The Sunshine Solution

At SXSW, fresh air and stale beer come to an industry's rescue

What is the taste of an industry in crisis? Bubblegum-pink mojitos are easing their way down my gullet after a succulent helping of pork in some sort of orange goo, and I can report that when Food Network imp Rachael Ray is cooking, the taste of crisis is rather palatable.

I'm at Ray's South by Southwest day party, you see. Holy Fuck are performing, but I can't get anywhere near the area where the clever tinkerers are making fuzzy beats from bent-up toys—it's far too crowded. All of us music-industry types are supposed to be sweating it at this year's South by Southwest, the annual hybrid of conference and festival. The bands should be nervous, 'cause how are they gonna stand out in a field so crowded? The record execs are freaking 'cause consumers are getting their product for free. The print music journalists are fretting that their ad pages have been lost to the internet and their taste-making power has been usurped by bloggers. And the bloggers? They are feeling the agony of Austin, Texas's overwhelmed wi-fi network.

So here we all are, boozing in the sun, looking kind of dazed, going, "Rachael Ray? Holy Fuck? Holy fuck."

We all have our eyes open, looking for answers, checking for patterns, and the eff word is really riding the zeitgeist this year. I get to see Eff Buttons and Effed Up, but like I said, I miss Holy Eff 'cause of the massive popularity of their hostess. At Waterloo Park, Fucked Up come at it so fast and hard that I'm sure I can legally file assault charges against them. It's an open-air stage. You read about how sound gets diffused at outdoor gigs? The harsh roar of Fucked Up singer Pink Eyes has about as much chance of getting diffused as a guided missile. When the hardcore Canuck strips off his shirt and starts climbing up the rig, it's like watching a paler, fatter version of King Kong climb the Empire State Building. I can respect Fucked Up, but they scare the eff out of me.

Fuck Buttons are more my speed. The duo spend most of their set at Prague leaning over opposite ends of their gear table, where looping gizmos, laptops, samplers, and wires wait to be summoned in service of their distorted rhythms. It sounds like we're listening to the fetal monitor of an android. Suddenly, Andrew Hung comes down off the dais and stands directly in front of the crowd, and, utterly in his own world, springs up and down, up and down, howling into a mic.

The artists seem to feed off each other's energy. I never saw a band limp through a set, though many of them were playing twice a day. The intensity of Mika Miko's Jennifer Clavin as she falls into a crouch on the floor, shaking her head and simultaneously pounding the ground with an emergency-red phone she has fashioned into a mic, thrills the audience at Emo's IV. The four young women from L.A.'s underage underground blow sweet oxygen toward the eternal flame of garage punk. Jay Reatard, an unstoppable Memphis kid with rusty freak-wig hair and a Flying V guitar, carries that torch to the finish line, inciting mayhem in the crowd at Vice's closing-night after party. And Minneapolis's own Knife World bring their fringe-universe sets to the concrete, with the duo freaking out sidewalk crowds on the corner of Shock and Awe.

The newer bands follow a Polyphonic Spree rule: the more members, the better—and everybody sings. Washington, D.C.'s Le Loup pile seven people onstage, building layers of sound as members sweat and cook, their geeky, banjo-playing leader spastically shaking the ass God didn't actually bother to give him. Dark Meat, a recent addition to the Vice Records family, make Le Loup look like a solo act. With a roster 17 names long, the Athens-based army isn't out in full force when I see the band at Spiro's, but even with a scant 11 members, this darkly trippy, brass-heavy outfit generates its own climate.

The festival also features hot and cold running blondes. Duffy is the bird everybody wants to hear, but the Welsh Winehouse's set at Stubb's doesn't really have the power to justify the buzz. Even in a karaoke culture, something beyond competency and cuteness are needed to make an American Idol into a rock goddess. Tough Swedish pixie Robyn has that spark—with her asymmetrical platinum hair and gymnast's build, she has enraptured fans and curious first-timers drunkenly dancing to the beat of her Day-Glo pop at Pangea. And she does "Jack U Off" as an encore!

Best of all were the Brooklyn bands, Yeasayer and MGMT (who came through Minneapolis a few weeks ago on tour together). MGMT had the Playboy party patrons grinding to the funky shimmer groove of "Electric Feel," while Yeasayer rewrote the rules on world music: With vocal stunts and eclectic beats, their performances shook up expectations and shook down audiences, delivering on the promise of discovering not just novelty but perhaps the future soundtrack to our lives.

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