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POP MUSIC

Big mix and a melee

The South by Southwest festival expands in the directions of hip-hop, Latino rock and R&B. L.A.'s Ozomatli gets into a row.

March 22, 2004|Chris Riemenschneider | Special to The Times

AUSTIN — In its 18 margarita-blurred years, the South by Southwest Music Conference has helped launch alternative country, roots-rock, punk and garage bands. But it typically hasn't done much for ethnic diversity, all the more noticeable a void for a city just a few hours from the Mexican border.

This year, the "A&R persons' spring break" -- as the Hives' Pelle Almqvist snidely called it Friday -- offered a lot more color.

Hip-hop played a bigger role in this year's marathon of concerts, which lasted Wednesday through Sunday. So did Latino rock, R&B and whatever you want to call the edgy, genre-hopping funk music of N.E.R.D.

On the negative side, the festival's laid-back, freewheeling reputation was tarnished by a clash between Austin police and the Los Angeles rock group Ozomatli over a public street performance on the first night of the conference. The set violated the city's noise ordinance. Percussionist Jiro Yamaguchi faces a felony charge for allegedly hitting an officer in the head with a drum during the confusion.

T-shirts with a "Free the Ozo 3" logo were all around town in support of the two band members and manager charged in the incident. The group performed again Saturday without incident and urged police to drop the charges against them. Police representatives declined to comment.

Before the show, Ozo bassist Wil-Dog Abers called the affair "all a mistake" and said, "We bring people together. That's what this band is all about."

While Ozomatli took most of the news headlines, N.E.R.D. carried the biggest musical buzz as the festival wound down. The stage vehicle of the blistering hot Neptunes production team of Pharrell Williams and Chad Hugo is poised for a high debut on the charts this week with its second album, "Fly or Die." Songs from the CD, including the sonic thriller "Thrasher," came off like thug rapping from flower children, with hammering beats but playful, sometimes even pretty choruses.

N.E.R.D.'s adamantly original performance underlined the SXSW keynote speech by Little Richard, who railed against today's wide berth of copycat acts.

"If Bessie is doing it, then don't copy Bessie," cracked the Rock and Roll Hall of Famer, who nonetheless didn't mind copying the Little Richard of 40 years ago in his set Thursday night.

Ironically, Richard was a late replacement for Antonio "L.A." Reid, the recently ousted president of Arista Records and a proponent of many Neptunes projects as well as OutKast. Reid's cancellation was a disappointment to attendees hoping for the candor that a deposed record mogul might offer. (Reid will now head Island Def Jam Records.)

Major labels used to throw their influence and free drink tickets around at SXSW, but, because of the record industry downturn, this year the most active companies were medium-sized independents. Techno label Astralwerks buoyed its new and less digital psychedelic acts such as the Sleepy Jackson, and XL Recordings helped hype the playfully mean British rapper Dizzee Rascal.

Playing a stage over a sandy volleyball court, Dizzee lobbied dizzying drum-and-bass beats at the crowd and spiked his show with high-speed a capella raps.

Several burgeoning indie hip-hop labels hosted their own SXSW showcases, including New York's Definitive Jux and Minneapolis' Rhymesayers.

The multiethnic Rhymesayers crew offered a few of the many political statements made at the festival, including Atmosphere's spoken-word "Letter to George W. Bush" and the lyrics of Mexican American duo Los Nativos.

Mexi-centric rock

Police scuffle aside, Ozomatli was part of a marquee year for Mexi-centric rock at the festival. Los Lobos came out from L.A. to plug "Ride," an upcoming album full of guests such as Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson and Tom Waits. The Lobos didn't need the all-star cast to generate "best albumin years" excitement.

A much younger standout, Los Lonely Boys, dominated the opening-night Austin Music Awards. The trio of brothers later played a guitar-heavy set in the vein of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Double Trouble, but with soulful, three-part harmonies to boot. Also on Wednesday, Mexican digi-rock duo Plastilina Mosh finally made good on several years of SXSW appearances with its wild melding of heavy metal chants and beats ranging from bossa nova to Beastie Boys.

The Austin music scene's most famous star, Alejandro Escovedo, lay low for most of SXSW after years of hyperactivity during the festival.

Hepatitis C has sidelined the acclaimed singer-songwriter since April 2003. He declined interviews and agreed only to perform a short set Sunday night, when most out-of-towners had gone home.

Escovedo did show up with a broad smile Saturday afternoon at Las Manitas restaurant, where songwriters including John Cale, Bob Neuwirth and Rosie Flores gathered to preview a tribute-benefit CD for him coming out July 23. Jackson Browne, Los Lobos and Cowboy Junkies all recorded for the album.

Plus the usual flavors

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