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South by Southwest: One Rockin' Spring Break

When the frost melts and the spring sun starts to shine, the horn-rimmed and the pasty need release as much as anyone. For those who would never be caught dead screaming "SPRING BREAK 2003, WOOOOH!" and bumpin' uglies to J-Lo, the very best option is Austin's annual extravaganza, South by Southwest. One of the largest music and film festivals in the country, SXSW - in shorthand - is for many fans, bands and industry people one of the most important events of the year.

It's Texas-sized, you might say - at least the natives might say. A dry, polluted and poorly managed state that is famously, fiercely, unironically proud of its proportions (most any ad will feature the state's shape or flag somewhere: "Texas-sized trucks!" "Texas-sized malt liquor!" "Texas-sized pancakes!"), Texas is rather incongruous with its capitol, a clean and beautiful city that is fiercely independent in a very different sense. Over the last 15 years, Austin's reputation as a Mecca of independent media and progressive populace spurred a wildfire growth that was almost overwhelming. Inevitably, its scene began suffering the commercialization and gentrification that cursed Seattle and San Francisco in the mid- and late-'90s, but the dot-com bust has left the city with negative growth for the first time since the '80s. As a result, you can sense that good ol' Texas pride swelling up in its defense, whether in local newspapers or casual conversations. The city shouldn't be worried: Austin is still vital enough to seamlessly absorb the massive influx of people and activity and is a graceful host to one hell of a cultural event.

It's the self-proclaimed "Live Music Capital of the World," and that self-consciousness hangs over Austin and the festival: The bands will often proclaim it, sardonically, in the midst of their sets. Audiences are savvy, jaded and hard-won; if you're not in a band, then you're dating someone who is; the city is loud with the sound of bands playing from countless bars, clubs and makeshift empty rooms. It seems to permeate people's consciousness, walking through town with a sense of musical entitlement - earplugs are as essential as shoes, because if music is not your profession, then it's at least the backdrop to your daily life.

During SXSW, the set is hot. Bands from all genres and locations descend upon Austin, whether they are admitted to the official schedule or not. Though it's very guitar-centric, "indie rock" doesn't begin to describe the variety: hardcore punk and heavy metal, singer/songwriter pop, traditional country and others that are rather indescribable. For so many anonymous bands, it's their best chance to be seen and hopefully signed into a deal. For the lucky few who already have contracts, it's the best chance to make good on that rather tenuous opportunity offered by a horribly fickle industry. In the meantime, every label is drooling to sign "the next Strokes," and every journalist is scrambling to discover "the next White Stripes."

Which means, in Spring Break terms, everyone's trying to score. And what you get is fun, cheesy and not a bit sketchy to boot. The daytime holds shmoozy, on-the-fly label- and magazine-hosted parties, where the food, beer and even designer clothes are often free. The night finds 45-minute sets to every hour, from 8 p.m. to 2 a.m. With so many acts playing right next door on no cover, there's no point in making much commitment to any one set; for every band you catch there's 30 you miss, so choose wisely and walk fast.

Constructing a schedule can be a heartbreaking, hair-pulling affair; trying to hold a group together in a single plan is outright impossible. Without an almighty golden-ticket-access badge ($500 or free with a slick press hook-up that is apparently out of range for a humble college journalist), the queues for the most anticipated bands are often Texas-sized. But for the smart showgoer, this is not much of a problem: They simply don't bother with the big names.

Much of the hype is fueled by labels, with newly signed acts being relentlessly pushed onto journalists. Names get dropped so frequently that the number of people who have actually heard a band might be a 1,000 times smaller than the people who have merely heard of them. On the other hand, Austin-based apocalypse-rockers... And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead has built its entire career on its onstage violent outburst, but after several years of appearances, despite a choice time slot, the "Trail of Dudes" excited few people. Everyone expresses disdain and impatience with hype, even as they spin more of it in a different direction: The daily alternative newspaper has a dry gossip sheet poking relentless fun at all scene pretensions, while across from it would be a column that proclaimed the death of a different trend each day ("Nu-metal is dead!" "Garage rock is dead!" "Hip hop is dead!" and so on...).

