Muse, the Black Keys, Nas, Damian Marley, Stone Temple Pilots, and Hole might have been some of the biggest names in Austin at this year's South by Southwest music festival. But celebrity bands belie the point of the gargantuan, 1,700-band showcase, which included roughly 44 Bay Area bands — and that was just the ones playing official shows. The annual four-day debauchery functions as the nation's music trade show, where thousands of writers and industry types can sample breaking acts and see if buzz bands can deliver while randomly discovering a new favorite act.
The San Francisco instrumental electronic duo known as the Spit Brothers opened up SXSW on Wednesday with a head-nodding blast of bass, beats, and reverbed-out brass. Comprised of Berklee College of Music graduates Bakir and Dubsworth, the Spit Brothers take a jazzier approach to dubstep — a reggae-inspired form of electronic music — by using live trumpet and bass to augment the standard kit of MacBook Pros and mixers. And it totally works. The hour-long set didn't draw the crowds seen over at A-list Stubbs — where Sharon Jones and DJ Danger Mouse were de facto headliners of the town. But the lack of lines and ample room to dance made the Spit Brothers a priceless antidote to a hectic, crowded first day. The duo says they'll be touring hard in 2010, and are offering a free mix for download (http://soundcloud.com/bakir/tsb-2010-mix).
Meanwhile, San Francisco-based producer Kush Aurora and New York's Nate Mars — two top names in the tight-knit electronic dance music scene — teamed up with LA vocalist Juakali to play their first show ever as the DreadBass Soundsystem. While Kush and Mars manned the laptops, cuing up insanely deep dubstep bass lines and instrumentals, Juakali stalked the crowd, spitting classic reggae rhymes and dancing with the heads who came from all across the country to check out the set. The DreadBass Soundsystem is a follow-up to Kush's Dread Bass Chronicles project of 2009, and the trio is shopping an LP to be released this year.
Some of the sickest, most twisted and broken beats emanated from San Francisco producer Eprom, who shredded ears inside the subterranean venue Barcelona using just an Akai MPC and a MacBook. The MPC is a staple instrument for hip-hop and electronic music, a big boxy bank of buttons that producers tap like an oversized keyboard. Each button fires a preset sample when pressed, allowing users to improvise all types of live mixes. Eprom is computer jargon for "erasable programmable read only memory," putting the young artist clearly inside the experimental electronic camp as he manipulated slow beats that bleeped and blooped beyond repair, oscillating through cacophony to complex harmony and back.
Mellow Johnny's Bike Shop turned into the perfect venue Thursday for San Francisco's indie rockers, Rogue Wave. Warm midday light streamed down through big bay windows onto the quintet during its hour-long afternoon set as the band played new songs from just-released album Permalight. The album took a battering on Pitchfork with a 5.1 out of 10 rating, and you can see where critics might be irked over smiling Zach Rogue and his soft and breathy vocals, which fit snugly into three- and four-part harmonies over loud, clean guitar. Whatever, the kids liked it. The vocal harmonies and pop structure had Rogue Wave sounding like some roughed-up Beach Boys, and they even went the anthemic route with a song that could have easily been the melody of Scorpions' "Rock You Like A Hurricane," with just a touch of grunge and Blue Oyster Cult.
Two-dollar pints of Dos Equis and ample sunshine on the rooftop of a bar named Cheers accompanied the short but refreshing set from San Francisco rockers the Mother Hips. The grizzled, blue-collar four-piece traverses territory commonly ceded to the Rolling Stones, Dire Straits, and Tom Petty, yet the band remains untouchable. With twenty years under their belt and about a dozen studio and live albums, the most recent being 2009's Pacific Dust, the Hips are masters of meting out bluesy, rootsy, Southern rock-inspired diddies like "Magazine." Tim Bluhm solos are so confident while fellow guitarist vocalist Greg Loiacono and bassist Paul Hoaglin seemed like stoic hardliners, laying down interlocking grooves. Drummer John Hofer is a straightaway old-school basher. Full of die-hard fans, the free show on the small rooftop of a dingy shot bar represented the best of Austin: no covers, no lines, sunny skies, and some rock.
Thursday night, downtown Austin heaved with bodies jostling for position at the next free, buzz show. Outside club Red 7, the $8 cover deterred the music-saturated crowd and thinned the audience for Oakland modern rock act the Heavenly States. Which is a shame, because the States debuted some bombastic and haunted new material from an upcoming EP. Veterans of grueling road trips to Austin, the States flew to SXSW this year and were the better for it. Charismatic lead singer Ted Nesseth seems to have found an Isaac Brock-like warble during Modest Mouse-esque segments of States material, and was magnetic on songs off of 2008's Delayer. Genevieve Gagon rocked her fiddle to great effect, evoking Titus Andronicus, their sonic cousins from New Jersey. Drummer Jeremy Gagon seems to have gotten progressively better over the last few years in proportion to his hair's wildness, and bassist Masanori Christianson is ever the rhythmic Gibraltar.
Who knew Oakland's Mistah F.A.B. would be the most charismatic performer in a town full of more than 1,700 of them? Three years after hyphy failed to detonate, sweat pouring from his face, stripped down to his white T-shirt, big gold "FAB" chain swinging from his neck, the veteran Yay Area all-star had all of Klub Krucial going stupid, going dumb, and getting quite hyphy Thursday night. Speaking in slang bordering on glossolalia, dancing as hard as the punk kids mosh, F.A.B. created an enthusiasm exploding from the 200 or so fans that a Southern Baptist revival couldn't compete with. East Coast, West Coast, the Midwest and the South had a de facto rap convention up in the Klub, with Philadelphia rapper Freeway jumping in on San Francisco's the Jacka's set, and Oakland's the Pack networking like lil' executives.
But it was F.A.B.'s deeply grateful, unifying set — which spanned Notorious B.I.G.'s "Juicy" to Mac Dre's "Thizzle Dance" — that owned the night. He could've just sat back and handled the transitions between the unapologetic covers. Instead, he freestyled and worked the crowd up so hard he had to be cut off mid-song by the promoter. F.A.B. had the audience taunting "Kick me out" to the venue operators as he cut into the Pack's 1 a.m. set time. The four-man Berkeley show — still rocking some rather dusty pairs of "Vans" — mopped up as best they could, but F.A.B. had already put it all out there.
Friday night, things got a little hardcore. The crowd tripled with the weekend rush and quadrupled in drunkenness, perfectly matching the vibe inside Encore. There, a band named Speedwolf was drinking from the audience's beers while ferociously covering Venom inside the Aquarius Records showcase.
Independent Oakland label Anticon continued its string of annual showcases at SXSW with a small party at Barbarella Friday night. Amid a lineup that included Dosh and Themselves, Georgia's Serengeti debuted new material: dense verbal flow met trippy breakbeat and sparse instrumentals — like a Southern Themselves — with that talkative focus on relationships and family over braggadocio and bling.
Subdued San Francisco New Wave act Tamaryn on Friday was a far cry from Mistah F.A.B. in the same building the night before. The San Francisco/New York duo channels the Cure and the Smiths right down to the massive black hairdos; its songs are full of aching, processed guitars and cooing vocals. Single "Mild Confusion" came out drenched in reverb and smoke, as lead singer Tamaryn writhed in front of the mic. Guitarist Rex John Shelverton cooly set off peels of trebly distortion, warbling slightly with expert use of the tremelo arm. None of the band smiled or thanked the crowd or interacted at all and it was all adorably emo. Its debut LP on label Mexican Summer is coming soon.