11:44 AM GMT 21/05/2013
Big Star's Memphis maverick casts shadow over Austin's wall-to-wall music fest. MOJO's Will Hodgkinson reports.
THE ATMOSPHERE AT South By Southwest, the Austin festival that has transformed Texas's most liberal town from a friendly student backwater to a film and music powerhouse, took on a surreal turn at its inauguration this year. Flying in on a six o'clock flight from Forth Worth, MOJO was pleased to capture a short set by the plummy English duo The Smoke Fairies. Straight out of Chichester, Jessica Davies and Katherine Blamire brought a beguiling blend of cyclical blues riffs and '70s folk-rock vocals to the British Embassy's opening party at Latitude 30. They set the mood for a SXSW with a strong British presence and a lot of promise.
Then the news spread across the city's Sixth Street dives like wildfire: Alex Chilton, teenage leader of The Box Tops, singer for forever-influential power-pop legends Big Star and producer of The Cramps' finest records, died aged 59. Chilton's Saturday set with the reformed Big Star was to be a SXSW highlight, matching that of other musical heroes making the scene including Roky Erickson and Smokey Robinson. The fact that Chilton's freewheeling beatnik spirit and rootsy musical adventurousness defined the festival made the news of his passing all the more poignant.
SXSW is a juggernaut, though, and the beat goes on. This is not a normal festival: it is citywide and multi-faceted and takes place in a world of concrete and traffic jams. Over in the east side of Austin, which is rougher and generally more interesting than much of the city, a Scottish teenage raver called Unicorn Kid bounced up and down in front of a laptop with insane glee to the sound of his own straight-ahead electro disco. A packed bar full of people that looked like they just scraped over into legal drinking age joined in.
In downtown bar Emo's the rather more restrained country rock cadences of lank-haired Louisiana singer-songwriter Dylan LeBlanc, a recent signing to Rough Trade, impressed a serious-looking crowd. This writer failed to make it to the 1am set by Japanese freak-out stalwarts Acid Mothers Temple, having succumbed to a serious case of jet lag, but their inclusion on the official bill shows how far-reaching this festival can be.
Of course, SXSW is a major industry shindig and everyone is on the lookout for the next big thing. With the festival starting properly on Friday, Thursday night is more a warm-up session than a time for musical epiphanies and earth-shattering discoveries. And the news of Alex Chilton's death overrode everything.
By Will Hodgkinson
Posted by Ross_Bennett at 10:22 AM GMT 18/03/2010