Rockin' the grail

It's every Britpopper's dream, to 'break the US', isn't it? Not necessarily, says Anthony Barnes, as he watches the cream of British rock kick butt at the biggest music festival in the world
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The Independent Culture

There is a stampede in Texas. Thousands of people charge like longhorn cattle in all directions along Austin's Sixth Street beating a chaotic path between bars and concert halls. Above them, on the balcony of Buffalo Billiards, a brothel-turned-pool hall and gig venue, the DJ Mark Radcliffe slumps in his chair and reflects on his day. "You know, I think the Kaiser Chiefs show was probably one of the greatest things I have ever seen," he says, his words almost drowned by a soundtrack of clattering, colliding drumbeats spilling from adjacent bars across the street.

Radcliffe is in Austin along with a team from Radio 2 to broadcast from the world's biggest music festival South By South West (SXSW), an onslaught by 1,300 artists over four days which utterly engulfs the state capital - a cross between Glastonbury and a pub crawl. The Chiefs - one of Britain's brightest musical hopes - proved such an inspiration that Radcliffe fought his way onstage to thrash the living daylights out of a drum during the band's impromptu performance for just 200 people in a small courtyard drinking den. It is a relatively gentle coda to the previous evening's show by the Leeds band, one of the festival's biggest "buzz" shows: two thousand crammed into the venue, leaving hundreds more queueing outside in either direction - all on the strength of word of mouth.

SXSW is like that. The word goes out and the crowds gather at whichever of the 50-plus official venues captures the collective imagination. Gratifyingly for many of the 100 British acts which have taken part, it is they who have benefited most from the buzz.

"Not since the days of Britpop has British guitar music been this good and this popular," says Tom Meighan, singer of Kasabian - a three times-Brit nominated wall of sound with shuffling beats. We are huddled in the dark of an Austin billiard hall. The rims of his eyes are red-raw, a product of the five weeks his body has spent on the band's first US tour, which concludes at this very festival. "I think it's cyclical," he says wearily, "and British music's time has come around again. The bands have really made their mark here."

Sixth Street is the centre of everything. Here, you'll find that more than half the main venues at SXSW straddle a 500-yard stretch of sidewalk, supposedly a hangover - one among many at this festival - from the days when it was the place of entertainment for General Custer's troops. But music is omni-present in Austin, a peculiarly bohemian city home to a vast student population as well as the country music legend Willie Nelson. In fact, music is so ubiquitous here that bands are to be found playing in the departure lounge of the airport. They'll play anywhere. I strolled through the downtown area and watched a band set up amps and speakers in a hairdresser's. Mine's a shampoo and set...

Those in search of remarkable band names are spoilt for choice. On offer this year are The Plot To Blow Up The Eiffel Tower, Dirty On Purpose, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness and The Woggles. But pity the poor unfortunates who misread the programme and ended up seeing zZz when really they wanted to catch ZZZZ, who were both on the same bill. And as you might imagine, a promising name is by no means a guarantee of quality. The splendidly titled Hobble and Baboon are checked out on the first night by Radcliffe and fellow Radio 2 presenter Stuart Maconie. Their verdict: "Utter crap."

But if the band names are strange, the tattoos on show are even odder. I spy one woman watching an outdoor show by The Magic Numbers with the black outline of a Cluedo board-style floorplan inked on the inside of her forearm. Yet she is outdone by a guy in the audience for Bloc Party who has the silhouettes of New York's most famous skyscrapers circling his arm from wrist to elbow, like a stripy gauntlet. He was evidently inked before 9/11.

Perhaps it's the Texan sun, perhaps it's the beer or maybe it's simply being so far from home, but the Brit bands are sufficiently relaxed to mill with the crowds and check out other acts. The Kaiser Chiefs, an unashamed celebration of all that was good about Blur's Park Life, are being viewed by their spiritual godfather Damon Albarn, who nods and grins approvingly. That evening he watches his former guitarist Graham Coxon - ejected from Blur three years ago - play a solo show, and the two huddle into a back room to chat and discuss who knows what.

South By South West is a foot in the door for many bands hungry for what remains the rockin' grail, success in America. It will undoubtedly pave the way for many of the up-and-coming Brits who played there, as well as more established names. America has remained steadfastly resistant to Doves, already three albums into their career, but their downbeat atmospherics are expected to take off here at long last. We'll see.

