AUSTIN, Texas -- At one point during his remarkable South By Southwest keynote speech on Thursday, Bruce Springsteen rattled off several-score different pop-music styles, from avant-garde metal to "Nintendo-core." He was making the point that there is no longer any unified center to popular music, and it's hard to argue with that.
For evidence, all you had to do was take a walk down Sixth Street, SXSW's main drag, which actually was no mean feat. SXSW has become such a huge party-destination spot that the crowds can be almost impossible to negotiate; like Franklin Street in Chapel Hill on Halloween, only a lot louder. And you heard everything down there -- scratchy swamp blues, collegiate drumlines, third-word talking-drum ensembles and every sort of acoustic jugband imaginable; I saw one young group on the street that even had a bassoonist.
The music landscape SXSW brings together is impossible to make sense of beyond marveling at what a chaotic, anything-goes scrum it is. The best thing to do is just drift around taking it all in.
And so I did, starting with North Carolina's own grand old men of power-pop the dB's. The original quartet is back together and has a new album coming in June -- that lineup's first in 30 (!) years. Showing off the new material was job one, but they also worked in somc choice oldies including "Happenstance" and the should've-been-a-hit-back-in-1984 "Love Is For Lovers." Afterward, a group of like-minded younger guns from the Triangle played, including Jeff Crawford, Django Haskins, Brett Harris and Matt Michaelson.
If you were to look up the phrase "withering deadpan" in an encyclopedia of onstage expressions (which doesn't exist, but it should), you'd see a picture of Magnetic Fields mastermind Stephin Merritt. He and bandmate Claudia Gonson weren't pleased with how chattery the crowd was, calling out the audience more than once. It's a shame the crowd wasn't more attentive, because the quintet's delicate acoustic chamber-pop was beautiful.
I don't know how, but local heroes The Love Language seem to grow somehow larger in presence every time I see them. It's not just because of massive volume, either; the group's intense pop soundscapes grow ever grander, more epic and also scarier. Love hurts, you know.
Then there was Royal Teeth, a young and impossibly attractive New Orleans pop band with a sound so bright, it almost seemed to pulsate colors. They weren't doing anything new, in the grand scheme of things -- but it was new to them and the kids crowded in to watch in a Sixth Street bar, as the rest of SXSW raged on all around. And that was enough. The kids are all right.