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At the South by Southwest Music Festival even the fish swimming in the Colorado River probably end up getting wasted on music-fan piss. And here you don't say "Goodbye" to those you meet; you say "Be careful."

Now in its 22nd year, the actual SXSW music showcases in countless crammed bars and venues have practically been eclipsed in recent years by day parties and afterparties where the Lone Star and Shiner flow endlessly and freely. The party doesn't stop for four days — the Austin speed dealers must kill at SXSW. Hell, you don't even need a festival pass anymore to OD on music. You can't imagine how teeming the town's downtown streets and clubs are.

More than anything, though, SXSW is an indie rock fest (slowly adding more hip hop each year) — and this year's reflected all the latest and fleeting indie blog rages, from big ensemble orchestral pop to a sea of ironic, spandexed synthesizer programmers. If you reduce music trends to artists who spawned such, then it was a sea of Arcade Fires and Dan Deacons down in Austin this year.

Despite endless yak of a music biz slithering down the paradigm-shift shitter, SXSW 2008 made clear that it's never been a better time for music itself: Lines of humankind snaked from wherever Vampire Weekend played. Folks from anywhere but the Mitten sang along to every word of a Tally Hall or a Hard Lessons song, which proves that the Internet, not Clear Channel, is the new "radio."

Vampire Weekend — this year's "cool kids" — is textbook example of the rapid speed at which an artist can jump from MySpace to Pitchfork to NPR to the cover of SPIN magazine these days. In an age when every self-entitled blog and misguided magazine passes itself off as the new tastemaker, the standard by which we judge music is at an all-time low. It's incredible how many sloppy blow jobs get heaped on a band in '08 for being, at best, good. Do they have another record in them? Or are they this year's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah? Who cares? Some perspective: One of last year's biggest SXSW buzz artists — that would be the Fratellis — have already seemingly returned to the ooze from which they crawled.

But part of SXSW's beauty is the amazing stuff you find if you aren't vainly waiting in line with hundreds of others to see this year's buzz band. It's a great place to discover things on your own. Did you literally bump into Del the Funky Homosapien inside the Austin Convention Center? See Hard Lessons' drummer Christophe pose for a pic with Bushwick Bill? See the hot, butch Swedish club rocket Robyn throw down as hard as any band? Catch Child Bite play an outdoor patio at a gay leather bar? Watch Matt Jones get challenged to a drink-off by a label exec (with the exec winding up on his back in the street)? The highlights are endless.

The Hard Lessons were the Mitten stars at SXSW '08. The band, in fact, tore it up at the Quack! Media/Quite Scientific showcases on Wednesday and Thursday, as well as at the SPIN party on Friday. Augie narrowly averted disaster a number of times while leaping into crowds and hopping onto bars.

Great Lakes Myth Society's set Wednesday was probably its most cathartic set yet. The band barely made the show after a van breakdown in Oklahoma City that afternoon. And Chris Bathgate's big band showed its amazing side before GLMS that night. (When it comes to songwriting and arranging, nobody in Detroit can touch him.)

Some magic moments: The Silent Years getting all of Darwin's Pub to sing along with them; the young female Tally Hall fans — in their trademark ties — chirping along to every word at the Home Slice Pizza day party.

The most frustrating moment, however, was the Deadstring Brothers' cut-short set (only three songs) at the Bloodshot Records day party. If I had a buck for every band that spent thousands to make the Austin haul for a 20-minute set, I'd buy a round of Lone Stars for the whole town.

Doug Coombe is freelance photographer and writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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