Counter intuitively, the better-known bands are oftentimes the worse shows. The energy just fizzles - the crowd is so saturated with music that the hype deflates itself and they stand, arms crossed, waiting to be impressed by bands that often can't live up in a 45-minute act. The best shows are the bands that are prepared to make the most of their time - either by gimmickry (like last year's surprise smash Petty Bookah, a Japanese girl duo with grass skirts and ukeleles - "Herro, Owstin!"), or simple, honest hard work.

The French Kicks fall under the latter. Their debut LP, One Time Bells, was my favorite record for exactly two weeks before being put away, but man those were two great weeks. (Look for a profile of the band in next week's issue.) A group of unassuming guys that write modestly charming pop, the French (I'm sorry - FREEDOM) Kicks are the kind of band that builds a solid reputation, but not hype. So when we caught up with them at a Diesel store appearance, they were a little unnerved by the packed crowd that wouldn't have looked out of place in a fashion ad.

Afterwards, bass player Lawrence Stumpf confessed to me that the Diesel in-store is a bum opportunity that they can't afford to pass up. "Man, if I were still in eighth grade, I'd be so fucking mad at myself for doing something like this." But the band has been on a months-long tour from which they might walk away with $500 total - "[Diesel] is not money we can snort at."

We later spent 20 minutes just looking for a place without live music blaring and finally found an out-of-the-way sports bar. There, Stumpf explained that for many bands, SXSW is a mixed blessing. "You know, we do it like everyone, to be seen by labels and booking agents, but a lot of the times I can't stand it.... It doesn't make for good vibes between the crowd and the stage. A band just can't do itself justice at these gigs."

It's inevitable that most of the event comes and goes without making a mark. There's no way to give an overview of the festival, or an estimate on how this year holds up to others. It's simply too huge; all a humble journalist can hope to do is grab on to his or her tiny slice of the pie. Rather than aimlessly dropping names, I'll give you some of the juicier morsels:

My first night I caught post-rockers Kinski and old-school hip-hop group the Jungle Brothers on a rather scattered bill. ...And You Will Know Us By the Trail of Dead followed with their shtick - an assault on about a thousand eardrums followed by an assault on their own instruments. Standing next to the speaker, I could literally feel the songs vibrate through my clothes and feet. The locals didn't seem impressed, and even I walked away less elated than I get from a good headphone session with Source Tags and Codes.

A highlight of the week came unexpectedly the next night, when The Helio Sequence proved just how little it takes to make an impression. The duo had a late start because of technical difficulties, but their four songs were probably the best that I saw all week - the electro-pop equivalent of being launched into space. After catching the last few beautiful build-and-release anthems of the Gloria Record's set, I surveyed the street scene. Mary Lou Lord busked for hours on a corner, four or five Swedish bands proved again and again that they can easily out-surf and out-garage anything we've got here in the states and some jam band had a drummer with no hands. Take that, Def Leppard.

Friday's hip-hop showcase had a casual and fun set by Jean Grae, compelling minimalist flow from former Antipop Consortium member Beans, party jams from Aceyalone and the arresting performance of Definitive Jux superheroes Aesop Rock and El-P. Unsurprisingly, this was the most electrified and engaged crowd that I saw, although it was still a shock to see virtually everyone singing every word along with El-P's densely packed wordplay. Still, the label master gave a rather tame (for him) address to the current events, reminding us that it's not unpatriotic to criticize our government. Hey, good point.

The biggest surprise of the festival was the discovery that the glorious Cherry Valence's diesel-fueled southern rock claims home turf right in Raleigh. I hooted, I hollered, I air-guitared. It was almost enough to make me take back my eternal condemnation of the Goin' South shwag-rock compilation. Almost.

Though Canadian pop marvels Broken Social Scene recently were noticed by the Pitchforkmedia website, they still flew completely under the SXSW radar. The album, You Forgot It In People, is a flat-out marvel of collaborative dynamics - the live performance suggested, spectacularly, that the magic was not just studio wizardry.

My festival ended, as all proper Spring Breaks should, with a disco blow-out. While VHS or Beta's disc-and-roll plays as intolerable cheese on their debut album, the live show was everything in music that SXSW is in spirit: decadent, sprawling, cocky, sweaty and glam. "This is not a showcase and this is not a show, this is a party," announced the lead guitarist. "I wanna see you guys fucking party."

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