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Flaming Lips among surprises at SXSW

Okkervil River, Field Music were among the new bands who made a splash
The Flaming Lips' Wayne Coyne performs during the South by Southwest music festival in Austin, Texas, late Friday, March 17, 2006.Jack Plunkett / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

South by Southwest, the year’s biggest music festival, celebrated its 20th anniversary with about 1,400 acts jammed into four raucous nights.

In a city utterly beset by bands, label execs, publicists and journalists, several bands stood out — but the overall mania of the event trumped them all.

The Austin festival — known as SXSW — originally began as primarily a showcase of underground bands for record-label scouts, but is now more a stage (over 60 of them, actually) for attracting attention and publicity.

At night, the city’s bars are overwhelmed by acts, while during the day registered conference attendees can either listen to industry panel discussions or see yet more music at parties hosted by labels, magazines and publicity firms.

This year’s biggest draws were headed by Arctic Monkeys, the British sensation who played one of their first stateside shows.

Morrissey, whose latest album is out April 4, gave fans a taste of his new material after an arguably more interesting on-stage chat with Rolling Stone’s David Fricke.

The Flaming Lips played two “surprise” balloon-filled concerts. The Beastie Boys also turned up for an unannounced gig, as did My Chemical Romance. Crowds flocked to catch the Pretenders, the New Pornographers, Belle & Sebastian, Echo & the Bunnymen and Spoon.

As a musical smorgasbord, SXSW is a singular event.

Each of the 60-plus nightly shows featured about six acts, all playing 40-minute sets. This mostly happens in a five block radius in downtown Austin, meaning that you can jump from show to show in minutes.

Music heavenIf you’ve seen the ESPN “sports heaven” commercial where athletes are everywhere, SXSW is the musical equivalent.

Walking down beer-soaked 6th Street (the epicenter of SXSW), is either a dream of 6-string gluttony or a cacophony from all directions. Where there’s space, tents have been erected to add yet more stages. One group may or may not have been playing in an ATM kiosk.

With the multitude of options, attendees are seen constantly studying their pocket lineups, trying to pick out the most tantalizing performances. Once at a show, much of the crowd is still considering the choices, text-messaging with friends at other venues.

An overall perspective is impossible — one can only see a fraction of the acts. Lesser-known groups that seemed to catch a healthy amount of buzz included indie rockers Tapes ’N Tapes, Austin’s own Okkervil River, British pop group Field Music and electronic weirdos Hot Chip.

This concertgoer was most impressed by two already well-established bands, each devoid of pretense: the cheerful, melodic Magic Numbers and Magnolia Electric Company, a humble rock group that not only shuns the spotlight but actually requested (unsuccessfully) that the stage lights be turned “way down.”

There was a wealth of other sights and sounds, like Frog Eyes frontman Carey Mercer’s soundcheck, saying not “check, one,” but repeatedly yelling “Freedom!” Singer Emily Elizabeth of Montreal band Kiss Me Deadly, presumably named after the classic 1955 film, showed that modern day femmes fatales wear red, latex body suits.

The Boy Least Likely To, a catchy, singsongy British outfit, excused their minor lateness because the band lost their banjo player for four hours.

One of the stranger experiences was seeing Andy Dick’s band. The comedian was a no-show, leaving a band whose existence was based solely on celebrity, lacking their star. Shrugging their shoulders, they opened with Phil Collins’ “Sussudio.”

Another pleasure of SXSW is that because so many bands are in town, audiences are frequently populated by musicians. Britt Daniel of Spoon was seen hurrying to catch John Vanderslice; the Magic Numbers were blown away after meeting Wayne Coyne of the Flaming Lips.

At SXSW, everyone’s in the biz — and everyone’s also a fan.