Well, thank God that's over. There's no bigger feeling of relief than watching Austin recede in the rearview mirror on that post-SXSW Sunday afternoon. Though some aspects of the annual music festival were inevitably affected by the current recession — according to the Austin Chronicle, the number of registrants to the music conference was down 10 percent this year, and the cornucopia of free promotional items known as "swag" was a shadow of its former self — the music certainly wasn't.
Almost 2,000 artists set up shop in the capital city last week, ranging from complete unknowns to heavyweights like Metallica, Jane's Addiction and Kanye West. The result is a never-ending tide of music that is both overwhelming and exhilarating. Walking down 6th Street or Red River with a different type of music blasting out of every doorway can be sensory overload of the best kind; waiting in one club for one band to set up its gear and/or finish a sound check can feel like you're trapped in a Beckett play.
And it's frustrating to know that even if you forego necessities like food and sleep for these four days — which, although no one at SXSW will ever admit it, simply cannot be done — you're still only going to see a tiny sliver of what's available. However, that can be alleviated by a little careful planning and leaving enough leeway to be surprised. The following performances, then, constitute Noise's SXSW 09 honor roll.
Dave Alvin & the Guilty Women: The L.A. roots-rock statesman (Blasters, Knitters, X) paid tribute to his late best friend and former bandmate Chris Gaffney (Hacienda Brothers) with a suite of songs from May's Yep Roc album A Man of Somebody's Dreams: A Tribute to the Songs of Chris Gaffney. Veering from red-blooded roadhouse rockers like "Lift Your Leg" and sad-hearted Spanish ballads to elbow-bending jukebox twangers like "Six Nights a Week," Alvin and his all-star one-off band juiced the packed Continental Club.
Somber remembrances like "The Man of Somebody's Dreams" and "Artesia" were emotional but never maudlin, and the capper came with a closing Cajun two-step of "Fight (Tonight's the Night)" and "Marie, Marie" — not on the tribute album, but as Alvin noted, always an "accordion showpiece" for Gaffney — that was pure Louisiana lightnin'. The best single SXSW set Noise has seen in many a moon.
Austin Music Awards: Austin's annual pat on the back to its music scene can feel a little self-congratulatory to outsiders — several winners thanked "the best fans in the world" — but this year's performances more than justified the capital city's high opinion of itself. Reunited Texas hardcore trailblazers the Dicks knocked out a powerful five-song set of prime proto-punk, welcoming Scratch Acid's David Yow for some guest writhing on "Wheelchair Epidemic"; during the Doug Sahm tribute, multiple winner Alejandro Escovedo and teenage Austin roots-rockers the Fireants teamed up for a "Too Little Too Late" that was neither; and Roky Erickson and the Black Angels conjured all manner of spirits during an acid-flashback (and flash-forward?) set highlighted by the womb-like "Splash 1" and black-hearted finale "You're Gonna Miss Me."
Bogart & the Addictives: At least once every SXSW, some random band will make you suspend whatever plans you may have had to head in and watch. This year, it was this quartet from Toulouse, France, who combined the rhythmic precision of the Rolling Stones circa Some Girls with the jittery, nerve-jangling rock of Franz Ferdinand. Their cover of Joy Division's "Transmission" packed enough adrenaline to make Ian Curtis sit bolt upright in his grave.
Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles: Boston's Borges and her band the Broken Singles more than held their own among luminaries like Jimmie Vaughan and the Texas Tornadoes at Thursday's Doug Sahm tribute. Picking a pair of relatively obscure Sahm songs, Borges's Southern-steeped pipes shone on melancholy country shuffle "Wanna Be Your Mama Again," and her prickly guitar powered the Broken Singles through a barrelhouse version of Blonde on Blonde-like country-rocker "You're Out Walking the Streets Tonight."
Decemberists: Noise saw the Decemberists supporting 2006's The Crane Wife, and generally wrote off the extra-large Portland group as too fey by half. Colin Meloy and crew sure changed his mind at Stubb's, though. Performing new album-length medieval fairy tale The Hazards of Love front to back, the Decemberists sprinkled pixie dust across an eldritch landscape of Arcade Fire chorales and formidable electric folk that rocked out like Led Zeppelin or Deep Purple. An almost sure bet to return for September's Austin City Limits Music Festival.
Early Man: Slumped at the back of the Eastside's Longbranch Inn Saturday around midnight, Noise figured he was a goner. Then this Brooklyn quartet blasted off with a set of primal old-school power metal; the bulldozer riffs and skull-pounding drums of songs like "Feeding Frenzy" cleared out the cobwebs like a broom attached to a jackhammer.
Echo & the Bunnymen: SXSW fatigue was starting to set in hard by Friday afternoon, so the Liverpool quintet's headlining set at the Spin party made a perfect tonic. Early songs like "Villiers Terrace" and "The Back of Love" radiated seething post-punk energy from Will Sergeant's guitar, while the acoustic overlay of "Seven Seas" and "The Killing Moon" added a melancholy psychedelic sheen to Ian McCulloch's dreamy lyrics. Impeccable closer "Lips Like Sugar," bolstered by Sergeant's reverb-heavy lead, rolled up all that fatigue into a tidy little package and sent it on its way.
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Glasvegas: This Scottish quartet rode into SXSW on a mountain of hype as towering as its gorgeous melodies. Although some songs felt frayed around the edges, and others somehow incomplete, overall Glasvegas anchored its swaths of effects-drenched guitar to sturdy, stout rhythms. Obvious debt to fellow Glaswegians the Jesus & Mary Chain (and maybe Belle & Sebastian, a little) aside, the pure pop perfection of singles "Geraldine" and "Daddy's Gone" is impossible to deny.
Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears: Texas has a new king of R&B — the gutbucket soul of vintage James Brown and Sam & Dave, mind you, not contemporary crooners like Anthony Hamilton or John Legend — and his name is Black Joe Lewis. Showcasing songs off his terrific new Lost Highway album Tell 'Em What Your Name Is, Austin's Lewis showed he's learned a few things from his Gulf Coast elders: He sang with the gospel urgency of Baytown's Joe Tex and fingered his guitar with the stinging bite of Albert Collins or Little Joe Washington (whose T-shirt he wore). Meanwhile, backing band the Honeybears — anchored by former Houstonian Ian Varley (Drop Trio) and a scary-good three-man horn section — hit all their Stax-saluting marks with gusto.
ZZ Top: Okay, the lil' ol' band from Texas's RodeoHouston finale had nothing to do with SXSW, but nothing in Austin last week could compare to watching ZZ do its thang in front of more than 64,000 screaming hometown fans. Conquering Reliant Stadium's cavernous acoustics — actually, the mix made songs like "Jesus Just Left Chicago," "Just Got Paid" and "Cheap Sunglasses" sound extra Mississippi muddy — the trio tossed in twangy covers of Johnny Cash's "Get Rhythm" and Hank Snow's "I'm Movin On" before closing out with the patented power-boogie of "La Grange" and "Tush." After half a week of hipster hell, it sure was nice to be back in the land of turkey legs and funnel cakes.