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The Beating Heart of SXSW

Ann Powers
Los Angeles Times

AUSTIN, Texas ” At times, this year’s South by Southwest Music Conference felt like Rome burning. Sometimes it felt like something being born. And much of the time, it felt like pop music culture as usual ” striving artists, supportive or indifferent listeners, and plenty of talk about cash and creativity, everything blurring within the sound bleed of an unabsorbable number of performances.

More than 1,700 acts tried to get noticed over five days ” and that’s just what was happening on the 80 participating stages. A whole second festival of unofficial, semiprivate parties gave several of the long weekend’s most anticipated acts a chance to impress crowds several times, ultimately taking much of the buzz out of any one performance. SXSW (as the fest is known) has broken many acts since its inception in 1987, but this year it offered hot new flavors that most attendees had already sampled via the Internet, enhancing young reputations rather than cementing them.

A couple of new artists had tongues wagging. She & Him, the urbane retro-pop band featuring actress-singer Zooey Deschanel and troubadour M. Ward, endeared itself to many at its various gigs. Young Welsh soul belter Duffy made her first U.S. appearances, charming many with her bedroom-mirror moves and bold, brassy voice.

Swedish dance-pop auteur Robyn covered Prince and shone on her own new songs at Perez Hilton’s fancy party. Peace Corps preppies Vampire Weekend played too, though the band’s recent “Saturday Night Live” appearance had already put it past the point of Next Big Thing.

There is no one Next Big Thing in pop right now, and that’s a little confusing. The dissolution of major label and corporate radio-based models is in full swing. The doomsaying at many of SXSW’s business-oriented panels felt almost habitual after several years of industry unraveling.

More interesting was the contradictory sense of celebration, even hope, that attended the anguish. The underlying question of how anyone (musicians as well as record executives) can make money as old structures tumble became a hum beneath the 10,000 voices busily promoting new businesses or artistic projects.

The best I saw seemed neither motivated nor unnerved by hype. Kid Sister, the rising MC from Chicago, shimmied and strutted through a joyful set, firing off rhymes in tandem with her brother, J2K from the group Flosstradamus. Santogold, a charismatic hybridizer of hip-hop and pop, projected cool as she intoned her polyglot songs. These women both have Next Big Thing stamped on their foreheads, but they pushed the label off in favor of just having fun.

Paddy Casey, an Irish singer-songwriter whose debut has some of Damien Rice’s lyricism but a lighter, more musically adventurous soul, strummed away accompanied only by a keyboardist. He could have been on a street corner.

Washington, D.C.-based rapper Wale was an equally impressive if different sort of storyteller, drawing in a medium-sized crowd at a challengingly large venue.

These musicians caught my fancy, but they weren’t central to the festival. Nothing was. The sheer number and diversity of acts, combined with the collapse of the hierarchies that once made one label’s acts seem more important than another’s (whether that label was a major or a particularly cool indie), have transformed SXSW into a fairly level playing field. Each attendee must chart his or her way across it.

It’s fun to find new favorites during that process, but much of the heart of South by Southwest belongs to its veterans. Some, like X, have been around for longer than the festival’s 22 years. Many have played its stages numerous times. These hard workers are music’s aspiring middle class, and they keep on despite uncertainty, just like everyone trying to maintain their dreams in the midst of war and possible recession.

Festival favorites like Dr. Dog, cult heroes like Daniel Bejar of Destroyer or Joseph Arthur or Austinites like David Garza may never get discovered by a mass audience. They might have been the Next Big Thing once, but they’ve found another way to cope and even thrive.

“How many times have we done this thing? Seventeen?” Garza asked his band as it wrapped up a boisterous set of feisty blues and dreamy ballads. He laughed. The audience at his feet wasn’t huge, but it was loud and very happy. As one of his band members twirled a lighted-up, multicolored hula hoop and several others banged away on percussion instruments, Garza sang one last song. And then it was on with life, until next year.