Music

RIDING HIGH IN TEXAS

Canadians at South by Southwest generated a whole lot of buzz

SHANDA DEZIEL April 5 2004
Music

RIDING HIGH IN TEXAS

Canadians at South by Southwest generated a whole lot of buzz

SHANDA DEZIEL April 5 2004

RIDING HIGH IN TEXAS

Music

Canadians at South by Southwest generated a whole lot of buzz

SHANDA DEZIEL

THE SOUTH by Southwest music festival poses a nearly impossible arithmetic formula: 1,100 acts, 58 venues, four nights. Thank heavens Little Richard was there to send us on our way. The 71-year-old keynote speaker launched the 18th annual instalment (March 17-21) of the pre-eminent Austin, Tex., indie music event with some sage words of advice: “Be the best, nothing less” and “Sign your own cheques.” The whole shindig wound up more than 80 hours later with blurry eyes, ringing ears, bellies full of BBQ and the sounds of Los Lobos, N.E.R.D., Alexisonfire and many more spilling out onto Sixth Street, the heart of Austin’s club district. In between there were plenty of Ones to Watch, Next Big Things, It Bands and Rock Gods. And, as has been the case for a few years now, the Canadian presence rivalled all other non-U.S. countries for buzz, consistency and eclecticism.

One of the Austin city papers ran an opening festival article that asked, “Canada, why do all your bands sound like either Broken Social Scene, the New Pornographers or Nickelback?” They couldn’t have been more wrong. The Canuck component ranged from the sensitive musings of Ron Sexsmith to the psychedelic rock of Sam Roberts; the rootsy folk of the Wailin’ Jennys to the polished pop of Andy Stochansky; the screaming adolescent punk of Alexisonfire to the new wave romanticism of the Stills; the poetry of one-man hip-hop/folk/ country phenom Buck 65 to the sonic decadence of the 13-member music collective Broken Social Scene. And that’s not even a third of the Canadian acts on the bill.

Many of these artists moved en masse to each other’s shows. Sarah Harmer could be seen front and centre rocking out to Broken Social Scene, Metric and Sam Roberts as well as joining Toronto’s Jason Collett on stage for a duet. All of the above—plus members of the Stills, and Oh Susanna and her band—returned the favour, showing up for one or more of Harmer’s three performances. But just being in the Canadian posse wasn’t enough to get you into the packed Broken Social Scene concert on Friday night, now that music tastemakers from south of the border have discovered this Toronto supergroup. The large outdoor venue was quickly filled to capacity, leaving hordes of people on the street trying to talk their way in. For those who missed out, insult was added to injury when the show was hyped on the front cover of the Austin Chronicle the next day as “truly stirring on every level, so much more than anybody could have asked for.”

Broken Social Scene is the brainchild of Kevin Drew and Brendan Canning, but is augmented by their friends, who come from Canadian bands Metric, Stars, Do Make Say Think and Raising the Fawn and also include solo artists Collett and Leslie Feist. Last year they came to Austin for the first time and drew a modest, mostly industry, crowd. The band secured a U.S. agent, distributor, publicist and a European label all from one 40-minute set at a bar call Momo’s—“a crappy sports bar-type place where you’d expect to see Pearl Jam cover bands,” says Drew.

Since then, Broken Social Scene has won ajuno for best alternative album, had a U.S. breakthrough with their CD You Forgot It in People, and been heralded in nearly every music publication. At an afternoon show at this year’s SXSW festival, rabid Broken Social Scene fans muscled out industry types to show their love—clapping long and hard after each song as if every single tune was thenabsolute favourite. Immediately after the gig, Drew described it as having the vibe of a birthday party.

But moments later the party was over. Standing outside the venue, Drew couldn’t find his drummer’s cymbals, and the rest of the group’s instruments and equipment were strewn haphazardly on the sidewalk. “My whole band’s gone and I can’t lift anything because I have a groin injury,” he said, losing his cool and cutting the interview short so he could get things organized. The downside of being in a collective is that once your gig is over, everyone has to rush off and set up with their other band.

THERE were plenty of Ones to Watch, Next Big Things, It Bands and Rock Gods-and some adoring audiences for Canuck acts

The Stars, for example, played one hour before Broken Social Scene, then joined them onstage to provide vocals and a horn section. Then the Stars left quickly for their 7 p.m. show at a private party, and still had another gig at 1 a.m. This Toronto/Montreal pop quartet sped up and energized its lush love songs and played impressive, uncharacteristically high-voltage shows in Austin—every one of which was packed. “Last year at SXSW we were supposed to open for the B-52s,” said lead singer Torquil Campbell, “but at the last minute one of the band’s family members died. So we ended up opening for a lesbian punk band who wore fake penises.” The audience turnout, not surprisingly, was way better this year.

The Stars’ friends, Metric, who hail from Toronto and Texas and are based in L.A., pulled in a bigger, more energized crowd in Austin than they do in Canada—replete with one of those long queues of people trying unsuccessfully to get in. The poppy, new wave-tinged band’s petite lead singer, Emily Haines, used her powerhouse voice and sassy attitude to work the crowd into a tizzy. She teased, taunted, smashed her keyboards and sang a rousing battle cry: “Radio sucks, but it’s going to change /MTV sucks, but it’s going to change / CNN sucks...” The rest of the lyric was unintelligible, but I have a feeling she doesn’t think the U.S. network is really going to change. (By the way, Austin is a liberal oasis in the state of Texas—so lefty Canadian musicians are both welcome and celebrated.)

Once Metric exited the stage the crowd dwindled, even though Sam Roberts was up next. The Montrealer is still all but unknown in these parts. But the Americans who did stick around to see his blood-and-guts set discovered what Canada already knows. “Oh my God,” was heard from both male and female audience members. “He’s a rock star.”

The U.S. has also been slow to catch on to Rich Terfry, otherwise known as rapper Buck 65. The Mt. Uniacke, N.S., native has long had a cult following in Canada, and is currently, he says sheepishly, “very big in France”—which just happens to have been his adopted home for the past two years. While in Austin, attempting to break into the U.S. market once again, Terfry ended up with what he calls “the worst time slot of the weekend, no two ways about it.” His slot on the festival’s final night coincided with some massive acts, including Sweden’s the Hives and Virginia hip-hop megastars N.E.R.D., not to mention an all-Canadian lineup at Momo’s that would have kept away many of his compatriots. Yet he wasn’t wallowing in it: “Yesterday I went to the big outdoor show that was on the river, with Kris Kristofferson, Toots and the Maytals and [teenage soul sensation] Joss Stone. I ended up onstage, standing next to Kris Kristofferson watching Toots—who would come over and do that thing where you put your fists together with me. And then I gave Joss Stone a pep talk before she went on because she had never played in front of that many people before.” With that, Terfry’s festival was made. And there’s a good chance anyone who discovered Buck 65, Sam Roberts, Broken Social Scene and/or any of their friends went home happy as well. Ui\