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An indie music holiday: impassioned Plant address


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An indie music holiday

Conference opens with soul-stirring Staples performance, impassioned Plant address

Author: Jim DeRogatis

AUSTIN, Texas -- An odd combination of the Sundance or Cannes film festivals, the college tradition of spring break and a massive corporate conference -- it is the music industry's largest annual gathering -- South by Southwest is always in part about business, though it tries to pretend otherwise.

In its 19th year, SXSW, which started on Wednesday, has broken attendance records. Four days and nights of panel discussions at the Austin Convention Center and showcase gigs at 60 venues around the city have drawn more than 1,300 bands, 8,000 paid registrants and 1,600 journalists from around the world.

That isn't counting the thousands of people who come just for the parties and the unofficial shows, including a sizable contingent of Chicago music fans who have adopted the Texas capitol and this event as their favorite late-winter getaway.

SXSW 2005 will generate $30 million for the local economy -- a fact that should be noted by the newly formed Chicago Music Commission as it begins the difficult task of promoting our city's music scene and repairing the damage done by heavy-handed officials who cracked down on the club world in the wake of the E2 tragedy.

With all of that money at stake, and the major labels' untiring penchant for hyping their products, SXSW has always flirted with big business, even as previous keynote speakers -- independent spirits such as Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle and Daniel Lanois -- have lauded the ethics of operating outside the mainstream.

That's why Robert Plant seemed such an odd choice to launch the conference on Thursday morning.

As the lead singer of Led Zeppelin , Plant sold 200 million albums worldwide, and he has moved another 20 million units since going solo. The self-proclaimed "Golden God" has never been a struggling musician who's had to worry about paying the rent or selling enough D.I.Y. CDs to buy gas to get to the next gig.

With a new album, "Mighty Rearranger," being released by Sanctuary Records on May 10, Plant is nominally an independent artist now. But the amount of money the company is spending to promote the disc would keep 1,000 real indie musicians stocked with beer and burritos for life.

Plant was ushered onstage with a self-serving video heralding the new release, and VH1 executive Bill Flanagan -- the singer opted to do a "keynote interview" rather than give a speech -- proceeded to hype it some more. All of this star-struck glad-handing made SXSW seem more like a political convention than a musical celebration.

But when the 56-year-old legend finally appeared, he partly redeemed himself by talking about the joys of being a music fan.

When he was a teen, Plant's parents were so frightened by his love of black American bluesmen that they cut the plug off his record player, he said. But that love has abided, and he glowed as he spoke of meeting two bluesmen who performed on Wednesday night.

"Here was Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and the Golden God," he said, poking fun at himself. "And I thought, 'How the hell did I get in here?' "

Plant talked about his love of world music -- the new disc evokes a cross of traditional Middle Eastern sounds, trip-hoppers Portishead and vintage Zep -- and said, "We have to keep pushing, keep opening new ideas."

Later, he added, "I hate the idea of the jukebox being just about mass acceptance of four or five songs."

That comment probably made Plant's aggressive marketing team cringe, but it was a reminder to SXSW's organizers that true fans just tune out the business and the hype and concentrate on the music.

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