The SXSW highlights reel

My brain's on fire.

It's the Monday after the madness of something like 1,100 bands playing 2,200 shows in four days. That why I was in Austin, Texas, last week, which is where they hold the yearly South By Southwest music conference/showcase/blowout/extravaganza. The thing just keeps growing, which means that if you hope to take in a good bit of it, as I did, you need a steely will and the stamina of a chimp on Ritalin, not to mention a willingness to end up with a blistered cerebellum.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is one of the biggest music festivals in the world. It's a place where "break out" bands can really take off on an international level and upstart acts can get noticed — not just by the old guard of big label executives but by the bloggers, writers, promoters, and indie labels who are dragging the music industry into the modern era

Some of this comes with a price, as when bands from England or Japan or New York hit the fest hard and play three shows in a day or six or seven gigs in the time they're in town. Doing all of this outdoors in the Texas heat is not easy. A few artists passed out this year and some needed I.V.s, but it would hardly be four-to-the-floor hardcore without some proud injuries.

And then there's the real lure for some: all the industry swag that the bad old capitalists know buys friends, even if they're just corruptible critics. And there's all the day parties, which are free because they're all hoping to lure bloggers. And there's the internationalist flair of the thing, with seemingly every country, no matter how obscure, represented with its own showcase performers, plus lots of free booze. This is where the steely will comes in: It takes self-restraint in the face of a cornucopia of alcohol gratis when it's all too easy to end up passed out before the sun sets.

But the real reason I was in Texas for four days last week is because it's one of the few places where someone like me could end up, say, standing next to a band from Soweto, which is standing next to a program director from the BBC, who's standing next to a major label exec, and they're all naturally talking shop. Opportunities were thick on the ground in the capital of the Lone Star state last week.

And what did we learn?

Contrary to what Spin would have you believe, Vampire Weekend is not the best new band in the country. They weren't even the best band staying at their hotel. What's glaringly obvious when you're thrown against 1,100 other artists boxed into a 20-block radius is that the hungriest bands can steal the slickest band's thunder in 30 minutes flat. Tons of writers went to Austin talking about British singer Duffy and Vampire Weekend and — well, neither of those acts deserve a whole lot of ink afterward.

Who people really need to start checking for in 2008 is Rootz Underground, a serious reggae band out of Kingston, Jamaica with as much soul power as Bob Marley and the Wailers had in the early '70s. Their set on Saturday night at Flamingo Cantina was electrifying. They'll be here in Miami April 26 for the TransAtlantic Festival.

Game Rebellion from Brooklyn set up a shop at one of the few hip-hop day parties at SXSW and stole the show from the Cool Kids and a bunch of other big-name rap acts on the bill. Game Rebellion is actually a black punk band that sounds like Bad Brains meets Oxbow with traces of Jay-Z and Tupac.

The best WTF? moments had to be Lou Reed playing a set with Moby. It was a good concept, not to mention a highly bloggable one, but what else was the point? At this stage in his life Reed is about as punk as a Mercedes Benz, and Moby? Come on.

Biggest surprise? That had to be the prowess that Pharell Williams and crew still have when they drop their pretentious hip-hop attitude and just rock out. The group is way better than the Neptunes' "Drop It Like It's Hot"/ "Hollerback Girl" stuff you hear on the radio. Don't miss 'em when they hit Miami May 6 with Kanye West at the American Airlines Arena. Expect them to outshine Kanye on his own bill.

Those were the highlights as far as I can recall, but there was really just too much to remember in Austin last week, including tons of great artists who may surface in our music pages in the coming year as they make their way to Florida. So much yet could spring from what just happened in 96 hours in Texas that it boggles the brain — sets it on fire, I say; and I'm not sure I even want it doused.

 
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