golem music 88.
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On March 16, a snowstorm hit New York-and music executives in Austin held their breath.
Indeed, mid-Texas and Manhattan are never as connected as they are during South By Southwest (SXSW), the music industry's four-day conference and mega-festival that takes place in Austin each March.
Just ask Balkan Beat Box, the Mediterranean dance-rock group led by Israelis Tamir Muskat and Ori Kaplan.
The members of BBB were on their way to Austin to headline a showcase sponsored by JDub Records and Heeb magazine when the weather intervened.
"They were flying through New York, coming from their European tour when the snow hit," said JDub President Aaron Bisman. "I spent seven hours on the phone trying to reroute them, but eventually we had to submit to the wrath of the storm."
The travel snafu was crushing for a band like Balkan, which was hoping to make an impression on an audience of tastemakers, but festival-goers likely didn't notice the last-minute omission. This year's SXSW was the largest ever, featuring 1,400 artists.
Bands come to SXSW for several reasons. Many, if not most, are signed to small, independent record labels and are trying to expand their reach. Some bands are in search of their first record deal. And then there are the old-school acts (this year's lot included The Stooges and The Buzzcocks) looking for a new dose of hipster credibility.
Organizing so many bands is complicated, to the say the least, and one can expect small problems, like cancelled flights. But complications for one band sometimes yield opportunities for others.
On their way to perform at a daytime show sponsored by DIW magazine, Land of Talk, a Montreal trio, got stuck on the side of the road with van trouble. So a show organizer got on the phone with the band's publicist and asked for a replacement.
Enter Ra Ra Riot, a sextet of youngsters from Syracuse, New York. Ra Ra Riot didn't even have an official show scheduled at SXSW, but they came along for the ride and filling in for Land of Talk they made the most of it, churning out the most exuberant and enjoyable set I saw all weekend. With an energetically mopey lead singer hopping and flopping around the stage, Ra Ra Riot belted out pop songs layered with synthesizer sounds, given an orchestral feel by a cello and violin.
My favorite bands at this year's SXSW were those, like Ra Ra Riot, who weren't afraid to have some fun onstage. Datarock, a group from Bergen, Norway, definitely fit the bill. The band played updated, electro-inspired New Wave with a pinch of Heavy Metal, while dancing around the stage in matching red sweat-suits and sunglasses. A little more serious, but no less intense was Brooklyn's Yeasayer, who played a blistering set at the Monitor Records showcase. Yeasayer churned out experimental, art-school rock made accessible through a melodic base reminiscent of early Genesis.
Perhaps the most raucous show at SXSW was by Balkan Beat Box's labelmates, Golem. Golem, a six-person klezmer-punk band from New York, filled in for Balkan at the Puma/Urb party and then rocked the usually staid SXSW fans into a Hora-dancing frenzy later that evening at the JDub/Heeb showcase. Golem sings many songs in Yiddish and is led by an accordionist, and it's jubilant reception at a festival that privileges hip guitar rock is a testament to the band's energy and skill. After Golem's set, JDub introduced Austin to its newest act, the Israeli DJ crew Soulico.
In fact, Israel was well represented at this year's festival. In addition to Soulico, there were performances from three other Tel Aviv-based bands: Monotonix, My Second Surprise, and Rockfour, who just days earlier had won the "Arnold Layne" Cover Competition sponsored by former Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour and judged by David Bowie.
Given that I only saw a tiny fraction of the 1,400 artists, naming SXSW's "best bands" would be a somewhat dubious endeavor. Nonetheless, in addition to Ra Ra Riot, Datarock, Yeasayer, and Golem, my list of favorites would include Headlights (from Champaign, Illinois); The Twilight Sad (Glasgow); The Little Ones (Los Angeles); and the most overworked artist at this year's SXSW, British R&B singer Amy Winehouse.