift shop together, like members of an alien race trying to learn about an unknown culture. Inquiring minds want to know: Who on the bus was able to ace the golf-tees-in-a-wooden-square game found on every Cracker Barrel table? Who was able to get free the metal ring from the linked horseshoes? We will probe these mysteries in the days ahead.

But that busload of Memphians are only part of the larger-than-ever local contingent at SXSW this week. There are at least seven Memphis-centric showcases here over the next three days — two sponsored by the Music Foundation, two by Goner Records, and one each by MusicMemphis/$5 Cover, Ardent Studios, and rock band Lucero, who are here in full force with at least four high-profile shows. And this doesn't even include a myriad of standalone showcases by Memphis-connected artists this week.

With some of these showcases overlapping and with home-life demands forcing us to cut our trip a day short this year, we won't be able to be at all of the Memphis action, but we hope to report on five of the seven Memphis events. We also plan to sneak away from the local stuff to catch at least a handful of the more promising, interesting, or notable non-Memphis acts at SXSW this year. Look for a massive spread on both the local and non-local action in next week's print edition of the Flyer. Online, we'll follow up this post with daily reports tomorrow and Saturday.

Last night, with only a couple of Memphis bands on the schedule (hardcore No Comply and indie-rock Third Man) and both showcases too early for us to get too, we decided to try to scratch some names off our non-local "to see" list. Justin went for theatrical indie-rockers the Decemberists (which he said came across like "the house band at a Renaissance Fair"). I went to check out Scottish rockers Glasvegas, whose eponymous debut is one of the better albums I've heard so far this year.

A bit hit across the Atlantic and named one of Spin magazine's "Artists to Watch in 09" in a recent issue, the band had an overflow crowd by the time it took the stage nearly 45 minutes late (due to technical issues with an earlier set from Swedish indie-rockers Peter, Bjorn, and John) at the 6th street club Vice. The band's lead singer is a dead-ringer for a young Joe Strummer, a spiritual influence made literal by the bass player's Clash T-shirt. Dressed all in black with oddly shaped hair, they were awkward on stage. They had the air of small-town kids trying to look cool, but this potential turn-off was actually endearing: It fits with the overwhelming earnestness and plain-spoken quality of their music.

The band's set was uneven, but the small club still couldn't contain them — the loud, bass-heavy wallop of the music shook the walls and their catalogue of soaring anthems and singalong refrains demanded a bigger audience. If anything, the band seems like a younger, less steady companion to Brit/Irish arena bands like U2, Coldplay, and Oasis. But there are crucial differences, and not just musical. Stylistically, Glasvegas carves their sound from a combination of post-punk noise, ’60s pop (think Phil Spector), and Springsteenian working-stiff rock.

But I'm more struck by the difference in attitude and perspective — how much more literal and modest their music compared to how big it sounds. When bands like U2 or Coldplay sing about salvation and succor it's invariably in the form of a God, an Ideal, or a Hot Woman. When this band sings about an angel on your shoulder, it's a social worker. It's her job. Her name is Geraldine. And they give you the sense that in the hardscrabble world of missing parents, cheating hearts, and football cheers their music presents, the tangible function she serves is really important. People need all the help they can get. — Chris Herrington

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