SXSW 2005: The crowds, the hype bands and all the Shiner Bock you can drink

"This is like The Apprentice for indie rock bands," said Stars lead singer Torquil Campbell at the band's afternoon showcase at Emo's. It's probably an apt description of how it felt to be onstage, one of roughly a gajillion bands, screaming your vocal cords raw at 3 p.m. for a bunch of hipsters who just came for the beer. From the audience, though, SXSW 2005 felt like Mardi Gras for cool kids, with all that event's debauchery. And crowds. And stink. Of course, attendants don't collect beads so much as lanyards and VIP invites--but either way, showing your tits always helps.

South by So What?

There was a time when SXSW was genuinely devoted to unsigned talent, but it has simply grown too big for such a noble cause. Instead, major-label bands compete for next-big-thing status: Last year, the Killers appeared at the festival as relative unknowns in Prada suits; a year later they're on the cover of Spin.

Clockwise from left: Billy Idol, The Futureheads, Robert 
Plant, Tegan and Sara, and The Doves
Clockwise from left: Billy Idol, The Futureheads, Robert Plant, Tegan and Sara, and The Doves

For months now, hype has been in overdrive for a glut of UK bands: The Futureheads, Bloc Party, Kaiser Chiefs, Louis XIV, Dogs Die in Hot Cars. Like buzz bands of the past, who stitched together the sounds of Radiohead and Coldplay (or, say, Depeche Mode and the Cure), this year's crop shares anti-melodic, herky-jerky rhythms drawing from such quirky '80s art-rock bands as Talking Heads and XTC. Should you believe the hype? I certainly don't. I find The Futureheads' self-titled debut cold and boring; that said, they may have been the best band I saw at the festival this year. Their live show is tight and energetic and fun--full of handclaps, precise harmonies, giddy Townshend pinwheels and audience participation for their Kate Bush cover, "Hounds of Love." That's good news for badge holders, some of whom waited up to two hours for The Futureheads' Thursday-night show at La Zona Rosa. (And wristband holders? Forget it.) I was so impressed I saw the band twice; that said, I doubt I'll ever pick up their album again.

On the other hand, Bloc Party--whose Silent Alarm I actually kind of enjoy--had a listless set at the Friday-afternoon Spin party. "We're not used to performing in the sun," said bassist Gordon Moakes--and it showed. He seemed to be lulling himself to sleep. The band was cursed with false starts and distracting microphone difficulties and never quite found its groove. Does that spell doom for Bloc Party? Doubtful. They have a black lead singer with a thick South London accent, making the band about 10,000 times more memorable than all the other white dudes with guitars. I couldn't pick out the lead singer of The Futureheads (or The Doves, or Dogs Die in Hot Cars, or the Kaiser Chiefs) from a police lineup. With his dreads and stubble and darling overbite, Kele Okereke is unmistakable. At a place where originality can be as critical as talent, that can make all the difference.

South by South Wait

Although attendance at the festival was not necessarily higher than previous years (at press time those numbers weren't available), SXSW reportedly sold more badges than ever. For badge holders like me, that was abundantly clear--from the one- and two-hour lines to register (to register!) to the ridiculous, 'round-the-block wait for such buzz showcases as the Friday-night UK lineup at Buffalo Billiards, aptly titled "SuK on This!" You'd be more likely to bed Robert Plant than get into this show, featuring Dogs Die in Hot Cars, Embrace and The Go! Team (the cheerleader-punkers NME called "one of the greatest bands in the world today"). When I showed up, the venue was already over-capacity, and a bouncer on a megaphone begged the crowd to stop wasting its time. "There is probably no way you are getting into this show!" he told them. I briefly considered the Stephen Malkmus set, but the line snaked ominously down the street. I returned to a previous venue, saw a shitty band whose name I never bothered to learn and promptly took a cab to a dark, quiet bar away from downtown where the only credentials I needed were my ID and a $20 bill. Thank-by-thank-God.

Faced with that kind of limited after-dark access, I found myself taking advantage of afternoon showcases. At the Saturday-afternoon New Times party, I enjoyed a shockingly intimate set from Britpop buzz band Aqualung and a serviceable performance from Denmark's Raveonettes that made me long to listen to their (superior) prior album, Chain Gang of Love. Tag Team Media hosted a bang-up free party featuring The Wrens, Stars, Pedro the Lion and Tegan and Sara. Stars front man (and sometimes actor) Torquil Campbell came off like Canada's version of Johnny Rotten, beating his chest and dissing the government, leaving no question whom he referenced with a T-shirt that read, "Goodbye, Fascist."

Stars hail from the newly chic-ified Montreal. Their third album, Set Yourself on Fire, is a gorgeous collection of keys, horns and romantic cynicism, which has the sound of new wave without the hollow center (their last album was called Heart). "We write all our songs about fucking people you don't like," Campbell joked. On album, it's the breathy soprano of guitarist and sometime vocalist Amy Millan that sets their sound apart; onstage, Campbell raised the bar for an afternoon of smart singer-songwriters, including a perhaps too-subdued Pedro the Lion and sister act Tegan and Sara, whose sibling harmonies sound even more chilling live than they do on their album, So Jealous.

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