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Sharp Darts: South by Midwest

The festival may have been in Austin, but its center of gravity was Chicago.



The Fader Fort at South by Southwest was a confusing maze of chill-out rooms and swag tables, outfitted with a Levi's boutique and a guitar tech. Outside was a stage and enough room for a few hundred hipster types to stand around drinking SoCo punch and Bud. It was one of those flossy party spots that represent the most New York-ified aspects of the SXSW experience--the place was crawling with industry types, thick with attitude, and so ostentatiously exclusive it had its own hierarchy of badges and wristbands, separate from the festival's system.

So it was especially gratifying when DJ A-Trak, who was spinning between bands at Saturday afternoon's Fader Fort show, started giving shout-outs to cities and Chicago got the biggest reaction--bigger than New York, bigger than LA, bigger than Austin. The crowd went nuts, chanting "Chi-town! Chi-town!" and throwing C signs in the air--a few people even broke into an impromptu stepping demonstration. The Chicago contingent was stealing the show, and in a way it seemed like something similar had been happening all week long.

Judging from the conversations I had in Austin, it's not just Chicagoans who sense that something exciting is going on here. There's no "Chicago sound" for people to latch onto, but that's only because there are so many Chicago sounds--the scene seems to be closing in on a critical mass, with great bands proliferating in many genres at once. Subscenes that stay segregated in other cities are overflowing the walls that separate them: punks and hip-hop kids and indie rockers and metalheads all feed off one another's energy, and there's a great spirit of collaboration, communication, and mutual support.

There were thousands of bands in Austin last week, but when I went to mark up my festival guide, half the acts I picked were from Chicago. Some people I talked to thought it was perverse for me to see bands I could check out any old weekend, especially with so many globally hyped acts around. I think they suspected me of provincialism, but I imagine by the end of the festival a few of them came around to my point of view: that right now Chicago is producing a stunning number of groups that can compete with any next big thing you'd care to name.

I saw my first Chicago band, the 1900s, on Wednesday night. Like a lot of acts at SXSW, they'd booked several gigs in town to make the most of the trip--I caught their sole official festival show, for an enthusiastic crowd in the small downstairs bar of a Cuban restaurant. The band had covered most of the highway between Chicago and Austin in one marathon van ride the day before, but despite that they were as fresh and bright as their sunshiny 60s-style pop.

At eight o'clock Thursday night I was skipping between two Chicago solo acts: experimental beat maker Brenmar, formerly Brenmar Someday, and Yakuza front man Bruce Lamont. Brenmar was troubleshooting a table of pedals, synths, and mixers that wasn't making any sound--he finally got it working in time for me to hear a couple songs--and down the street Lamont was blending loops of jazzy bebop sax and folk-blues acoustic guitar with his usual death-metal screaming. Their sets represented one end of the SXSW spectrum: the little guys sweating for a break in front of a couple dozen people who'd most likely never heard of them.

Somewhere closer to the other end of that spectrum was Office, who delivered an expert set to a wall-to-wall crowd at Blender magazine's venue later that night--part of a showcase for Scratchie Records that also included Robbers on High Street and Albert Hammond Jr. of the Strokes. They'd go on to play several other big-name sponsored shows, including one at the Fader Fort. The Ponys did plenty of shows like that too, but their first appearance--on Thursday night at Emo's Jr.--was for a sweaty pack of non-industry types less concerned with getting into the right parties and more with getting rocked by psyched-out garage jams.

Friday afternoon I got away from Sixth Street--the festival's hectic epicenter--to hit the Vice party on the other side of I-35. The high-profile action was going down in a big-ass field, where Turbonegro, the Black Lips, and a bunch of other rockers were playing. But I stuck to one of the small subparties--in a run-down juke joint called the Victory Grill that used to be a stop on the chitlin' circuit--in part to catch Kid Sister's set. The crowd, fueled by free Sparks and already rowdy in the middle of the afternoon, responded to her electro-fied hip-hop with enthusiastic if uncoordinated ass shaking. Kid Sister has only been rapping for a little more than a year, and the buzz she picked up right away thanks to her collaborations with Flosstradamus and A-Trak wasn't always in proportion to her skills--but she's grown into it now. She worked the audience like a seasoned pro, two-stepping with J2K from Flosstradamus--her brother and hype man--without tripping up her flow.

Half the good shit at SXSW isn't listed in the festival guide. The trashy garage-rock concert at the Scoot Inn later on Friday brought out a sizable crowd, though it was just one of dozens of unofficial shows that night. The bar had bands inside and out for ten hours, including the likes of Jay Reatard and LiveFastDie, but I was there for White Savage, a new Chicago group with guys from Screaming Yellow Zonkers and the Ponys--most of them had made the trek to play this solitary show, which was only their second one ever. Their furious, punked-up noise was a little too much for the generator powering the outside stage--it shut down right on the final note of their second song, as though on cue. Staff got it up and running within a few minutes, and White Savage spent the rest of their set playing like they were trying to fry it again.

My posse dawdled at the Scoot Inn long enough for me to miss Qualo's set on the Beauty Bar's back patio, which had apparently turned into a mini showcase of underground Chicago hip-hop--Kidz in the Hall, Hollywood Holt, and the Cool Kids all jumped into the mix. Based on the reports I got when I showed up, it was one of the best shows I missed all week. (The Flameshovel showcase that night at the Soho Lounge--the Narrator, the Race, Maritime, and Russian Circles--was by all accounts another.)

Inside the bar, Chicago publicity firm Biz 3 had booked some of their dance-friendly acts. Flosstradamus, Yo Majesty, Kid Sister, and A-Trak built up an off-the-hook energy that exploded into a full-on dance-off. Not even the Pack and the Federation, two Bay Area hyphy acts playing outside, could get their crowd so wound up--and to hyphy dudes, getting dumb like that is practically a religion.

By Saturday afternoon, when A-Trak did his set at the Fader Fort, many festivalgoers had been through three days and nights of shows and parties, and most of them looked like the walking wounded. But the Chicago people shouting back at A-Trak were still kicking. I ended up talking to a major-label publicist from New York who wanted to know about Chicago music--specifically, why there were so many Chicago hip-hop kids at a show where the DJs were just a side-stage act between rock bands. I told him what I could about how the barriers between Chicago's different scenes are fading away, making it one of the best cities for music anywhere. My four days in Texas had helped me fall for my hometown all over again. "Man," he sighed, "I wish New York was like that."

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Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Frank Swinder, Biz 3.

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