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Austin, Texas has long called itself the Live Music Capital of the World. For most of the year, this is something of a hyperbole, but for a few days each March, the moniker couldn't be more appropriate. Every year, thousands of musicians-and the label executives, publicists, booking agents, journalists, and fans who support them-flock to Austin for South By Southwest (SXSW), a four day conference and festival that has become the most important date on the music industry calendar.
This year's festival was the largest ever, featuring nearly 1500 bands at venues all over the city. Musicians come to SXSW for several reasons. Many are trying to secure a record contract; others are up-and-coming bands on the independent circuit; still others are established musicians (this year's lot included Morrissey and Roseanne Cash) looking to make a new impression on an audience of trend-setters.
Matisyahu, the Hassidic reggae star who's Youth recently debuted in the Billboard Top 10, headlined a show last year, and he's a good example of how in a single year, a musician can outgrow SXSW. No Jewish acts of Matisyahu's renown participated in the festival this year, but a few Jewish/Israeli-interest bands are worth noting.
The Klezmatics who recently celebrated their 20th anniversary with a special show at Town Hall in New York, kicked off a showcase which also featured the British folk-punk legend Billy Bragg. A typical venue at SXSW will host six acts in an evening, and the lineups are often organized around some theme-a common record label or city of origin-but oftentimes the logic of a lineup is less obvious. The commonality shared by The Klezmatics and Bragg, for example, was interesting and unlikely: Woody Guthrie.
Guthrie, of course, was the American folk singer best known for "This Land is Your Land." In 1998 Bragg released Mermaid Avenue, a collaboration with the band Wilco of Guthrie's unrecorded lyrics put to music. At their SXSW show, The Klezmatics performed songs from their own upcoming Guthrie album. Musical intersections like these are idiosyncratic, but they're part of what makes SXSW unpredictable and exciting.
Haifa-born Eef Barzelay continued his own unpredictable journey through the American heartland, playing a SXSW set on the third day of the festival. Barzelay, the lead singer of Clem Snide, showed off songs from his recent solo debut, Bitter Honey. Even without his band mates, Barzelay's songs remains steeped in Americana. Barzelay, who now lives in Nashville, is probably the most well-known Israeli in indie rock, and he also has one its most distinctive voices, which bursts with down-home ballads that could hardly sound less Middle Eastern.
Musicians of all ages play SXSW, but many of the most hyped shows featured artists barely out of school. This year's young darlings included the Arctic Monkeys from England who have been hailed as the greatest British band since Oasis and Be Your Own Pet, also from Nashville, a crew of bratty teenagers who play overrated punk music, albeit with an impressive measure of confidence and attitude. The Lovely Feathers, another young band at the festival, was among this writer's favorites. This is all the more noteworthy because the band consists of five friends who attended a private Jewish school in Montreal. Indeed, Mark Kupfert (see sidebar) who fronts the band with Richard Yanofsky might have been the only artist at SXSW as comfortable speaking about Abraham Joshua Heschel as he is discussing the challenges of making music.
Any list of SXSW favorites is bound to be subjective-if only because even a busy concertgoer might see 50 of 1500 bands. Still, other personal highlights included: The Organ from Vancouver, Loney Dear from Stockholm, Band of Horses from Seattle, and The Animal Collective from Baltimore. Indeed, Austin may not actually be the Live Music Capital of the World, but it's most definitely the Live Music Capital of March.
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