South By Southwest

By Scott Faingold

My party line is this: I am a ball bearing, and the 2006 South By Southwest Music Conference is a massive pinball machine. Ommmm. This faux-Buddhist stance serves me well in the first hours of my SXSW experience, allowing me to ride out a messy and convoluted series of disasters without so much as a single heart palpitation. (Special thanks to Stuart Folb and Jeff Messina for their essential contributions on this front.)

I stumble amid the mist and drizzle into the glorified, be-tented parking lot that is Emo's Annex and promptly behold the first musical miracle of the day. The quirky, cheerful pop of Page France from Baltimore, Maryland, is as sunny as the weather is gray, and for the time they're on stage, all seems right with the world. People of all ages are bobbing their heads happily, and I hear several audience members asking each other the name of the band. That's Page France, people. And once you figure out that they're singing about God, try not to hold it against them. There's a lot of good music about God.

Such wholesome good vibes are dispensed forthwith to the four winds with the arrival of Castanets, a cruel and moody band from California that specializes in noisy guitar assaults dynamically alternating with near-whispered passages. Their live show is bluesier and more dynamic than the band's First Light's Freeze CD, sometimes calling to mind a demonically possessed nephew to Creedence Clearwater Revival. Head �net Raymond Raposa is backed up tonight by Houstonian psych-folk diva Jana Hunter, who provides terse bass lines and deceptively sweet harmonies. At one point, a passing police siren lands right in key with the music, lending it an even greater air of real-time menace. This is indeed the sound of trouble.

A quick hop across the way to Emo's proper brings me face-to-face with a UK band known as Field Music. These guys have generated serious buzz based on their studio recordings, which I haven't heard but which have been likened to Steely Dan in terms of sophistication and musical proficiency. Unfortunately, not one of these qualities is on display tonight. Instead, the youthful three-piece seems tentative, totally screwing up the count-in of their first song and never quite regaining equilibrium. What's most striking about their set is how much their minimal guitar-drums-keyboard sound seems to echo Austin's biggest local success story of 2005, Spoon. Imagine traveling from England to Texas just to do a Spoon imitation at Emo's. The mind boggles.

A quick run by Stubb's confirms my suspicion that there is no way in hell I'm gonna try to force my way into the Matador Records showcase, packed to the gills as it is with the anyone-who's-anyone crowd. I stand on the sidewalk and listen to Canadian sensations the New Pornographers perform their perfect pop songs to nearly Cheap Trick at Budokan-like screams of adulation. Good for them, but I can see that my help is not needed here. Instead I head over to Club One-15, where the Dirty South is being represented hard-core to a crowd consisting of only the most elitely blunted and exquisitely pimped out. I figure this is my best chance to catch up with my co-blogger, John Nova Lomax, who wandered off in a haze several hours earlier, but no dice. Instead I nod my head in solitude.

I spend the wee hours as Wednesday edges into Thursday at the out-of-the-way Karma Lounge, a noir-et-rouge-schemed place lined with swanky couches, which looks like nothing so much as David Lynch's idea of a makeout club. This is a perfect setting for the Weird Weeds, whose chamber-cabaret-noise musings seem even spookier and more sensual for the surroundings. "I wonder what Belle and Sebastian are playing right now," says Weeds drummer-vocalist Nick Hennies sardonically to the sparse crowd. The Weeds are followed by Washington, D.C.'s exquisitely emotional Gena Rowlands Band, whose singer, Bob Massey, visibly draws tears from more than one rapt listener with his unironic tales of media-saturated heartache. At the beginning of the set, Massey asks the audience to step a little closer. "We're a real quiet band and we'll put you right to sleep on those couches," he says. For the last song, he asks us to move nearer still and sings "Mercy," completely off microphone, while his bandmates chime in behind with simple yet uncanny gospel-tinged harmonies. For the few of us there, it is almost unbearably intimate -- and a perfect, whispered finale to a frenzied day.

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