Southern exposure

The South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, gives more than 1,200 bands the chance to make it big, says Paul Sexton
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The Independent Culture

The Continental check-in lounge at Gatwick last week was crammed with bleary British musicians on their way to the best little gig-house in Austin, Texas. For me, the South by Southwest music festival got underway when I boarded a plane alongside Bloc Party, Breed 77 and the Raveonettes, and ended four nights later in a postage-stamp venue, where a singer I'd never heard of strummed on the window-ledge and sang like an angel.

The Continental check-in lounge at Gatwick last week was crammed with bleary British musicians on their way to the best little gig-house in Austin, Texas. For me, the South by Southwest music festival got underway when I boarded a plane alongside Bloc Party, Breed 77 and the Raveonettes, and ended four nights later in a postage-stamp venue, where a singer I'd never heard of strummed on the window-ledge and sang like an angel.

When SXSW first took place in 1977, it was attended by 700 industry professionals. Now that number is up past 8,000, and the gigs top 1,200 over the four days, at no fewer than 54 appointed venues. The Gatwick scenario was being repeated at airports from Oslo to Okinawa, as artists scurried to what is seen as the modern equivalent of the California gold rush. In fact, this must be the most exacting, competitive audition space in the entire industry.

The UK sent more artists than anyone, under the sUKonthis umbrella put up by the record industry's trade body, BPI. The Government agency UK Trade & Investment was another partner in the enterprise, offering grants of up to £500 for visiting artists and labels. It's funny to think of the Kaiser Chiefs, The Futureheads et al invading America with state funding.

But do people really get signed at SXSW? This year, there was plenty of evidence of label activity, at an event that for all its expansion, thankfully appears to have rediscovered its indie tendencies. A few years ago, says one executive, the place was crawling with Goo Goo Dolls corporate soundalikes.

This year, for the first time in ages - perhaps since the Britpop explosion did its big commercial belly-flop in the US, and Oasis were sick on the shoes of their American hosts - there's acknowledgement of a British wave that's ready to break in the US. Austin was full of US label people circling round the hot UK names on the SXSW timetable.

Kaiser Chiefs came with reputation freshly enhanced by a sheaf of five-star reviews and a Top 3 album, Employment, but they're already spoken for in the US, where the album was released last week by Universal. The suggestion that their gig at La Zona Rosa would mirror last year's line-around-the-block appearance by Franz Ferdinand was thrown off a little by a rather tamer queue before their performance, but the Chiefs kicked plenty of butt.

More relevant to the signing scene, an excellent show at Buffalo Billiards by the Brighton collective The Go! Team got American label people in a considerable tizzy. "An international, 50/50 boy/girl scrimmage," ran the description in the official SXSW companion, practically a buyer's guide to bands. To see the diminutive frontwoman Ninja whipping a potentially jaded crowd into a froth of call-and-response participation was exhilarating.

I hear that Cardiff's People In Planes are "in talks" right now after their Austin show, even before the arrival of their first album, produced by Sam (Supergrass) Williams. The suitors are also buzzing around the Newcastle rockers Maxïmo Park, who've recently released their first US single, "Apply Some Pressure".

Elsewhere, I saw two admirably ballsy shows by HardFi, full of Clash angst and adhesive tunes, even if the lead singer Richard Archer may have been a little optimistic when, at their MTV2-sponsored gig, he tried this on the Austin crowd: "We're from Staines. Anybody here from Staines?"

At the BBC's afternoon barbecue - Austin can be a challenging town for a vegetarian - the Liverpool newcomer Amy Smith hauled herself from her sickbed to give a confident performance. That showcase also featured Embrace on their first-ever American visit, seven years late - the front man, Danny McNamara, admitting that his prior knowledge of Texas had been restricted to the Chain Saw Massacre.

The opportunity to hit so many industry people at the same time isn't lost on the major labels, either. EMI mounted a playback of tracks from the upcoming Gorillaz album Demon Days, while Sony did the same for Bruce Springsteen's Devils & Dust at the irresistible Waterloo Records. Doves were one of many bands to play live amid the record racks.

Late one night at the Blender Bar, the boys hailing from Beach Boy's country in Hawthorne, California, Dios Malos, impressed the audience with songs on the Todd Rundgren side of Flaming Lips. Willy Mason, strangely unknown in America despite top 40 album success in the UK, was busy spreading the word around town about Where The Humans Eat.

The veteran manager Kip Krones had his band, Th' Legendary Shack Shakers, in a prestigious opening slot for Robert Plant, thanks to some friendly insider trading: Plant's son Logan is a big fan of these endearing psychobilly maniacs. Plant had his hands full, both with that epic set at Austin Music Hall and with a keynote address at the Convention Centre, where he had an unexpected visit from an old friend, the erstwhile queen groupie Pamela des Barres.

And the stranger on the window-ledge? Gabriel Mann, singing sweet and funky soul in a tiny spot off Congress. We'll all be able to hear his voice soon, as he supports Alanis Morissette on her UK shows next month.

MTV2's South by Southwest special airs on Sunday at 9pm, and is repeated throughout next week

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