Southern Exposure

South by Southwest chooses an eclectic Denver lineup.

The all-powerful selection committee of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference has spoken. Last week, the mighty panel announced its picks for the annual event and the results, ladies and gentlemen, are surprising. Of the more than sixty Colorado bands that gathered up photos, random press and bio materials, shrink-wrapped demo tapes and CDs and sent them all off to Texas in time for the November deadline, five locals have been offered showcases at the jamboree and industry lovefest to be held in Austin March 15 through 19. A newly Windexed crystal ball could not have forecast this one.

This year's crop of Texas-bound talent shakes stereotypes of Colorado music like a bull bucking a drunk cowboy. While non-residents may generally associate the state's sound with the country-roads comfort of John Denver, the tambourine-and-thyme stylings of the Big Head Todd lineage or the indie-pop prowess demonstrated by local representatives of the Elephant 6 collective, the SXSW folks seem to fancy us a bunch of urban hipsters. Local MCs Kingdom (who won in the Hip-Hop category at last year's Westword Music Awards Showcase, and whom we can't wait to see in a cowboy hat) and Don Blas and the nGoMa hip-hop crew make up three of the five selectees, which should please those who've been saying for a while now that Denver's scene is hot despite a lack of coastal cred. And for all we know, the upcoming SXSW gigs may mark the first time anyone has seen Blue Zone or the Denver-based space-opera trio Sci-Fi Uterus perform live music before a proper audience.

We would have loved to have been flies on the wall as the selection committee riffled through the applications from some of the area's more popular local bands. Just imagine: Music from outfits capable of filling up the Cricket, Herman's, even the Fox or the Boulder Theater are sent to the bins while the electronic weirdness of Sci-Fi Uterus and the crafty wordplay of nGoMa keep making cut after cut after cut. According to festival director Julia Ervin, the showcase committee receives more than 4,500 submissions per year; from that, about 800 are selected to play. Stop for a moment and try to envision that: 800 bands. With that image in mind, it should be easier to understand why Ervin and her ilk might embrace, say, a band whose members claim extraterrestrial alliances -- as do the Uteri -- just to keep themselves interested.

Something to ponder during soundcheck, eh? The fact that an impartial judging body chose some of the area's less obvious exports and eschewed its more predictable fare demonstrates once again that popularity ain't always the best barometer of quality, talent or originality. Maybe what's really going on in the scene is best measured not by a good draw at the door but by the reactions of strangers. This area has a lot of good music -- good singer-songwriters, good garage, pop-punk and hardcore, good country -- and much of it won't be heard by the beer-swillin' barbecue-heads in Austin. But it also has some weird little secrets hiding in its nooks and crannies. (Come out, please come out, wherever you are.)

Three of Denver's more recognized bands will participate in the conference, but not via the usual selection process. The Minders and the Apples in Stereo will join out-of-town labelmates the Fastbacks, Poster Children and Squatweiler in a night of music from spinART records, and Dressy Bessy will be featured in a KinderCore Records showcase. The pop trinity rests among "second-tier" bands -- already signed acts looking for increased exposure for themselves and their (usually) indie labels.

Yet those who didn't receive the "this-is-what-you-do-once-you've- been-accepted-to-the-conference" packet in the mail shouldn't sweat it too much. It's a fairly safe assumption that the unsigned bands who applied to SXSW harbored some hope of being "discovered" there, but that's an increasingly rare occurrence these days. Though unknowns used to dominate, the already label-affiliated have become a larger and larger presence each year, which makes things that much more difficult for struggling artists like Blue Zone and Kingdom. And the aforementioned second-tier-band phenomenon is only complicated by the presence of first-tier bands: successful, critically lauded acts who perform at major venues during the festival's peak hours. So while it might seem an honor to be given an 11 o'clock slot on Saturday night when everyone's out, drunk and looking, how can an unknown expect to draw a crowd when the Flaming Lips or Aimee Mann or Elliot Smith is performing next door? And there's sure to be enough industry slime and grime oozing around to make any band consider whether this racket is really worth it. Plane tickets to Austin are expensive, anyway.

And to those bands who are going: Have fun. Play your ass off. Put it on your bio and your Web site and go ahead and boast. But just ask the LaDonnas or the Nobodys or the Czars, all of whom played the conference last year: SXSW ain't what it used to be, and chances are you won't be coming home to a rock star's welcome.

Isn't rock and roll fun?

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