Kele Okereke looks out over Sixth Street from a frontier-style shack, beer in hand. He is clearly weary of questions about his band, Bloc Party, making it in the States. "That dog looks happy," he says, changing the subject. I suggest that the dog may actually be panting to cool down after being left in blazing sunshine in the rear of a pickup truck, rather than smiling. "Oh, yeah," says Kele, undeterred. "I love golden retrievers. That is a golden retriever isn't it?" Bloc Party are being particularly well received in Austin, even though their debut album of scratchy, frantic guitar rock and yelping vocals has yet to be released in the US.

Making an impact across the whole of America won't be easy, he concedes. "I don't really understand this term 'breaking America'. For us it's just about playing shows to people who like you and doing it well. We've got no illusions about trying to break America. As long as some people come to see us any modicum of success is fine."

Watching a daytime show by Hard-Fi I notice the curious stance adopted by all Austin's gig-goers. They can be seen regularly tensing their thigh and buttock muscles, first one leg then the other, cheek by cheek, to ease the aches caused by up to 13 hours of standing still to watch bands. The only exercise you get here is the evening mêlée on the street as people swap venues on the hour. But I can confirm that it is officially rock'n'roll to eat breakfast. While lining my stomach one morning at my out-of-town hotel, I find myself waiting to feed the toaster next to a towering hulk in shades accompanied by a glamorous vampire. The hulk's tattooed knuckles give the game away - it is Queens Of The Stone Age frontman Josh Homme and his punk pin-up girlfriend Brodie Dalle of The Distillers. Like scary. Like cool. Mind you, they can't take their toast. Only two slices?

BBC Radio 2 has been broadcasting the festival from the beginning in 1987, initially slotting selected SXSW performances into specialist shows. But as the festival's importance has grown, so has the station's programming, with 25 hours of live broadcasts spread over the four days this year. "[SXSW] became more than just specialist music," says controller Lesley Douglas. "There were new bands that were coming out of America that were found at the festival, and there were British acts that were trying to catapult themselves into America through it and for us it was the perfect opportunity to reflect both." This year the station hosts its own gig in Austin with a bill featuring The Go! Team, Dogs Die In Hot Cars and Tom Baxter.

"I'd say every artist is intrigued by America," says singer-songwriter Baxter, relaxing at a barbecue to celebrate the UK's involvement in Austin. "For someone like myself, the festival is invaluable because you can be heard by people who can really help you. I think America has a more eclectic open view of music than you find in England. It doesn't just want music that fits in boxes or is the next big thing, the retro bands that sound like Talking Heads."

One of last year's discoveries, the singer-songwriter Willy Mason, returns to SXSW in 2005 with a major label deal and a top-40 single and album under his belt. His performance is one of the highlights of my visit. In a warm margarita fuzz, I head through the Crowne Plaza's strange underground grotto entrance, along with Maconie and a BBC 6 Music producer, and up to the 18th floor. Against a backdrop of twinkling city lights, we watch this lo-fi troubadour perform - and remember why there are hairs on the backs of our necks.

Only the performance by Sunderland's Futureheads comes close to Mason, with their 21st-century take on late-Seventies new wave. I am not alone in being impressed by the polish and perfect harmonies of a band who actually appear to be having fun.

"I thought I had seen the greatest performance yet when the Kaiser Chiefs played. But then I saw Futureheads! It was the best thing I have seen at South By South West - EVER!" This modest assessment is screamed by an American reviewer into a phone in the press suite the next morning. Amy Smith, vice president of music programming for MTV in the US, says it is the vibrancy of the British bands' live shows which have been the key to their success. "What's differentiating these bands is that they're really exciting live. There has been great word of mouth."

And yet it is not all about newcomers. The old guard is out in force too, with shows by Robert Plant and Elvis Costello; even The Rezillos, Nightingales and New Model Army. Veteran musical surrealist Robyn Hitchcock puts in four performances, as well as a stint as a panellist at the conference, in addition to finding time to design the delegates' gift bags.

Down at the Cedar Street Courtyard, the Kaiser Chiefs are winding up their afternoon show and frontman Ricky Wilson is battling on, despite a ligament injury to his foot. They spot broadcaster Johnny Walker in the crowd and chant his name. Afterwards they rush over for a chat and drummer Nick Hodgson gets Walker's autograph. But that's The Kaiser Chiefs all over: a band who collect the autographs of their audience.

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