HITS Daily Double
While it's still the first day, there is generally less of a sense of overkill.


Our Correspondent Senses a Mellower Vibe at the Front End of This Year’s Rite of Spring
As time goes on, I think it becomes more viscerally apparent to me just how SXSW has grown into the phenomenon that it has. One of the under-discussed challenges of working in the music business is the slow and subtle battle over time against the gradual erosion of the passion that brings people into this industry. When your passion/hobby/method of release becomes your job, when art and commerce collide, or when the inevitable politics and bureaucracies of titles and corporate cultures muddy the simple love of a well-placed chord, there's a creeping sense of loss that can set in unless you find ways to go back to the well and reconnect with the basic joys of rock & roll. THAT is why SXSW has become such a fixture. More than being just a marathon schmooze or a T&E-fueled spring break bender, SXSW is, for many in this business, that much-needed moment of re-immersion and reconnection to the music itself.

Maybe the basic joy of the festival is made more apparent this year by the festival's slight but noticeable retrenchment. Apparently, for the first time in years wristbands weren't sold out (although this may be as much a function of the timing of spring breaks or the number made this year), and while it's still the first day, there is generally less of a sense of overkill. Last year you couldn't help but feel that the thing couldn't get any bigger without imploding, and this year SXSW is creeping back from being the apparent destination of every wrapped bus in the country—and perhaps something of a tourist trap—to being the best and biggest annual celebration of the multitude of bands that we deal with every day.

While there will inevitably be breaking acts for whom SXSW will be a kind of pseudo-coronation, there are fewer megastar cameos overall, although it wouldn't be SXSW without a handful. Still, Van Morrison's early evening appearance at La Zona Rosa (which I sadly missed) was very subtly handled—many people I talked to barely knew about it. More visible was R.E.M.'s show at Stubbs, which I was lucky enough to catch with Epic hitter Jeff Wooding, who’d spent time as part of R.E.M.'s camp during the Monster and New Adventures in Hi-Fi era. Clocking in at about an hour and a half and simulcast on NPR's website, tonight's set found both Stipe and Mills in great voice and good spirits. Featuring many new songs, the set rambled slightly but with a loose ease and the new material was frequently crisp and energetic, boding very well for their forthcoming album.

After R.E.M. I hustled over to the Flamingo to see the tail end of the Aggrolites' set, which was absolutely smoldering. Cranking out a shimmified version of the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down," the L.A. ska-mavens had the entire crowd bouncing and singing with an energy that I frankly haven't seen at a showcase in years—a really stunning set for the mental archives.

Earlier in the evening, my clients Monte Negro tore through a passionate and textured set at the Continental, their second of about eight SXSW performances. While my admitted lack of objectivity maybe limits the value of heaping on (truly deserved) praise, it's worth pausing for a second to consider the impact that a charismatic bilingual rock act might have on the musical landscape. As acts like Monte Negro with a mixed heritage of American and English alternative rock, rock en espanol and more traditional Latin musics like cumbia and salsa come onto the scene with increasing visibility, it just might be the case that casually bilingual music follows hip-hop as the next big cultural wave within the music business. If you think about it, there haven't been many rock en espanol bands that have truly broken into the American alternative rock world, and as musical discovery becomes easier and genres become more porous, the moment for the breakthrough might be now.

In Austin, of course, the lines between musical cultures are sketchy anyway, a truth that was particularly apparent at the Guitar Town/Conqueroo SXSW kick-off party, where a reunited Blue Mountain (whose set was a resounding reminder of what a GREAT guitar player Carey Hudson is) played alongside bands like the Silos, featuring Austin heavyweight John Dee Graham on his signature gold Strat. In a town where everything is a little country and very little is happy to be called country, the bill tipped towards rock, even if one of the country's best undersung emerging country singers, Sarah Borges, happened to be in attendance.

Closer to the (less exasperating than usual) badge line, the SESAC day stage also had a number of good performances, including intense sets from Akron/Family and Ra Ra Riot. I ran slow leaving Monte Negro's KLBJ taping and missed A Place to Bury Strangers, although word on the street has been that their SXSW shows so far have been killer. Another super-hot ticket tonight was the Domino showcase at Antone's, with lines around the block and loudly buzzing U.K. indie acts including Lightspeed Champions inside.

For what was ostensibly a travel day, the first day of SXSW was still a pretty exuberant opening volley in this year's annual gathering of the faithful!!