Bands on the Run

Amid the SXSW cacophony, there was good stuff to be found

You could hear it all along 6th Street, Red River and South Congress: the dull roar of a couple thousand bands; bass and drums cranked to the max by sound guys who didn't care anymore; block-long lines to see some British buzz band no one will remember in three years; truly great acts like Baltimore's Arbouretum fighting to be heard over the clamor of slum bar venues such as Eternal, Co-Op Bar and Uncle Flirty's Loft. All in all, just another SXSW.

The stench of nostalgia was heavy in the air as well—with Pete Townshend AND the Stooges in town, it was damn near unavoidable. Still, the best old-timers stood out easily above the din: Donovan's show in the Central Presbyterian Church—easily the fest's best venue—was a magical communal experience, with old fans and new converts singing along to hits such as "Mellow Yellow" and "Season of the Witch." Even at 60, he hasn't lost his edge, though it's fair to say the Ren fair hippie troubadour didn't have much of one to begin with.

Friday's 50th Anniversary Stax Revue at Antone's was even better. The line of badge holders alone stretched around the block to hear Booker T and the MGs play a full set of instrumental favorites before backing soul legends William Bell and Eddie Floyd, who treated the crowd to electric versions of classics such as "You Don't Miss Your Water" and "Knock On Wood." Even Isaac Hayes was in the house, looking much cooler than he sounded after years of wear and tear, but providing a thrill nonetheless.

We managed to navigate the sea of lesser-known acts skillfully, with nary a bad set along the way, save the colossal disappointments of Sweden's Peter Bjorn and John—who couldn't live up to the promise of their irresistible "Young Folks" single—and reclusive Texas noise-folk legend Jandek, who looked like an extra from Dark City and sounded even scarier, filling the Central Presbyterian Church with droning noise and bad beat poetry.

Thankfully other groups lived up to the hype and then some. Beirut's jam-packed set at Emo's was loose but triumphant, a glorious cacophony of gypsy horns, accordion and the urgent, Old World vocals of 21-year-old New Mexico native Zach Condon, who led an impressive batch of post-Mangum folk bands in an Austin takeover.

The tragically pedigreed singer-songwriter Elvis Perkins (the son of Psycho actor Anthony Perkins, who succumbed to AIDS in 1992, and photographer Berry Berenson, whose plane crashed into the World Trade Center) likewise entranced the crowd at the No Depression party, playing an energetic set of songs off his just-re-released debut Ash Wednesday—aided by harmonium, stand-up bass and a madman with a marching drum.

We also caught like-minded Canadians Rock Plaza Central three times, and the Toronto collective didn't disappoint in their first Texas appearances. Are We Not Horses, the group's excellent concept album about robotic horses (sure, it sounds bad on paper, but go with us here), finally hits U.S. stores in April; for fans of Okkervil River, it's a must-own.

Other highlights—and there were plenty—included the anthemic '70s folk-pop of California's Dusty Rhodes and the River Band, the Crazy Horse-gone-indie blues of Vancouver's Ladyhawk, the quirky songs and storytelling of avant-garde country eccentric Jim White and, last but not least, the hypnotic acoustic tunes of Alela Diane, a West Coast folk singer sure to appeal to fans of Joanna Newsom (whom we caught playing piano with boyfriend Bill Callahan).

Though you're unlikely to see them on MTV anytime soon (and thank god for that), a few local acts did North Texas proud, with the Theater Fire playing five shows in four days and Hogpig delivering a crushing set of Denton hard-core at a cheesy joint called Bourbon Rocks (test tube shooters, anyone?). Fort Worth's Bosque Brown fared best of all, though, playing perhaps their finest set ever and silencing a large crowd in the 18th-floor ballroom of the Hilton Garden, where Mara Lee Miller's ghostly country-folk tunes floated softly over the sparkling Austin skyline. Tellingly, in the sea of noise that was SXSW 2007, it was often these quiet moments that proved the most profound.

 
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