It's easy to quantify the scope of South By Southwest, the massive annual music-industry showcase that overtook Austin, Texas, during the exhausting extended weekend of March 17-20. The numbers don't lie: More than 1,000 bands perform on more than 50 stages for tens of thousands of people, creating a chaotic rush of clashing sounds, endless logistics, and beer-sodden interaction with fans, musicians, and industry types alike.
Any report on SXSW is bound to be woefully incomplete by definition: During any given moment between 1 p.m. and 2 a.m. each day, everyone in attendance is missing a favorite band somewhere. So here's a brief, far-from-comprehensive snapshot of SXSW 2004's memorable moments, as painstakingly scrawled on the back of unwanted business cards, cocktail napkins, religious tracts, and free phone cards.
Excellent New York City comedian Eugene Mirman is no stranger to opening for rock bands, but his current stint touring with Modest Mouse can't have prepared him for the challenge of telling jokes on stage at SXSW. It's hard enough to warm up drunken rock fans without the benefit of music; doing so when said drunken rock fans are loudly networking and catching up on old times qualifies Mirman for some sort of combat medal. Note to the guy yelling "David Cross!" at Eugene Mirman: David Cross would hate you.
Modest Mouse singer Isaac Brock starts the band's fierce set by imitating Mr. T, telling a packed house to quit its jibber-jabber. A recent lineup expansion finds the group more capable than ever of re-creating studio nuances on stage; consequently, the amazing "Bury Me With It" (from the upcoming Good News For People Who Love Bad News) and the classic "Third Planet" sound better than ever.
Hundreds pack a large room in the Austin Convention Center, where they eagerly await the arrival of keynote speaker Little Richard. Will this be the day the reticent legend finally drops the false modesty and takes credit for his role in the creation of rock 'n' roll? Stay tuned…
Outstanding Scottish pop band The Trashcan Sinatras hasn't released an album since 1996's A Happy Pocket, so the group decided to promote the upcoming Weightlifting by making no fewer than five SXSW appearances, the first of which took place on a sterile, fluorescent-lighted day stage. In spite of the weird surroundings—singer Frank Reader joked that keyboardist Roddy Hart felt at home because he's a shower-ring salesman—the band once again proved that there's a good way to make music that's not too far left of adult-contemporary.
Gifted Definitive Jux rapper Jean Grae doesn't need to be reminded that SXSW isn't the ideal venue for her incisive, forcefully authoritative hip-hop: Between songs, she pauses to admonish the placid but appreciative crowd, "Y'all better act like this is a motherfuckin' rap show." The audience responds by applauding politely.
Police break up a fight along the generally peaceful main drag. Someone goes to jail in Texas.
Thursday night's line-too-long-to-bother show: Scottish hype recipient Franz Ferdinand.
Early in the day, in a nondescript room hidden in the bowels of a larger rock complex, Now It's Overhead attracts a few dozen bleary-eyed fans, then proceeds to pound out a rock set commanding enough to hold an amphitheater crowd in thrall. At the festival's midpoint, exhaustion is still just a perfect chorus away from elation.
Friday night's line-too-long-to-bother show: The punkvoter.com showcase featuring NOFX, Alkaline Trio, and David Cross. Likelihood of pointed and/or hilarious Bush-bashing inside: 165 percent.
The least likely place to enjoy a band whose intricate, intimate breakthrough album practically demands headphones is at a 2,000-capacity outdoor barbecue joint, but Broken Social Scene plays with a joy so immense, it could work anywhere. The large Canadian collective played the highlights from You Forgot It In People with abandon, feeding off the huge crowd's energy. Remarked one of the many faces on stage: "You smell good, Austin. You smell like home. You smell like weed!"
Yet another line-too-long-to-bother show: TV On The Radio at the Touch And Go Records showcase, although fans stream out just in time for The New Year, the sequel-band to Bedhead. The Kadane brothers try out somber, powerful new songs from their upcoming The End Is Near.
Four days into an exhausting but ever-rewarding festival, a stroll past a Mexican restaurant brings one of those happy accidents that only seem to happen at SXSW: In a corner of the restaurant's patio, Robyn Hitchcock, John Wesley Harding, and Ken Stringfellow stand wielding acoustic guitars and no microphones. For half an hour, they perform a mesmerizing set that includes The Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," Prince's "U Got The Look," and a sublime rendition of The Kinks' "Waterloo Sunset." Perfect.
Canadian rock titan Danko Jones (and the band that bears his name) easily wins over a crowd waiting for The Hives by showering it with Kiss-like thunder. "This band is not part of the alternative nation," he shouts. "This band is part of the rock nation!"
While thousands groggily wake up and pick the cigarette butts out of their hair, a downtown street corner is already awash in pummeling noise from no fewer than four distinct locations. There's not a human being in sight.