Put up a fight

With bands like these, who needs Austin anyway?

The Old 97's have been the darlings of South by Southwest since their first appearance, playing high-profile gigs every year at packed venues--including last year's festival-ending performance with X's John Doe at the see-and-be-seen Spin party, traditionally the toughest invite in town. The festival has been good to the band, garnering it a major-label deal (well, sort of) with Elektra Records and famous and semi-famous fans, including Waylon Jennings and Janeane Garafalo. And this year's gig was no exception, except the star power was a little less bright. Sorry, fellas--an appearance by the remarkably short Elijah Wood doesn't exactly up your hip quotient, unless all of your fans are 15 years old and girls.

For the first time in several years, though, the Old 97's Thursday-night show at La Zona Rosa wasn't the place to be. Well, it was, but not because of them. Or at least, not solely because of them. This year, the band had the fortune of being sandwiched between a couple of this year's festival's mascots: Lo-Fidelity Allstars and Built to Spill. And also for the first time, the Old 97's weren't headlining an alt-country hootenanny, which--if you've heard any of Fight Songs, the band's next album that's coming to a store near you on April 27--makes complete sense.

If you haven't heard Fight Songs yet--and why not, seeing as how everyone in town seems to have a copy?--know this: As singer-guitarist Rhett Miller recently admitted, the album is a return to the sound of Miller and bassist Murry Hammond's previous band, Sleepy Heroes. Don't be alarmed, because it's not that big of a jump. All it really means is that Miller's twang gets ironed out and that guitarist Ken Bethea trades in his single-string guitar leads for something with a little more pop. It's not as if Fight Songs is a return to Rhett's Exploding, which Miller still insists is a good band name. Como se dice "not really"?

Surprisingly, Miller and the band decided to unveil only a trio of songs from Fight Songs, including the lead single "Murder (Or a Heart Attack)" and one of the best songs Hammond has ever had a chance to sing, "Crash on the Barrel Head." Not exactly the best way to get a buzz started about a markedly different new record, especially one that Elektra has high hopes for. Of course, Elektra may already have that problem sorted by arranging to have a song off of Fight Songs, "Nineteen," appear as the main song in the new ad campaign for Felicity.

The set was unexpectedly short, as well, ending abruptly after fewer than 10 songs. But at least the boys went out with a bang. Joining them onstage for the set-closing "Four Leaf Clover" was former X singer Exene Cervenkova. Her arrival finally enlivened the band, which had been dealing with technical problems up until that point. Especially animated was Miller, a devout X fan. For Miller, it was the completion of a cycle: Two years ago, Cervenkova joined the band during the same song on Stubb's outdoor stage. At the Spin party last year, Miller got a chance to play Exene to John Doe's, um, John Doe. This go-around, Exene let him be Doe. Next year: Rhett Miller as the baby-faced Billy Zoom.

Even though the Old 97's gig didn't live up to past performances, the band has still played more shows at South by Southwest than The Deathray Davies have, well, ever. Making its third appearance on Wednesday night at Emo's, the band--singer-guitarist John Dufilho, drummer Matt Kellum, organ player Rachel Smith, bassist Jason Garner, and Peter Schmidt on guitar--didn't have much of a chance to make an impression. By the time the Deathrays finished up, only a handful of people were in the room.

The light attendance couldn't really have been helped, and the band certainly didn't warrant it, playing most of the songs off its impossibly catchy new disc Drink With the Grown-Ups & Listen to the Jazz, which has only been out a few days. The problem is, playing a Wednesday-night showcase is like not playing one at all, since most people don't arrive until Thursday anyway. And most of the people who were in town were at the Toadies' set down the street.

But the Deathray Davies at least proved to a few people that they can do it live as a band as well as Dufilho did it on his own on Drink With the Grown-Ups. Plus, it was the first time former Funlanders Schmidt and Toadies guitarist Clark Vogeler have been onstage at the same time in about three years, albeit separated by two blocks and a few thousand fans. And Dufilho gets bonus points for not only showing up, but playing back-to-back shows with Bedwetter and the Deathray Davies, even though he reportedly had been sick as German porn for the previous two days, subtracting everything he tried to add.

And speaking of drinking with grown-ups (and possibly regretting it later), the members of Go Metric USA may want to lay off of that practice for a little while. Or ever. The band's set Thursday night at Maggie Mae's degenerated into a shouting match between guitarist Michael Cullen, singer-guitarist Mitch Greer, and bassist Lindsay Romig, culminating with Greer screaming into the microphone, "This is fucking anarchy!" Apparently, the guys and girl had patched things up by Saturday, when they were spotted hanging peacefully at a party for online 'zine Insound at Club DeVille. And Greer still believed Go Metric had been able to pull it off, that the drunken war of words wasn't that noticeable. Which, I guess, is all that counts.

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