Local Rhythms – Crowded SXSW 2008

phoneboothstuffing.jpgI didn’t make it to Austin for South By Southwest this year. I may be the only one.

Wild Light, a chamber pop combo that met during high school in Milford, represented New Hampshire, playing a set along with four other acts from Almost Gold, the Boston indie label they recently joined.

Vermont’s Syd Straw did a showcase of songs from Pink Velour, the Weston alt-folk rocker’s first new album in 11 years. Witch, the Brattleboro heavy metal band featuring Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis, played several different showcases.

Nearly 20,000 fans jammed the week-long event, which now includes a film festival and brings in more money than Texas Longhorns football games.

It keeps getting bigger every year.

Close to 1,700 bands (up from 1,400 in 2007) performed in the many bars, theatres and hotel lobbies of Austin, not to mention hundreds of others that set up on street corners and under bridges in hopes of getting noticed.

The question is, by whom?

Most of the industry types were either attending legal seminars with titles like “When Can I Shoot A File Sharer?” (OK, I made that up), or at the bar drowning in Lone Star Beer. They sure weren’t looking for bands to sign.

The sad fact is that the more people flock to Austin, the less relevant it becomes. SXSW is MySpace with a downtown, and everyone – from Van Morrison to a Gary Numan tribute band – is represented.

The Numan cover band, Airlane, was one of 170 who listed Austin as their hometown. How many, I wonder, came for SXSW in years past and couldn’t afford to leave?

It won’t change anytime soon. Eyespot.com’s David Todd, who said, “I definitely agree that 99 percent of almost any creative enterprise is not worth watching, but I think almost all of it is worth doing”, summed up the mood.

Todd may be right, but how am I supposed to locate the 1 percent that is worthwhile?

At this rate, SXSW will cross the 2,000-act threshold in a year or two. I like to drown in music as much as the next guy, but this is ridiculous.

With nothing to separate the wheat from the chaff, the crush in Austin is nothing but cacophony. The only things I really miss about not being there are the weather and the margaritas.

What’s hot close to home?

Wednesday: Tony Trischka, Green Mountain College – The avant-garde banjo player is an annual Poultney tradition. In addition to fronting Skyline, he mentored a young Bela Fleck. We take it for granted when artists like Alison Krauss or Nickel Creek engage in a twangy mash-up, without acknowledging that Trischka practically wrote the book on reinventing bluegrass. This is a long drive for some, but if you want to see a master at work, this is worth it.

Thursday: Roland Yamaguchi Band, Sophie & Zeke’s – The member of this band have been featured for as long as there’s been music at this downtown Claremont eatery. When they backed vocalist Emily Lanier, they were known as A New Kind of Blue. Now they’re the Roland Yamaguchi Band, although no one in this band is named Roland. The smooth jazz combo features Tom Caselli on keyboards, Nate Thompson playing upright bass, and the smooth guitar sounds of Larry Welker.

Friday: Celia Brothers, Middle Earth Music Hall – Singer/songwriter Phil Celia has of late been channeling Frank Sinatra. Tonight he joins his brother Perry for a night of personal songs drawn from Perry’s “Patience” and Phil’s “Songs of Men.” Joined by ace guitarist (and School of Rock professor) Tuck Stocking and bassist Eric Richardson, they’ll also play material from their forthcoming “Stockholm Street” CD, an autobiographical work that draws from Phil’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn.

Saturday: Acoustic Truffle, Salt Hill Pub – Their name comes from the Beatles song, “Savoy Truffle,” and they’ve been wowing Seacoast audiences since the mid-80’s with their blues-infused, up-tempo rock. Truffle has two incarnations; the acoustic version leaves out the drums, but keeps the energy level high on stripped-down versions of songs like “Captain Molasses” and the plaintive “Developer’s Blues,” a tune the Grateful Dead would have been proud to call their own.

Monday: Caribou, UNH (Stafford Room) – Jangly, ethereal and psychedelic are a few of the adjectives that describe this Toronto-based collective. Leader Daniel Snaith has a Ph.D. in mathematics, yet he chose instead to make music that sounds like Brian Wilson meets Moby. Snaith is to front men what Todd Rundgren is to studio albums, though – it’s his vision, with interchangeable players.

Tuesday: Joan Baez, Lebanon Opera House – The doyenne of American folk music shows no signs of slowing down, working on a new album with Steve Earle at the controls and conducting an on-stage career retrospective interview next week in Cambridge with journalist Steve Morse. I only hope I’m able to age so gracefully.