All Ears

From left, Jason Falkner, Brazilian Girls, and Saul Williams are among the notables performing at this year's SXSW.

SXSW: Sleep? Hahaha

It's that time of year again: Time to call up friends in Austin and ask if their couches are spoken for yet. This year's South By Southwest is light on buzz - no earth-shattering reunion shows or rare appearances by reclusive legends have the town atwitter. Which is probably good news for the fest's real bread and butter, the unknown bands hoping a few new fans - who in a different year would be waiting in line to see Tom Waits or having flashbacks at the Big Star show - will happen through the door.

That's not to say there aren't famous names or exciting appearances on the list. American Music Club is here again, after last year's incendiary reunion. (Leader Mark Eitzel will also perform solo.) The ever-welcome Calexico, reliably one of the best live bands around, will close Friday night out. Alejandro Escovedo has a couple of gigs; judging from a recent show at the Cactus Cafe, his recent health problems have done little to dull his presence as a performer. And Robyn Hitchcock is playing somewhere every 15 minutes. (Not literally, but close.) Elvis Costello, meanwhile, has a seriously uninspiring set at last year's Austin City Limits festival to live down.

Hip-hop picks

This year's SXSW features hip-hop acts from all over the map. Local favorite Mojoe joins Austin's Bavu Blakes and H-Town's Scarface at the Vibe on Thursday March 17, and San Antonio's DJ Jester and Quad Rod bring their Table For One magic to Latitude 30 on Friday. That same night, the Flamingo hosts a quality lineup which includes LA's Busdriver and the Shapeshifters.

The can't-miss hip-hop show of the fest is easily the Saturday night Biz 3 showcase at Emo's which includes white rapper extraordinaire Buck 65. The Tom Waits/Woody Guthrie-influenced Canuck is touring behind his U.S. debut This Right Here Is and will make a special early appearance. Ironically, Buck will be followed by Saul Williams, whose recent self-titled album includes this couplet: "I gave hip-hop to white boys when nobody was looking." The Definitive-Jux camp will be in full-effect with Rob Sonic, C-Rayz Walz, Aesop Rock (who just dropped Fast Cars, Danger, Fire, and Knives), and The Perceptionists, whose Black Dialogue contains the protest jam of the year in "Memorial Day." Closing out the evening is the always impressive MF Doom, who also performs on Thursday at the Rainbow Cattle Company. Those looking for something with a little more international flavor on Saturday should check the show at Caribbean Lights which features emcees from Mexico, Canada, the Netherlands, and Senegal.

The sleeper act of the fest has to be Dakah, LA's 70-member hip-hop orchestra which fuses classical, jazz, and soul, and will be joined by Breakestra and Rahzel of the Roots fame for a daytime show at Stubb's. Also making appearances this year are Houston's Chingo Bling and Devin the Dude, Dallas' Erykah Badu, and Texas mainstays UGK.

M. Solis

The fest provides a chance to see a few new acts that have been drawing major press attention in other parts of the country. London-born, India/Sri Lanka-raised M.I.A., for instance, brings the politically charged worldbeat hip-hop of her debut disc Arular to Elysium. Brazilian Girls, most of whom are men who don't live in Brazil - although they work a lot of international flavor into their lounge-friendly music - are playing Saturday night at Eternal.

This year sees the return of two disparate groups I'd never have heard of if not for previous SXSW appearances: Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, a bluegrass combo with heavenly harmonies and a new record, Rivers Roll on By, on Bloodshot; and Palomar, perhaps the happiest pop band in New York City, will la-la-la at Tambaleo, where they are followed by Austin's David Bowie idolaters The Real Heroes.

Speaking of regional heroes: Spoon has a gig or two to promote their upcoming and drooled-over new album; new Austinite Pinetop Perkins brings some veteran blues to the opening night awards party; Okkervil River spinoff Shearwater plays the unlikely venue Maggie Mae's; and the George W. Bush Singers, who take the poetic words of our fearless leader and make music from them, will compete for the "x factor" award with the Austin Theremonic Orchestra.

Waller, Texas resident Daniel Johnston is the subject of a new documentary, and is playing here and there over the weekend. Best bet is to catch him at the Cactus on Thursday, where he'll follow a set by Kathy McCarty - who is celebrating both her own self-released solo disc and the long-awaited reissue of Dead Dog's Eyeball, the brilliant album that made Daniel Johnston's songs sound better than anyone ever could have hoped.

Power-popper Jason Falkner emerges from the mists of "hey, wasn't he supposed to be a star by now?" to play Wednesday night, evidently without a label deal. Another bygone sensation, Aussie boy wonder Ben Lee, shows up and does have a record label: the Austin outfit New West, which also hooked up not long ago with Vic Chesnutt. (Yep, he's playing the festival as well.)

Angry young black man Saul Williams will tear rap a new one at Emo's on Saturday, while a more pious fire will animate the performance of old-timers The Blind Boys of Alabama, here to promote a new disc called Atom Bomb.

This list could go on for pages, even in very small type. Looking at the lineup each March is a guaranteed cure for feeling like you know the music scene (I dare somebody to identify even half the bands without doing some serious research first) and cherry-picking highlights from hundreds of contenders is a hopelessly subjective task. Still, it's the most action-packed week of the year for most Texas music lovers - and spending a couple of hours trolling through the schedule at is as essential to enjoying it as getting a week's worth of sleep before it begins.

By John DeFore

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