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Too much of a good thing is just right at SXSW

Whether you know what to expect or it's your very first time, nothing can actually prepare you for South By Southwest. Battalions of bands take over Austin, Texas, and Shiner Bock flows like water. The whole music industry food chain -- major and indie label reps, publicists, booking agents, and writers, not to mention thousands of musicians -- descends on the city for several days and nights of blissful sensory overload. There's way too much going on at any given moment (except perhaps before lunch, when the previous night's afterparties have finally broken up and the next round of day parties hasn't started yet). All you can do when you're facing 12-plus hours of drinking and club hopping is fortify yourself -- with some good earplugs, a pair of walking shoes, a stomach full of barbecued brisket -- and enjoy every random, crazy moment.

The latest noise marathon happened over four nights last week, and I noticed that whatever agenda I started out with that particular afternoon or evening eroded more with each passing hour, thanks to chance conversations, glimpses of unexpectedly good performances, and rendezvous with friends and colleagues. In the midst of all the action, I kept tabs on what the Phoenix bands were up to. Although the "official" South By Southwest roster only included a half-dozen acts from the Valley, about double that number actually played during the event, including Stiletto Formal, Vayden, Mink Rebellion, Lydia, Grave Danger, and Dave Insley.

Peachcake pulled in a decent-sized crowd for the earliest opening night time slot Wednesday, and when I showed up in the middle of their dance-pop set, I saw five guys going totally apeshit onstage. It looked like a toy box had exploded -- there were props, including a paper umbrella and a costume crown, strewn all over the place -- and Stefan Pruett paraded through the audience with a mic in one hand and a plastic sword in the other. Oddly enough, the whole synth-heavy shebang ended with a wild, primitive drum freakout -- shaggy hair flying, and all hands a blur.

Wild in the streets: Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal hits up SXSW with an entourage.
Wild in the streets: Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal hits up SXSW with an entourage.

Later the same night, I ran into promoters Jeremiah Gratza (who also manages Peachcake) and Psyko Steve at the Desole show, held at a club that resembled a giant barn. Sort of a weird setting for such a young, energetic rock band, but it was still a good time. All six guys dominated the stage, playing with passionate, exaggerated movements but still sounding super-tight. Their huge guitar riffs were glorious, but my one complaint was how they sometimes overpowered Lance Linderman's intense vocals. I blamed the sound guy, of course.

Without label support or anything, experimental duo Bodhisattva somehow wound up with an impressive prime-time gig -- 11 p.m. on Friday night -- but sadly, I can only imagine how it went. At a festival where rock stars can be rock stars and things don't always run like clockwork, Bodhisattva went completely against the grain and started early. I arrived at 11:15 and wondered if I made a mistake, but then I saw guitarist Justin Cory and drummer Shane Sittig, who said they had just finished. Shoot! Well, they seemed happy, anyway. And they even produced a brand-new EP just in time for the show: Magnetar, the debut release on the local Word Up Kid label.

Plenty of stuff went down during daytime hours, too. Opiate for the Masses rocked Emo's Annex, a fenced-in outdoor stage across from the legendary Emo's, and since Helmet was playing right afterward, the turnout was really strong. Very rarely do I see people follow instructions when a singer tells the crowd to move closer to the stage, but Ron Underwood got his wish, and the audience seemed to love both the evil, metalish tendencies and the rhythmic, more industrial side of OFM. Guitarist Jim Kaufman whipping his super-long dreads around at lightning speed was a big highlight, putting a whole new spin on headbanging.

I spent the better part of one afternoon at the Shattered Records showcase at Beerland, an old standby for trash rock and punk bands during SXSW. It was the perfect swampy dive to listen to Digital Leather and Tokyo Electron over a few beers. Digital Leather cranked out loud, droning post-punk that was far darker than the sound that's so trendy these days; think Suicide, not Gang of Four. Tokyo Electron, meanwhile, stuck to more primitive, ass-kicking garage rock, with singer/guitarist Ryan Rousseau sounding somewhere between the bastard son of Elvis and a long-lost member of the Oblivians. I was content to hang out at the bar all night, but I skipped out early to catch Scary Kids Scaring Kids up the street at The Jackalope. The corner stage was way too cramped for so many musicians, but hey, they're all skinny dudes, and they still acted like they were headlining the Warped Tour. It was a great show, actually -- Scary Kids are growing up into post-hardcore heavyweights who can really bring the heat with their stage presence. In the midst of such dead-serious rock, I had to laugh when one of the guys piped up, "We're gonna get this over with so we can get drunk for St. Patrick's Day."

You heard me right. As if this fire needed anymore fuel, the SXSW alcoholiday coincided with St. Paddy's. Green beer was nowhere to be found, but green tee shirts and green Vans were everywhere. Impromptu street performances -- especially one from a New Orleans brass band that drew a thick swarm of hand-clapping onlookers -- gave it the spirit of Mardi Gras, minus the beads. It was spring break, too. College kids from UT were off to more exotic locales while a much more diverse population moved in: baby-faced Keith Richards and Debbie Harry wannabes, ragtag camera crews, party girls in platform heels, bespectacled geeks, and quirky hipsters from Sweden and Japan and Australia.

The people-watching was awesome -- I saw lots of unisex leather and denim, longer hair and beards than last year, a few terrycloth sweatbands, and a mod-looking guy in an alien mask. Celebs big and small turned up at unexpected places, like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore in the convention center (he looks 7 feet tall), Lady Sovereign at Beauty Bar in the middle of the afternoon (so tiny she calls herself the "white midget"), Kevin Barnes from Of Montreal in the middle of Sixth Street with a gaggle of punk rock Hooters girls, and Nicolai Dunger (who has the clean-cut looks of a newscaster but the hearty pipes of Van Morrison) at the Hellacopters show. Even better was meeting up with people I only know through e-mail, randomly reconnecting with a couple friends I hadn't seen in years, and hanging out with pals from other cities, thanks to the brilliance of text messaging.

There were so many bands that I hardly know how to make sense of it all -- my ears are still ringing and I'm still sleep-deprived and slightly hungover as I write this -- but here's a brief rundown: one outstanding musical legend (Roky Erickson from the 13th Floor Elevators, who played some of the best songs from every point in his career, including "You're Gonna Miss Me," "Starry Eyes," and "Two-Headed Dog"); some established favorites I'd seen before (including The Go! Team at the Spin party, The Eagles of Death Metal in a small club instead of an amphitheater, Dungen, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah); and all kinds of next-big-thing contenders who'll surely be getting more ink in days to come (Sabbath-channeling Wolfmother, hooky indie-popsters Tapes 'n Tapes, swaggering garage-folk duo Two Gallants, electronic dance floor overlord The Presets, and dreamy guitar rockers Ours).

And on and on. When music's in question, you just can't have too much of a good thing.

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