Snoop Dogg performs at the Pepsi Max Lot at the 2011 SXSW Music Festival. (Joey Maloney, For The Times )
Reporting from Austin, Texas — The 25th annual South by Southwest Music and Media Conference concluded Sunday and with it the music world returned home to crash and sleep and attempt to digest the information overload. This year the festival, which brings together nearly 2,000 bands and clogs Austin's main arteries with sounds and styles from all over the world, extended to six days from five, reinforcing the notion that while the music business may be in disarray, the music world is thriving.
At least one participant, though, found a gaping hole in the music being created in 2011. Expressing outrage at the economic inequality that's permeating the lives of the many, keynote speaker Bob Geldof — best known for his humanitarian work in the 1980s with Live Aid — wondered where the voices were to convey that feeling: "What's music got to say about it?" he asked the packed auditorium at the Austin Convention Center on Thursday morning. "I don't hear it. Maybe I can't hear it. Maybe this hyper democracy of the Web simply gives an illusion of talent. You can download a studio. Download any instrument. You can pick up any instrument for nothing. You can make, cut and paste to create fab artwork to make your CD. Everybody has got the means to say anything they want, but nobody has anything to say. We need to talk about it."
There was much evidence to the contrary, though, and one might whether Geldof's mind had been changed by Sunday. Many people's minds were. Over the course of the festival, Times writers followed the sounds emanating from seemingly every storefront, street corner, vacant lot and hotel room in the capital of Texas. Below are snapshots, highlights, low points and perfect musical moments. For complete coverage, visit Pop & Hiss online.
Belle Brigade's clarity
It says something about the stickiness of the Belle Brigade's songs that it can not only endure but also prevail during the onslaught of noise this weekend. On the festival's main corridor, 6th Street, on Friday night, brass bands, funky street drummers and a general thumping din emanated from every open door. And yet cutting through that stuff were the voices of siblings Ethan and Barbara Gruska of the Belle Brigade.
The band had already played two other sets that day, and its members were finishing their work at music supervisor Alexandra Patsavas' Chop Shop party on the Maggie Mae's rooftop. The siblings harmonized and played guitars out front while the band behind them offered an intricate foundation. They created music that sounded like a combination of the more upbeat songs of late '70s Fleetwood Mac (specifically, the Lindsey Buckingham tracks on "Tusk"), early '70s Flying Burrito Brothers and classic Everly Brothers. Like both the Everlys and country duo the Louvin Brothers, you could tell the Gruskas were related because their voices combined to create a single, textured harmonic tone.
They're naturals, basically, with songs that are supernaturally tight and catchy. Their better-be-a-hit anthem, "Losers," is a gorgeous ode to the simple life, a protest against competition as lifestyle and a paean to quiet Friday nights at home, away from the social tangles of the city: "Don't care about being a winner," they sang, together as one, "or being smooth with women, or going out on Fridays, or being the life of the party." Though its music wasn't the loudest, the most shocking or the most forward-thinking of the festival, the Belle Brigade cut through the chaos with a moment of pure clarity.
— Randall Roberts
She's in control
To get right to the point, Le Butcherettes singer Teri Gender Bender is something of a stunner. She can howl, she can yell, she can growl the letter "R" into multisyllables, and she needed little more than one ferocious drum beat to have her way with a song. When she repeatedly shouted, "Take my dress off" during the band's Thursday showcase, it didn't feel so much like an order as it did a threat. She wasn't trying to seduce; she was letting you know who was in control. The Mexican punk rock trio has but one album to its name — the forthcoming "Sin Sin Sin" — yet already has an arsenal of throat-grabbing songs. And just in case anyone up front wasn't paying attention when Teri sang that she was sick of you, she did a backward stage dive. Musically, the band was equally reckless and arresting, with guitar convulsions, a garage-rock keyboard and a rhythmic swamp.
— Todd Martens
If this is the future …
Heading into SXSW, the buzz about Los Angeles hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All was already deafening. Before the event in Austin, the act had scored a placement on late-night television and had graced the cover of Billboard magazine.