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

"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.

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.

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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.

The problem with afternoon showcases--with all showcases, really--is that after enough free beer, all the music becomes wallpaper. At Friday's Spin party, it was hard to elbow past everyone jabbering over The Futureheads, and by the time headliners The New York Dolls took the stage (well, The New York Dolls with two original members, including a rail-thin David Johansen), I'd pretty much given up.

"Hey, it's The New York Dolls!" I told my friend as we lined up for another beer.

"Can you believe it?" she said. "They sound pretty good."

"Yeah!" We popped our beers and never listened to another song.

Smoosh by Smoosh West

Getting into a show was one obstacle, but once past the gates, attendants faced the additional challenge of the actual audience. Our photographer was thrown out of the Robert Plant show for daring to take pictures. (Plant had instituted a no-photo policy, perhaps hoping to keep the shutterbugs from capturing his drooping jowls.)

At Aimee Mann, I could hardly hear over an audience far more interested in gossip (or the next band, The Wallflowers) than Mann's exquisite angst. "She's like the Martha Stewart of pain," cracked the guy next to me. That's a little dismissive; Mann is one of the most talented singer-songwriters working today. Her performance is just a tad subtle and elegant for a festival whose most successful acts are full of shock and novelty.

Near the front of the jam-packed Billy Idol show, one drunken gentleman pushed his girlfriend through the crowd like she were a machete in a jungle. "Just push through these assholes!" he hollered, shoving her into every hard surface they encountered (which was, more often than not, my back).

When Idol took the stage--looking and sounding as if it were 1983 and he'd never, like, blown out entirely--the crowd went into a frenzy. Flanked by Steve Stevens, his old guitarist from the day, Idol was like a classic Vegas crooner fronting a champion punk band, even if nobody gave two shits about his new material. A fan with a foot-high Mohawk used my body as a crash pad during "Dancing With Myself." One man actually stepped on my shoulder to hoist himself up to crowd-surf during "White Wedding." When Idol launched into a head-scratcher of a 20-minute acoustic set midway through, I had two thoughts: "God bless the man for trying something new"; and, also, "Play 'Rebel Yell' for fuck's sake!" I could only laugh when the friend next to me announced he would stay for "one more hit, and then I'm out."

Hey, at least I can say I saw Billy Idol--a great has-been rocker with little relevance to today's music. At this point, isn't that what SXSW is all about?

Critics´ Picks

Our writers pick the festival's highs and lows

The Best: The Heartless Bastards: Erika Wennerstrom's rugged singing, like a northern version of Lucinda Williams, played well off the trio's dirty fusion of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and the MC5, and this contrast turned their straightforward songs into stunning rockers.

The Worst: The Go! Team: This sold-out show was an embarrassment, as hundreds of showgoers were stuck watching a boring band play repetitive riffs over a pre-recorded tape. Sure, the music sounded fine, but the folks onstage could've at least pretended to give a shit while going through the motions. --Sam Machkovech

The Best: Ash would have been great on Friday if someone had bothered to bring a soundman or an air conditioner. But the only truly great show was by a band I've seen maybe 50 times: Centro-matic. All rock, no roll, and drummer Matt Pence was playing as if he had one gig left before he died.

The Worst: I technically didn't see the Kaiser Chiefs, as I was standing in line outside La Zona Rosa for an hour. But they're the band that caused the people at the door to institute a "50 out, 50 in" policy, so eff 'em. They suck. --Zac Crain  

The Best: Petty Booka: Two Japanese women playing dull rock standards (Canned Heat, Steppenwolf, ugh) on ukuleles; the cowgirl outfits give 'em away as novelty, right? Not likely, given the crack cracker band of bluegrass freaks. Also, you gotta love the delivery--sweet and fierce like a baby who refuses to give up his lolly. The only SXSW band sure to deliver a smile, which counts for something...everything, actually.

The Worst: Kasabian: Liked the CD well enough; fuck, if the Stone Roses ain't gonna bother, at least somebody oughta. Problem is, these Brits were so shit that now I can't even stand the two songs on the disc that I loved. I would have walked out, but it took so long to get in I figured must be something to this. Where's Billy Idol when you need him?

--Robert Wilonsky

*Jason Schwartzman rocking out at Friday's Centro-matic show

*Jessica Simpson at the Queens of the Stone Age after-hours party

*Rosanna Arquette denied backstage access at the Billy Idol concert

*Eric Johnson leaving the Robert Plant show after a handful of songs

*The Austin: Real World cast shooting their documentary (subjects include Enon and Halifax) at the Convention Center

*Stephen Malkmus being greeted by a drunken fan at the Guided By Voices hoot night with the following: "High five! Fuckin' Pavement!"

*John Doe at Grey DeLisle's showcase

*Strangleweed pimping Monster Energy drinks on Sixth Street

*Chuck Klosterman at the Spin party. Duh.

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