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SXSW

Wrap-Up

AUSTIN, Tex -- My final day at SXSW was far and away a pure representation of the best this crazy, schizophrenic glad-handing music festival has to offer: free beer, awesome new discoveries, memorable stories, potential breakout artists, free Texas BBQ, more music than you can wrap your brain around, new friends, sore legs and a burning desire to do it all again.

It was definitely a most intriguing week, different and better than I had expected. As a veteran of 2-day soak-up-the-sun-and-lay-in-the-grass music festivals like Coachella, it was certainly interesting to experience this vortex of a week where nothing seems quite real; money isn't entirely necessary and you have to decide between, like, 14 great acts at any given time. Much like the music industry itself, SXSW sometimes struggles to find its identity. Is it a showcase for rising stars to grab the spotlight? Is it a place for larger names, bigger draws and insane lines? Is it just an excuse to party in this surprisingly cool Texas town? My liberal arts education tells me it's all of the above -- and you can bet I'll be back next year with a complicated schedule of parties and shows in hand attempting to figure it all out again.

Onto the music highlights from Saturday, the most exciting and diverse selection of music I saw all week:

Th' Corn Gangg -- Probably the most memorable 20-minutes of my entire SXSW experience, and something no one who witnessed it is likely to forget anytime soon. Th' Corn Gangg used to be Montreal indie-pop whiz kids The Unicorns, who made a splash in 2004 with an awesome album and entertaining tour full of oddball surprises. They recently announced their break-up on their website without giving much information except that they had been reincarnated as Th' Corn Gangg. When they walked out on the small outdoor stage at Club de Ville Saturday afternoon, there were two of the former Unicorns on drums and keyboard along with another guy on bass. They immediately played a very synthy Unicorns-ish song and the crowd wasn't sure what had really changed. We found out soon enough, as 3 MCs ran up on the stage and started rapping while the old Unicorns continued playing. The place absolutely sprung to life and the two songs they performed were pretty hot. The sort of zany energy they put forth was pretty damn infectious and people started dancing and smiling at each other with that look that says, "Check this out!"

Then all hell broke loose -- a huge deluge of rain came pouring out of the sky and, within minutes, Th' Corn Gangg's equipment was drowning in pools of water. Not safe. The MCs kept rapping and one of them started freestyling about how he was going to get electrocuted. Everyone on stage looked pretty concerned, and the keyboardist turned around and started climbing the rocks behind us. Then a huge rock fell on the PA and they cut the music. End of show. What a bizarre little event. I would really like to see more of Th' Corn Gangg.

Blood Arm and Duke Spirit -- The afternoon's party moved inside and became only slightly less awesome. The rain stopped but the final two bands performed inside the tiny bar, and it made for an intimate and raucous show. First up was Blood Arm, a talented up-and-coming act from LA, which were one of my favorite discoveries of the week. They sound a bit like Franz Ferdinand, but even if you're tired of the whole dance-punk phenomenon, these guys are worth checking out. They're talented and a whole lot of fun, interacting with the crowd and (literally) bouncing off the rafters. I haven't seen an audience at an indie rock show having this much of a ball in a very long time. Duke Spirit closed out the night -- another British import with a building buzz. They play loud danceable rock as well, but add a really thick layer of Jesus and Mary Chain fuzz, which really electrifies their sound. I like them better than some of the other bigger names coming out of the UK right now (The Kaiser Chiefs, The Bravery, Kasabian).

One Umbrella -- The evening portion of Saturday began in a small coffeehouse theater with instrumental post-rock duo One Umbrella from Austin, who recently signed to San Francisco's Tell-All Records. They basically make lots of beautiful post-rock noise armed with a laptop and a theremin (and often other instruments). Their improvisational technique makes for a unique and unexpected performance each time out, and you can tell the pair feeds off each other fluidly. A well-done visual accompaniment kept the small audience captivated during the ambient 30-minute performance. It was great to see something a little different after a week filled with so much indie rock, and I can't wait to see them perform out in San Francisco (probably this summer).

Buck 65 -- I headed over to Emo's to see the deservedly-hyped hip-hop of Nova Scotia's Buck 65. A packed house watched him deliver witty, intelligent and well-executed rhymes about a wide range of bizarre topics, including centaurs. His stage presence is a sight to behold -- he scratches records with a serious deadpan stare, acts sufficiently cocky, raps as if he's bantering with the audience and tosses glitter on the front row claiming it's his "razzle-dazzle". I really enjoyed watching his act, and ended up buying his greatest hits CD -- a really terrific listen, though it's impossible to match the aura and personality of his live set.

Say Hi To Your Mom -- My final SXSW show was Brooklyn indie-pop act Say Hi To Your Mom, who just so happen to be fronted by an old friend of mine from high school. I knew he was in this band, but had never really heard their music before. I really enjoyed it -- the lyrics are smart, the musicianship solid and they reminded me a bit of Modest Mouse or Pavement.

As I watched their set, I couldn't help but wonder how everyone in the crowd had ended up at this particular performance in a small venue in Austin watching my friend. Word of mouth? Insane musical knowledge? Happenstance? Everyone was there for a different reason and every band surely has its own back-story. I realized that's what an event like SXSW is all about. Sometimes our musical choices are informed and sometimes we end up with an experience based on pure chance. Whatever the path, it's amazing to have an opportunity to spend an entire week in a cool Texas town completely saturated by music.