Promises are made with good intentions and broken minutes later at South by Southwest, the annual music festival and industry convention held in Austin, Texas, and that's just part of the story. Hype happens, buzzes grow, buzzes die, and cards trade like communicable diseases. Here are some highlights from this year:
• World Leader Pretend previewed songs from its upcoming Warner Brothers album, Punches, Thursday night, March 17, feeling less than loved. Label mate Missy Higgins' posters covered the walls outside the club, and the vibe suggested that the night was her night. Things changed after World Leader Pretend's emotionally intense, dynamic set drew people in and Higgins' post-Gavin DeGraw songwritery ballads slowly escorted people out. Label people who were supposed to be at Higgins' party the next afternoon were at WLP's appearance at an Austin radio station. Questions that were once a little vague, like the exact release date of Punches, suddenly firmed up. When the DJ asked and the band started bluffing, five people were in the other room mouthing through the glass, "May 2-4, May 2-4."
• The yearly invitation-only Spin party is the true belly of the schmooze beast. It takes no effort to get an invite, but the few thousand people there all feel like somebodies, and a good portion of them are there for British New Wave bands du jour the Futureheads and Bloc Party. Each lived up to the hype for those who have drunk the industry Kool-Aid; otherwise, both bands were sufficiently urgent and wiry to be engaging, but it's hard to hear what's new in the new New Wave. At least the grunge bands approached '70s metal with a sensibility shaped by hardcore punk. Friends who have heard the new Bloc Party CD liked it, and to the band's credit, the performance had the heartfelt quality of people who believe they've discovered something. The only question is whether that "something" is a sound of their own devising or cool old records that really speak to them.
• While the pursuit of the new is rabid at SXSW, this year the old boys' club made a strong showing, with appearances by Ian Hunter, John Cale, Robert Plant and Hubert Sumlin. What's left of the New York Dolls headlined the Spin party and rocked as authoritatively as any band half their age. In fact, Mojo Nixon later said they were too good, more together than they ever were in their heyday. They looked like caricatures of rock stars, none more so than David Johansen, wearing a girl's T-shirt, a belly dancer's loincloth, dress pants, cha-cha heels and a belly chain. (Then again, they always looked like caricatures.) Age and whatever diet cut Johansen down to 150 or so pounds weren't kind to his look, but he remains one of rock's most charismatic performers, and his animated reminders that drugs are the music's subtext made standing on a hillside feel as decadent as a late night in a New York ballroom a decade after its glory days.
• Alejandro Escovedo isn't quite an old boy of the Dolls' vintage, but the Austin native has been at it since the late '70s. The veteran of Rank and File and True Believers missed last year's SXSW after suffering the effects of Hepatitis C, so he was given a hero's welcome at the Austin Music Awards, where he performed a five-song set with John Cale. With a lineup that included two cellos, a violin, three guitars, bass, drums and lap steel guitar, the two played an exquisite version of Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah." As remarkable as Jeff Buckley's version is, it meant more sung by two men who've lived enough life to know what all the words mean.
Two nights later, Escovedo performed with the same lineup, moving from his quiet, dirge-like take on the Gun Club's "Sex Beat" to a raucous -- even with strings -- "Everybody Loves Me." He announced a cover of the Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" as the last time he'd play the song, and it lost none of the original's intensity, despite the instrumentation.
• Thursday afternoon at the New Orleans/State of Louisiana party featuring Theresa Andersson, Grayson Capps and Andi Hoffmann & B-Goes, among others, Jeff and Vida passed on the stage and set up on the floor. Much of the crowd pulled itself away from a Jacques-Imo's lunch to gather around them and bassist Mike Kerwin as they played the breakneck "Baby Don't You Do Me Wrong."
The previous night, Hoffmann's set evoked an immigrant's romantic affection for the real and imagined South. His lyrics use the Causeway, the Mississippi River and the Louisiana countryside as the icons of Southern life they are to those who aren't so familiar with them as to take them for granted. His roots rock songs are long on melody and mood, aided by Robert Mache's encyclopedic repertoire of guitar sounds and styles. Finally, the chorus for the weekend goes to Fred LeBlanc of Cowboy Mouth, who sang, "She had to go / because she didn't know / who Joe Strummer was." At SXSW, most of the guys and many women understand that logic.