A Sad Salvation

At SXSW, you couldn't hear the bad news over all that music

Still, the oldies delivered: Blur, playing to a packed house at La Zona Rosa on Thursday night, is now in its Sandinista! phase; Damon Albarn even introduced one song as a Clash homage, and he wasn't starting a "White Riot." (As evidenced by the awkward movement of the crowd, it's dance music for people who don't go dancing--or leave the house--too often.) And the band's moved so far past its past that "Girls & Boys" now sounds like it was recorded in 1984, not '94. Mark Gardener, touring in support of a new Ride best-of, played the trade show at the convention center, and even acoustic he never once gazed at his shoes. It was an impossible place to perform--smack in the middle of the Blender magazine booth and the Miller Lite kiosk manned by two chicks in half-tees--and it had the vibe of a talent-show tryout; still, Gardener passed the audition.

Joe Jackson, who pretty much closed out the fest Saturday night at the Music Hall, proved how fine the line between oldies act and upstart newcomer. Backed by old mates ditched after they went beat crazy in 1980, Jackson played the standards ("Is She Really Going Out With Him," "Fools in Love," etc.), but more fulfilling were the new songs off the just-released Volume 4; Jackson's been reborn in middle age playing alongside men he's known since he was a kid. (Too bad the cavernous joint was damned near empty; seems the rocknoscenti were smokin' up Supergrass at Stubb's.) The same goes for Camper Van Beethoven, who sounds better now than the first go-round--reunited 'cause it sounds so good.

The best SXSW moments are the surprises, the unknown commodities who've sold themselves by the weekend's end: KaitO, fronted by two chicks made out of Elastica and a guitarist who looks like a young Richard Thompson and plays like a young Jimmy Page; the Shazam, Tennessee titans of power pop who sound like Cheap Trick and the Who and know it; Petty Booka, two women from Japan who play ukulele and cover Gomez; and the Venue, Swedes who think they're all Ray Davies and it's still 1964. Don't see a Norah Jones busting out of this year's fest, but if there was one band there worth making the Big Leap, it's England's Grand Drive, who've been together since 1997, have released three critically adored albums and three EPs in the U.K., have gotten considerable airplay at home on BBC and XFM and are only now getting any kind of U.S. distribution on a BMG subsidiary. (Private Music will release a best-of compilation next month.) "We're considered U.K. Americana, whatever that means," says singer-guitarist Danny Wilson, whose brother Julian plays keys in a band that sounds like Fred Neil Finn (and only five of you will get that, sorry). Oughta crossover like Kevin Garnett, but just try finding the radio station that plays beautiful pop with an EastEnder's western twang.

Ted Leo, performing with the Pharmacists, wore this same shirt to two gigs in a row. Very rock.
John Anderson
Ted Leo, performing with the Pharmacists, wore this same shirt to two gigs in a row. Very rock.
The D4 were a SXSW band that didn't sound like Neil Young. They just look like him, sort of.
John Anderson
The D4 were a SXSW band that didn't sound like Neil Young. They just look like him, sort of.

SXSW has become a place where labels launch new bands and shill new product, but still the hopefuls come seeking elusive deals; there was Jack Lee, once a legendary Nerve and a Paul Young hitmaker, passing out two-song samplers in front of the convention center, grinning at the grunt work. But no one came farther looking for more than Abbos Qosimov, who brought from Uzbekistan a small version of his eponymous big band in search of U.S. representation and, yeah, even a recording contract.

Abbos, which comes with two guys blowing Louis Armstrong notes out of karnay (a copper horn that looks like a tall lamp), wasn't on the SXSW schedule because it never turned in its registration paperwork; there had been a visa problem even after the Uzbekistan Ministry of Culture had requested the band's appearance. When it showed up, organizers were stunned and scrambled to find showcases; by week's end, Abbos had done three, including one at an after-hours party, where pretty young girls moved and grooved to the sound of the JB Horns fronted by Lester Chambers on a Middle Eastern kick. (You can hear them at www.uzonline.com/abbos.)

Qosimov looks like a café au lait Larry Fishburne, and donned in white and golden robes and a skull cap, he was more the Rock Star than anyone else at SXSW. (Most bands look like they're fronted by guys who sold pot in high school or the girls who used to date them.) He was the sudden hit of SXSW, doing interviews for CNN on the convention center rooftop and beating hell out of four doiras (tambourine-like instruments) with his bandaged fingertips anytime someone asked. At 2 o'clock Sunday morning, as the band finished its gig in the black-box theater at the Hideout on Sixth Street and Congress, the audience of 100 cheered, stomped its feet against the wooden floor and stood for minutes that seemed like hours. Though he speaks no English, outside of a "thank you" or "jazz music," Qosimov needed no translator to understand what that meant.

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