If there's anything that stands out from this year's South by Southwest, the annual music festival in Austin, Texas, it's the fact that the five-day event, which concluded on March 18, has attained a high degree of exclusivity. It used to be that the badge given to registrants guaranteed entry to nearly 50 clubs hosting music showcases. But this year was all about adding other laminates to the SXSW badge -- a sign that you had the connections to gain entrance to cool parties hosted by magazines such as Revolver, Spin, and High Times, and websites such as Listen.com.
One of the most anticipated events wasn't even a musical performance -- it was a private listening party at which six tracks from the forthcoming Radiohead album were premiered. Early one afternoon in a small corner bar called Plush, registrants with the appropriate laminates gathered to listen -- not see -- Radiohead. The album, called Amnesiac and scheduled for release in June, was originally reported to be more song-oriented than last year's Kid A, an atmospheric and experimental record that sounded like something by a postmodern Pink Floyd. Still, patrons bobbed their heads with their eyes closed while the music blared over a sound system brought in specifically to play the music. And when the session concluded, everyone clapped as if an actual performance had come to an end. It's a novel concept: To generate hype at SXSW, a band doesn't even have to play.
The bands from Cleveland that played at SXSW didn't have it that easy. Disengage, for one, had to go to great lengths to make the trek. Amid a national tour that was routed through Austin, the band members' van broke down in Iowa, forcing them to rent another vehicle. But Disengage did well, once it got to the festival. The group's showcase benefited from the fact its record label, Man's Ruin, was hosting the event. The gig was so crowded that a line wrapped around the venue while Disengage was on stage, making it difficult to get in. Although Disengage played last year, the band was more confident and musically advanced this year: Band members stood atop their amps and pumped their fists in the air with exuberance. An A&R rep from Atlantic Records who's been scouting the band was also in attendance.
Cleveland's Cobra Verde played at the same time as Disengage at a venue across town. It had added its SXSW date at the last minute to coincide with the start of a two-week tour with former Dinosaur Jr. guitarist J. Mascis. Even though he threw out his back the night before, singer John Petkovic still managed to move around the stage easily, lurching back and forth while offering his own take on the regionalism that pervades the festival. "We're from Cleveland, but we could be from anywhere," he said between songs. "Cleveland, New York City, Waco -- it's all the same." Bassist Mike Watt, playing at Tower Records with Mascis earlier in the day, had encouraged his fans to see Cobra Verde.
Although it wasn't listed on any of the SXSW schedule information, Rosavelt also played at the event, as the backing band for Los Angeles-via-Columbus singer-songwriter Tim Easton. Playing in the hay-filled backyard of a gallery called Yard Dog, the group stomped so hard, it nearly broke the makeshift stage. The event gave Rosavelt singer-guitarist Chris Allen an opportunity to hand out copies of the band's recently completed four-song EP, "The Spark Singles." Other bands from Northeast Ohio that played at SXSW were Cleveland's Boulder and North Canton's Spare Change 00, both of which performed at showcases hosted by their respective labels.
It was ironic that, at an event designed to premiere new talent, old bands left some of the strongest impressions. The Black Crowes played several new songs at an hour-plus set to a packed house, as did the Cult, which performed at a party hosted by Revolver. Playing together for the first time in nearly 20 years, the Soft Boys revisited the neopsychedelic songs from their newly reissued album Underwater Moonlight. "We used to be the Soft Boys, and on a good night, we still are," said singer-guitarist Robyn Hitchcock with a wink and a nod. Highlighted by a rousing rendition of "I Wanna Destroy You," a song that Hitchcock said had been "misunderstood as a punk anthem," the band's set didn't break any new ground, but confirmed that its old material, equal parts modern rock and new wave, still holds up.
Austin singer-guitarist Alejandro Escovedo, a regular at SXSW, also tried to bring together his old punk band the True Believers for a low-profile show held on Sunday, the slowest night of SXSW. But because his brother Javier couldn't make the gig, the True Believers were replaced by Alejandro & Friends, a group that included former Green on Red guitarist Chuck Prophet and singer Ryan Adams, among others. Additionally, Escovedo hosted an open-to-the-public afternoon show at a taco stand on the outskirts of town. During it, he joined the Dragons, a San Diego-based band fronted by his brother, for a version of his song "More Miles Than Money," a track that provided a summary of the plight of the unsigned band. It was a poignant moment -- and one of the best things about it was that you didn't need a special laminate to be there.