Austin City Unlimited

IT MIGHT BE partly projection after a tough week on the local music scene, but the celebration/dealfest that is Austin's South By Southwest music and media conference (a.k.a. SXSW) felt markedly less festive than in years past. The unnaturally cold and gray weather was one factor. Another was the music industry's current slump, which has already produced mass layoffs at a number of companies (including Warner Bros. and Rykodisc, whose Minneapolis-based distribution wing, REP, is slated to shut down its 40-employee operation any day now).

These sorts of downturns are usually blamed on the absence of a commercial firestorm around an artist (a Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, Madonna) or a movement (grunge) to pry open listeners' wallets. You could smell the industry hunger for such a phenomenon at a packed panel discussion titled "The New Wave of Electronica: Business from the Underground," where artists like Moby and Josh Wink and buzzers like Amy Finnerty (a producer of MTV's late-night techno show Amp) considered the question of Next-Big-Thingness. The loose and obvious consensus was that pop hybrids--with personalities, familiar song structures, and lyrics attached to the largely anonymous, amorphous flow of modern dance music--would be electronica's ticket into the mainstream, and that such hybrids were presently in short supply, Chemical Brothers and Prodigy notwithstanding.

While techno artists like Wink ponder a pop future, there was also discussion of pop artists opening their music up to techno's palette of beats, textures, and compositional tricks. Moby noted his current production work on, God help us, the upcoming Guns N' Roses record, pronouncing the band's experiments with sampling and looping "amazing."

In the clubs of Austin, electronica proved a mixed bag, as both venues and audiences warmed (or didn't) to the new kids on the block. By SXSW standards, this was totally new music--last year's event featured a total of one techno-oriented act, Finland's RimmeRadio (who played to an enthusiastic audience of about 25), and zero DJ acts. This year, keynote speaker Carl Perkins was preceded by the DJ team from Iceland's Gus Gus, and a couple dozen electronic acts attracted hordes of fans and press wobbling around in new cowboy boots. In this strange meeting you had Josh Wink, dub popsters Baby Fox, and drum'n'bass scholars Spring Heel Jack performing in a sports bar with a half-assed sound system to mixed effect, at least by conventional club-music standards. (Baby Fox also suffered the lack of one group member, held up at customs.) But there were triumphs, too, notably the torrential set by Berlin's Atari Teenage Riot, a DJ-driven outfit whose mix of death-race breakbeats, booster-rocket guitar-noise samples, and howling anti-fascist raps was, in the words of one smitten fan, "punker than fuck."

Still, of the 792 registered bands playing SXSW between Wednesday and Sunday of last week, there was no shortage of guitars, basses, and drums playing the music that the festival was built on, namely rock & roll in all its countless forms. Japan's Guitar Wolf made a rabid attack on surf rock, breaking strings and conjuring mojo like a Kyoto-cum-Malibu version of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. Belgium's dEUS, L.A.'s Lutefisk, and San Francisco's Brian Jonestown Massacre all generated a big buzz, while the The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne left both rock and electronica behind in what was perhaps the strangest show of the conference, a symphony for 29 semi-synchronized car cassette decks performed live in a parking garage for a crowd of around 2,000, complete with orchestral samples, 3-D orgasm noises, and dizzying drum breaks. If there's a lesson here, it is that It's Not What You Play, It's How You Play It.

Case in point is the newly remodeled version of The Jayhawks, who played their first official set at 1 a.m. Sunday morning. While they're ours, the 'hawks have always reflected the spirit and aesthetics of the Austin scene: roots oriented, craft conscious, prone to melancholy but essentially pleasure-centered, musically smart without being showoffy, and commercially committed to success on their own terms. Consequently, their outdoor set at Stubb's was packed with local fans as well as out-of-towners (including label honcho Rick Rubin, and ex-REV-105ers Kevin Cole and Shawn Stewart, who hovered among friends offstage like some guardian angels of Minneapolis music).

Rebounding from the loss of their more-or-less frontman, Mark Olson, and out to support what must feel like a make-or-break record, one might expect the band to be a bit nervous, especially in such a high-profile debut. And guitar-slinger Gary Louris, wild curls pruned to chin length, did look a bit tense centerstage as the band began working through songs from the remarkable Sound of Lies (due in stores by late April). But like the nervousness of the crowd waiting to see if the band could still do it, any apprehensions lurking onstage were soon swept away in washes of beautifully arching sound.

The group's instrumental work was richer than ever. Second guitarist Kraig Johnson (of Run Westy Run) and violinist Jessy Green deserve a lot of credit, as does stalwart drummer Tim O'Reagan. But it was Karen Grotberg's keyboards that really distinguish the new material, lending a psychedelic soul flavor to the group's country-rock base. The result is a sound that draws strong inspiration from the early music of '70s pop legends Big Star, a debt acknowledged Sunday in an indelible new song ("Big Star"); a cover (a letter-perfect take on Chris Bell's "I Am The Cosmos"); and a guest appearance by ex-Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, now reportedly a member of 'hawks side project Golden Smog.

To be clear, this was still pure Jayhawks: all aching, soaring melodies, carried by Marc Perlman's graceful bass lines and Louris's crackling guitar. The rub, of course, would be the vocals, since the group was always defined by the close, Louvin Brothers-influenced harmony style of Louris and Olson. Louris doesn't have great range, but his voice was always terrifically expressive (for an imprecise but useful analogy, he was Pete Townshend to Olson's Roger Daltry). With both O'Reagan and Grotberg (and occasionally Johnson) singing backup, the effect splits the difference between the Raspberries and the Flying Burrito Brothers: shamelessly simple, heart-grabbing '70s AM harmonies, with just the occasional taste of twang. It was all so deliciously right that, toward the end of the show, someone next to me confessed "I feel sorta guilty saying it, but I think they sound better without [Olson]." It was an optimistic close to a strange and dispiriting week for Minneapolis music, and a reminder that with every end comes a new beginning.

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