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When it comes to the South by Southwest Music Conference, bigger isn't necessarily better.

This year's model, which ran from Wed-nesday, March 18, to Saturday, March 22, in Austin, was the William Conrad of confabs. Thanks to an expanded lineup on the event's first day, over 1,000 acts shopped their wares to music-biz executives, promoters, bookers, radio pros, journalists and just plain folks who descended upon the Texas capital like killer bees with American Express cards. This quantity topped the highest previous total of showcasers by 200 or so. But rather than taking advantage of this bounty, a lot of decision-makers focused on established stars, buzz bands and industry-sponsored soirees with open bars. As a result, the unknown and the unsigned, for whose sake SXSW was originally formed, were left to fight for the attention of a relative handful of scouts legitimately looking for new talent--and the daunting number of outfits that fell into this category made the chances of discovery slim indeed. I saw all or part of 83 performances in three days, running myself ragged in the process, but this sum constituted only about 8 percent of the musicians on the SXSW bill. And given the frequency with which my colleagues in the entertainment universe informed me that I was working much too hard, I'm guessing that my approach was the exception, not the rule.

The losers in this equation were bands such as Adrian Romero and Love Supreme, a Denver-based Westword profile subject ("Supreme Beings," January 22) that managed to land a SXSW slot without the assistance of either a kidnapping plot or Sean "Puffy" Combs. When Romero and compadres took the stage on Saturday night at Steamboat, a venue on Sixth Street, Austin's main drag, approximately fifteen people were watching them. More filed in during the course of the set, and Romero worked hard to overcome a lousy sound mix and the inappropriateness of the club, whose party-hearty atmosphere wasn't all that conducive to the band's fairly intricate sonic blend. But I still found myself feeling sorry for him, and for everyone else who traveled so far for so little.

But at least Romero got there, unlike two other Colorado products. Five Iron Frenzy was slated to play on Thursday at the Back Room, the most far-flung club at SXSW; it was about as close to Sixth Street as Littleton is to Coors Field. Nevertheless, I dutifully shlepped to my rental car and made the drive, only to discover that another band, Inspector 7, was skanking in the scheduled combo's place. The reason, according to Five Iron Frenzy bassist Keith Hoerig, reached back in Denver a few days later, was the weather. "We had just finished a tour," he said. "We were in Columbus, Ohio, and we were supposed to fly into Chicago and then catch a flight to Austin. But there was a storm, and all the flights were canceled. So we had to spend the weekend in Columbus." What did the lads do in this hotspot? "We went bowling," Hoerig revealed.

A similar situation prevented Boulder's Sherri Jackson from crooning at the West Side Alley on Friday. As Jackson told it after the festival was over, she and the members of her band were planning to drive to Austin on Wednesday, but heavy snowfall in Denver and Boulder closed I-25, postponing their departure. The blizzard got out of Denver the next morning, but its remnants headed along the same southerly route that Jackson was planning to take. To make matters worse, a production assistant who was supposed to handle much of the driving suddenly backed out of the trip--meaning that the musicians would have to play in front of the rich and the powerful after motoring for twenty-plus hours along treacherous roads. "So we decided that we just couldn't do it," Jackson noted. "Which was a drag, because I was really looking forward to going there and hearing all that music." There were compensations, however. "I had a really great day of snowboarding," she said.

'Boarding was out of the question for a couple of other Colorado bands, the Minders and the Apples. Both groups bowed at SXSW on Wednesday, prior to my arrival in Austin, but the reports I received about their turns were uniformly good. The Minders (whose gig was sponsored by Westword) didn't exactly pack them in at another Sixth Street room, the Iron Cactus, but the 75 or so listeners who stopped by had positive things to say, and so did lead singer Martyn Leaper, who checked in from the road: "The show was fun, and the town of Austin was a nuthouse," he said. As for the Apples, they delivered what observers described as a wonderful batch of songs at Liberty Lunch, one of SXSW's largest spaces. The throng on hand (including Seymour Stein, president of Sire Records, which is distributing the Apples' latest disc) witnessed mild-mannered lead singer/mastermind Robert Schneider conclude the evening by smashing his guitar to bits. But this was an example of irony, not angst. His bandmates burst into laughter at the gesture, and Schneider's cheerful comments to the audience--"Thanks, everybody. Good night!"--implied that he thought it was pretty funny, too.

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