SXSW Diary: Wednesday: By the time my companion and I pulled into Austin last night, checked into our hotel, noshed on Tex-Mex (fish tacos and enchiladas colorado at Curras Grill highly recommended), and wormed our way through the bizarrely inefficient cattle-call that was the festival registration desk, the opening night showcases at Austins South By Southwest Festival were half over.
With no Memphis-related acts on the Wednesday night schedule (that starts heavy Thursday), we made a brief stop at the indoor/outdoor warhorse Emos to catch a little bit of Emma Pollock, spinning off solo from the excellent Scottish alt-pop band the Delgados, and, hopefully, half a set from gypsy jazz/folk band Beirut.
But with Pollocks singer/songwriter set a bit of a bore and Emos so uncomfortably packed it was a Great White performance away from disaster, we abandoned this plan quickly and headed early to our ultimate destination, outdoor amphitheatre Stubbs, where a showcase sponsored by British music magazine New Musical Express featured one of the four-day fests hottest tickets in Lily Allen.
In recent years, SXSW has emerged as a preferred launching pad for hip, successful British acts trying to stake a claim on the U.S. market. In just the past three years, Brit acts such as Dizzee Rascal, M.I.A., Bloc Party, the Arctic Monkeys, and Art Brut have descended on Austin in conjunction with or ahead of the American releases of their debut albums for high-profile showcases. If none of these acts have had American success commensurate with their home-country celebrity, theyve all gotten halfway there, and have (justifiably, in most cases) scored big with the American music press that makes up a large chunk of the SXSW contingent.
An NPR segment on the festival Wednesday afternoon pegged Allen and emerging British soul singer Amy Winehouse as the likely breakout artists this year. Winehouses shot comes later this week, but Allen didnt disappoint on the big stage last night.
Fronting a guitar-free six-piece band (drums, bass, keyboards, trombone, trumpet, sax) that ably fleshed out the hip-hop, reggae, and, most impressively, New Orleans R&B accents on her debut album Alright, Still , Allen displayed the musical smarts and force of personality that make Alright, Still (released in the U.S. in January) and early album of the year candidate. Read the Flyer review.
Allen stalked the stage in her standard outfit of an oversized frock, sneakers, and hoop earrings chain-smoking and swigging on a Budweiser a London around-the-way girl with a potty mouth (F&%k NME, she said. "I didnt know they were sponsoring this until right before I came on."), mischievous smile, and jazzy vocal fluency. Her seven-song set mined Alright, Still for sardonic British hit singles LDN and Smile and knockout album tracks such as Knock Em Out and Friday Night.
With her polished, melodic pop songs, smart but conversational lyrics, and Everygirl good looks, Allen would seem to have more American crossover appeal than Brit sensations past. In the weeks leading up to her SXSW debut, she was featured in a two-page Entertainment Weekly spread and landed a performance slot on Saturday Night Live, and Wednesday proved that she can transform her glorious studio pop into an utterly charming live show.
The Memphis action at SXSW began Thursday, and the schedule makers havent done me or others interested in Memphis music any favors, with the three biggest Memphis-related showcases of the week all happening concurrently: Stax celebrates its 50th anniversary with a revue-style showcase scheduled to feature Booker T & the MGs, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell. New York-based Norton Records has ex-Memphian Greg Cartwright and his band the Reigning Sound backing up Shangri-Las comeback queen Mary Weiss (Cartwright produced and wrote most of the songs on Weisss recent album, "Dangerous Game"), with Memphis garage-rock hero Sam the Sham also on the bill. And local punk/garage-rock labels Goner and Shattered are teaming up for a showcase, headlined by Shattered impresario Jay Reatard. Ill try to take in as much of this stuff as possible. Check back later today for a full report. Chris Herrington