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Austin City Limits 

During last week's sprawling, many-headed monster of an event, the 20-year-old music business must-attend conference South by Southwest, 1,700 bands played on 80 stages over the course of five margarita-soaked days in Austin, Texas. I missed about 1,685 of them. Besides Mexican food, trying to find parking and watching hipsters with skinny jeans and bed head text-message each other, missing bands is SXSW's core experience. To see everything you want to see, you have to head out into the fray armed with a well-annotated pocket schedule and the single-minded determination of a heat-seeking missile. Stop for tacos and you've just missed 35 bands, any one of which could rock your soul in a way it's never been rocked before — or at least turn out to be the next hot thing. Any band on a bill with a buzz band is a loss, since the line for the It rockers will preclude catching any of their openers. (Vampire Weekend, I'm looking at you.)

One of the finest things I witnessed was a radiant set from the Cowsills at SXSW's unlikeliest venue: a Presbyterian church near the Sixth Street strip with a cavernous sanctuary that makes for magical sound. Susan Cowsill opened the night with her own band, playing an energetic and at times emotionally raw set that closed with her lovely Katrina tearjerker "Crescent City Snow." But the real killer was her performance with the reunited remaining Cowsills (plus nephew Ryan Cowsill on keyboards), whose flawless harmonies — they've been singing in the same keys for 30 years — rang out into the church with booming godliness and infected everyone present with flower-power cheer that was the perfect palate cleanser before all the rock madness that was to come. A large man with a gray ponytail actually pumped his fist in the air as he sang along to every single word of "Hair," and toward the end actually stood up in his pew with a beaming exhilaration that made me think he was that rare animal that both remembered the "60s and had actually been there. I doubt anyone who's attended the current Van Halen reunion tour has been rocked harder than he was that night.

Later that night, Troy Andrews rocked the crowd outside at the Fado Patio into such paroxysms of funkiness that I was reminded of one of the more subtle benefits of SXSW: seeing New Orleans bands playing out of town. Why travel to Austin to see a band I can see pretty much bi-weekly at home? Because watching an uninitiated audience experience Orleans Avenue's incendiary hybrid sound is like watching the band for the first time. And the group blew the crowd away. From the combination of killer hard-rock guitar with old-school trumpet to Troy's pitch-perfect James Brown imitation, they dropped the new school of New Orleans funk on Austin like an air strike.

I also caught the Philadelphia ensemble Man Man, which plays a striking mix of gypsy jazz/vaudevillian honky-tonk, mixed with electronic effects, that evens out to a musical version of Westworld. I saw shimmery, sinister, sexy dub from the emerging Brooklyn-based artist Santi White, better known as Santogold, whose "80s B-boy-style backup dancers almost stole the show. Austin's weirdo totem Roky Erickson proved he's still stable enough to creep and thrill with his sci-fi-influenced psychedelic garage-rock.

New Orleans represented itself well, with a day show that filled the Continental Club to capacity, and the Ponderosa Stomp's third annual showcase — which seems to be becoming the cult favorite of SXSW — that paid homage to rock's roots with artists like slinky Philadelphia soul singer Barbara Mason and Texas garage-rockers Kenny and the Kasuals. MC Trachiotomy, playing his confusion-heavy electronic noise-rock at SXSW for his sixth year, hit it and quit it with two short sets, first at an official showcase and then in somebody's yard.

Many other Louisiana bands made it to the event this year, but I managed to miss Rotary Downs, the Red Stick Ramblers, Supagroup and plenty more. As the weekend began to roll to a close, the thought of picking the next new band to see out of the fine print of my pocket schedule made me want to sit down on the curb, stomp my feet and cry. So I bailed on Sixth Street and the promise of a hot new discovery and headed for the safety of the Austin Convention Center, where the band X was taping a television special. I knew I would get in. I knew I would like it. I knew there would be somewhere to sit. As the group tore into the song "The New World" (with the line, "It was better before they voted for whatshisname"), John Doe cautioned the audience, "Always remember to make good choices." And I knew I had.

click to enlarge Susan Cowsill performed with her own band and with the reunited Cowsills at SXSW. - CATHERINE CARTER
  • Catherine Carter
  • Susan Cowsill performed with her own band and with the reunited Cowsills at SXSW.
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