By John DeFore
You can tell the journalists at South By Southwest because they're always floating theories that start with "This was the year that …"
Hungry for trend-defining coincidences, they might note (rightly) about SXSW 2004 that:
This was the year that established performers were booked into surprisingly small or unprestigious venues. Really now, how many Bettie Serveert fans can you fit into the approximately 50 square feet of floor in front of the stage at Friends? (I may be exaggerating, but not by much.) And something's just wrong about putting surrealist Brit Robyn Hitchcock in a club called "Rockstars." Both put on fantastic shows regardless, with the latter improvising a charming anti-Bush ditty for which guests John Wesley Harding and the Posies' Ken Stringfellow sang backup.
This was the year for reunions great and small. The hottest show of the fest was the appearance of power-pop pioneers Big Star, and the anticipation didn't work to their advantage. The performance was solid, but also kind of just there; magic was not in the air. On the other hand, the just-reformed American Music Club, whose showcase was scheduled opposite Big Star and thus under-attended, was on fire. I caught them at a day party where they sounded very much like a band just rising to glory, not one that had been there and called it quits 10 years ago. Hipper-than-hipsters, of course, flocked to see Mission of Burma, whose new album on Matador is scheduled for release May 4.
This was the year that Little Richard should have stripped his band down to a four-piece and forsaken the Vegas-y oldies bombast that conceals his still-there talent like a heavy velvet drape.
This was the year hip-hop was a real presence, not just a novelty. Among the shows I missed but wanted to see, having heard their records: Dizzee Rascal, the British rapper whose fiercely original Boy in Da Corner (Matador) won the prestigious Mercury Prize; left-field Def Jux artists El-P and Aesop Rock; weirdo former Antipop Consortium member Beans; and Jean Grae, who may have taken her name from a comic book but is as mean (sometimes laughably so) as they come.
This was the year every country tried to stage its own "invasion." The one I was most partial to was from Scotland, where the long arm of Arab Strap was felt in appearances from Malcolm Middleton (still a member) and Sons and Daughters (half of whom used to be Strapsters). Also present were two of Arab Strap's labelmates on Chemikal Underground, Sluts of Trust and label owners The Delgados. Glasgow's most anticipated offering was Franz Ferdinand, whose self-titled debut has been getting rave reviews since its recent release.
For me, SXSW 2004 was the year of Destroyer. Destroyer is Canadian songwriter Dan Bejar (of New Pornographers fame) and whomever he enlists to play behind him. This time around his band was a group called Frog Eyes, who brought crazy rock energy (they even donned red-and-white kamikaze bandanas) to songs from Destroyer's latest faux-orchestral outing, the stunning Your Blues (Merge). Songs that flirted with feyness (in a good way) on disc were cathartic avalanches here, with Bejar the emotionally bottled-up eye in a sonic hurricane. I liked their showcase so much that I tracked them down for a follow-up in-store appearance instead of seeing somebody new.
Other personal highlights included: the sad but wondrous voice of Jolie Holland, whose Anti album Escondida is due for release soon; a solo appearance from avant-jazz cellist Erik Friedlander; and the strange fusion of international influences behind Dengue Fever, whose main attraction is a charismatic Cambodian woman whose voice is what I'd like to think pours out of car radios on the other side of the world.
And like every single year to date, 2004 was a year to miss bands you really wanted to hear. There was the swaggering glam of Austin's Real Heroes and the piercing poetry of Shearwater (co-starring Okkervil River's Will Scheff); Bloodshot's Bobby Bare Jr. and Paul Burch; Detroit's Blanche, endorsed by none other than Jim Jarmusch; and a quirky electropop combo called Architecture in Helsinki, who hail from (naturally) Australia.
There's just no way for any one person to see it all, though Rolling Stone's David Fricke has given it a valiant effort in the past. The rest of us have to make educated guesses, walk way more than we're accustomed to doing, and hope for a few transcendent moments. As usual, this year had its share of them. •
By John DeFore