One thing about music conferences that's always a bit surprising to me is how few of the musicians playing them in hopes of being "discovered" bother going to the daytime panel discussions -- panels led by the very people they hope will discover them. They'll show up and play their evening showcase, but not avail themselves of the professional opportunities -- and SXSW seems no different in that regard. Sure, there are usually a lot of people milling about in the conference center, but compared to the many thousands of musicians playing the fest, there's practically no one here.
Case in point: a demo listening seminar on Friday afternoon, led by Lawrence Gelburd, a Philadelphia-based music producer who I'd met before at Harrisburg's Millennium Music Conference. Attendees put their demos in a box, which were pulled out at random, played for 1-2 minutes, at which point the four producers on the panel offered constructive criticism and asked questions. Continue for about 90 minutes.
It's certainly not the most glamorous way to spend the afternoon, especially when the Australian government is offering free booze, barbecue and bands just across the street. Which is probably why there were maybe 30 people in the room for the panel. But I did see some new acts get hooked up with producers who were interested in working with them, which seems ultimately more exciting.
The trade show is another aspect that can be overlooked. Sure, it's a bit square - demos of music gear you probably can't afford and that's not released yet, and awkward conversations with spokespeople. But I signed up to win a lot of music gear, learned about some new band management/organizational software, and ran into Jason Stollsteimer and Don Blum of The Von Bondies, making the rounds of the booths, and from what I could tell, walking out with some serious loot. (As a teen-ager in Michigan, my first real writing assignment was a CD review of Blum's old sci-fi punk band Mazinga, for Ann Arbor Current.)
The night's music started out with a tromp down to La Zona Rosa, a large club on the outskirts of SXSW, for the Scottish Arts Council showcase. The openers, enthusiastic young band We Were Promised Jetpacks, seemed ecstatic with the large crowd they played to. "Back home, nobody gives a fuck," the singer crowed. I briefly considered just parking it at La Zona Rosa for the night, in that the rest of the lineup included Danananananykroyd, Camera Obscura, The Proclaimers, Glasvegas (who'd I'd failed at seeing the first night) and Primal Scream. One could certainly do worse ... but it was time to check in with some folks from back home.
Walking in the door of the Tap Room at Six, the first thing I noticed is that I'd been here before: It's where I saw Black Tie Revue (R.I.P.) play their SXSW showcase two years ago. The second thing I notice is Michael Kastelic of The Cynics, checking out the performance by The Ugly Beats, along with Gregg and Barbara of the Pittsburgh-based Get Hip label.
Emily Rodgers and her band were hanging out in the back room, seeming a bit overwhelmed yet energized by the maelstrom raging outside. Rodgers had already played one show today, solo, in a nearby bookstore. Tonight's showcase is for Misra, the label that recently signed her.
As her band kicked off the first song, Rodgers stood almost completely still, her eyes often closed, sometimes glancing down at a music stand. As she sang the chorus, "everything is better when you're around," I was reminded most of Canadian singer-songwriter Kathleen Edwards. Throughout the set, the band maintained a fairly slow, loping pulse, with lonesome, echoing guitars that built toward an explosive, raging finale. Get Hip's Gregg Kostelich seemed genuinely pleased and surprised by Rodgers (perhaps even a bit regretful that he didn't sign her?).
After Rodgers' set, it was time for me to hit the roadhouse-style club Antone's, an Austin landmark, where I caught Portland singer-songwriter Mirah as well as St. Vincent (a.k.a. Annie Clark), performing new material from the forthcoming follow-up to her excellent album Marry Me. St. Vincent's performance proved as fascinating and complex as I remembered from a previous show, but the setup time for all the electronics and instruments was interminable. Compounding the problem was that, all around me, doofus guys kept up an unceasing chorus of "Marry me, Annie!" An interesting update on the traditional cat-call, true -- but still, you don't want to be that dude.