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Don't Mess with Texas

A dispatch from SXSW

Twenty years ago the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas, was easily contained to the city's downtown district. But like an ivy plant winding itself uncontrollably up a brick wall, the festival has become the music industry's de facto spring-break destination, with hundreds of shows at venues miles outside the city (whether sanctioned, like at area record stores, or not, like one gig A to Z saw in the parking lot of a drive-in restaurant).

With expansion comes growing pains: Streets were clogged with people, lines to get into parties were interminable, and hailing a cab at night bordered on the impossible. (One colleague walked the several miles back to our hotel out of frustration.)

The debauched atmosphere felt more like hipster Mardi Gras — thanks not only to Friday's St. Patrick's Day holiday, but also to the copious free beer and the unfortunate prevalence of skirts over leggings and formal shorts. Between day parties sponsored by labels, magazines or radio stations (such as St. Louis' own KDHX [88.1 FM], which sponsored two packed all-afternoon fests), official SXSW showcases at night and afterparties that stretched into the wee hours, the concert choices were absolutely overwhelming.

While the growing attendance at the fest certainly signals that the music industry isn't dead (as some would like to think), the scramble to get into shows and to obtain guest list-only invites was tiresome rather than fun. In fact, A to Z would venture to say this competition reflects the panicked feel plaguing the industry as of late. Major labels are rushing to sign the latest hot band before somebody else can snap it up, while simultaneously trying to keep tabs on fickle teenage tastes, combat illegal file-sharing and assimilate iTunes and Napster into their business plans. Throw in blogs and Web sites trying to one-up each other by hyping bands before many even have a chance to develop a unique identity, and it's growing ever more difficult to sift through the static to find the heart-grabbing gems.

It's a blessing in disguise, then, that the St. Louis contingent that traveled to Austin was a small but solid group of performers. While A to Z ran out of energy for late-night sets by Living Things (see www.houstonpress.com /blogs/?p=7 for a great anecdote) and the Bottle Rockets — the latter playing the Bloodshot Records showcase in preparation for the June 6 release of the upcoming Zoysia — the other bands from the Lou represented the town well.

As is their wont, Ludo came down and played a few unofficial SXSW sets — although this year it appears the stakes were a bit higher: A to Z ran into Moog maestro Tim Convy on bustling Sixth Street on Saturday night and gleaned that the band is drawing major-label interest. (We'll keep you posted.)

More officially, Undertow Records held a Thursday-night showcase that featured Magnolia Summer, the Love Experts and Waterloo (alongside labelmates Jay Bennett, Milton Mapes and Steve Dawson). While a bit removed from the fest's main drag, the outdoor show was the perfect respite from the throngs of fashion victims and long lines.

What was blissfully missing from the show, in fact, was hype. Though one might perceive the lack of buzz around the event as a byproduct of typical St. Louis-style low self-esteem, the relaxed atmosphere was a refreshing change. Strings of multicolored Christmas lights and stars were draped over the outdoor stage, creating a backyard-informal atmosphere that matched the humid, summerlike breeze. The three local bands plugged in, eschewed fashion, frills and pretension and — gasp! — let their music speak for itself.

The Love Experts went on at 8 p.m. sharp and played a characteristically tight set of Byrdsian jangle and British Invasion pop to a small but appreciative crowd. Delicate moments played second fiddle to expansive harmonies and melodies, all cranked to a Spinal Tap eleven: An errant feedback squall caused vocalist Steve Carosello to quip, "I miss the Mary Chain more than you know," while the finale, "Bright Red Carnation," featured an extended outro and walls of noise that rivaled arena bombast.

Vocalist Mark Ray and guitarist Chris Grabau summoned their own inner rock gods during Waterloo's subsequent set, the best A to Z has seen them play to date. The show commenced with a ripping version of old favorite "Engines" and continued through songs both old and new. (Ray snuck us a copy of the upcoming new Waterloo disc, Out of the Woods, which is so good we can hardly stand it.)

Grabau enlisted Ray to play keyboards during Magnolia Summer's show, which added nuance to new songs from the upcoming From Driveways' Lost View. (The album will be available at shows from here on out; View's official release date is May 16.) The hands-down highlight this night — and at the rate it's going, every future show — was "Once in a While," a Wilco-ish number driven by feathery twang and the occasional glimmer of piano. The tune's recurring guitar melody, a memorable series of notes that's almost unbearably sad but at the same time stubbornly hopeful — like forcing a smile to your face through a sea of tears — repeatedly sucker-punched A to Z to the gut.

Not to get all emo on y'all, but a beer buzz, some great conversation and hearing these bands pour their hearts out on a humid Texas stage made for one of those nights where anxiety and irritation fell away and all seemed right with the world. While replicating this feeling won't be easy, Waterloo, the Love Experts and Magnolia Summer will certainly try at their "SXSW Homecoming" gig this Saturday, March 25, at Blueberry Hill (6504 Delmar Boulevard, University City; 314-727-4444) at 9 p.m. Tix are a mere $7.

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