Screw the Industry Weasels

Think small (bands) and youll have a good time at SXSW

Much as the Sundance Film Festival now attracts legions of YouTubers determined to get their personal video journal released by the Weinsteins, the South By Southwest music conference—after two decades, best recognized as SXSW—has become a magnet for every three-chord dirtbag with an acoustic guitar. No venue? No problem. As long as there are unoccupied ears too drunk to get out of the way, the people will play.

SXSW is officially bigger this year, too, as it has been every year since its inception in 1987. A quick look at the lineup—before I stopped counting—showed that more than 500 artists are performing in clubs, halls, auditoriums, bars, convention centers and stores throughout Texas' somehow-still-funky-cool capital city of Austin.

Sadly, regardless of the number of bands performing, the time-proven ratio of interesting vs. dull—known as Child's Critical Algorhythm—will remain a steady 1:25. The resultant paralysis of choice has the unfortunate effect of merely enforcing the status quo. Who wants to risk seeing a potentially terrible group of unknowns when the guaranteed good show of blog-approved bands like Peter, Bjorn, and John is happening at the same time across town?

My own social anxiety tends to work in favor of the smaller groups. That is, as soon as I find myself surrounded by my peers, I experience an existential disgust that invariably forces me to move on to the next event—one step ahead of the vultures who remind me far too much of myself for comfort.

Nonetheless, there are some groups for which I will gladly endure the sweat, stink, and dread of the typical SXSW industry crowd. Some of them—lots of them, maybe—are from Orange County. However, the SXSW schedule lists only a few groups with the admirable self-confidence to actually claim OC residency. Works for me! I'll have plenty of free time to catch some other bands that probably won't show up at the Anaheim House of Blues anytime soon.

Here they are, in relative order of appearance:

Sea Wolf

Unfortunately described as "the brand new buzz band from the Eagle Rock side of Los Angeles" on the SXSW website, Sea Wolf's eponymous EP contains enough weepy, mildly ominous pop gems to inspire some excitement in advance of their debut album, which is supervised by uber-producer Phil Ek, a man who's had his thumb in the successful pie of The Shins and Modest Mouse. Standout track: "You're a Wolf"—a travel song with minor key string arrangements and ping-ponging space guitar that establishes Sea Wolf frontman Alex Brown Church as a bit of a hungry ghost, walking the earth looking for love, or at least a headlining slot at the Wiltern. In contrast to many of the other bands playing the festival, Sea Wolf has been spotted in Orange County, performing a well-received set at Detroit last year. Their 8 p.m. slot in Austin should serve them well; it's early enough in the evening for all but the most hardcore drinkers to be mostly aware and receptive to music that doesn't necessarily make them want to dry hump the person standing in front of them.

Beirut

This band has toured so hard that frontman Zach Condon had to spend some time in the hospital for exhaustion—real exhaustion, not Lindsey Lohan exhaustion. I caught them last year at The Troubador and found that their Balkans-meets-Yann Tiersen longing moved me. They experienced a negative backlash when their album was praised by controversial tastemaking weblog Pitchfork, some people sour-graping that the 20-year-old Condon doesn't have the cred to be authentically enjoyed. Such reasoning seems inexplicable, until you remember that people are lame. To truly appreciate the band is to see them live. Listening to the music, one might imagine that Condon would be backed by the Klezmer All-Stars instead of a team of band kids, but there they were, glasses, braids and all. Standout track: "Closing Song"—to the best of my knowledge, available only on live bootlegs. Condon wails, "Hold on, hold on, while I return fire," speaking for the beleaguered everywhere for whom esprit d'escalier is the only esprit they know. Halfway through the song, all the instruments drop out for a few bars, leaving Condon alone to vigorously strum his ukulele while the crowd hoots in awe. You can practically hear the vigor being drained from the man.

Elvis Perkins

Another band generating "buzz" with a healthy Internet following, Elvis Perkins creates music for those times when your depression just seems to make you more beautiful and deep than anyone else on the planet. These dirges are so sad they could make a kindergartener weep. When you run out of tissues, the band throws in a jaunty little tune like "May Day" to fuck with you. Elvis Perkins will appear immediately prior to Cold War Kids, about whom I'd write more if they needed my help. EP's standout track: "While You Were Sleeping," a lovely folk song about waking up. I'm a sucker for the Neutral Milk Hotel horn/singing saw combo, and here it comes, five minutes in, to spark the sense memory.

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