Now I'm Electric. 

The Bay Area ruled SXSW.

"Now I'm electric, motherfucker." -- Gold Chains

Austin was hot last week. Like hot hot, the kind of weather that makes my knees sweat and my feet swell and lifts steamy whiffs of summer off the Colorado River.

It's a familiar smell. For the past three years, I've spent part of my March in Austin, drawn there by the South by Southwest music festival. The annual conference is a chance for me to be bathed in music, heat, and barbecued meats. It's also a chance to see what hip, retarded fashions the rock musicians, critics, and publicists from New York are affecting, and, by extension, what we will all be affecting in the coming year.

It was at South by Southwest 2001, for instance, that I got my first glimpse of the arena-filling potential of Ryan Adams' and the White Stripes' haircuts. Last year, I also got a prescient forecast of alt.country's decline just by monitoring the dwindling pull of the once-ubiquitous jean jacket amongst East Coasters.

The Austin fashion runway this year was a mixed bag, making clothing picks for 2003 a little murky. Thankfully, the musical trends were much more obvious. A word of advice for young bands looking to make their mark this year: 1990 is the new 2002. Yep: The wheel of fortune (and hipness) has alighted on the compressed punk of Repeater-era Fugazi, the soaring guitars and halftime-show-sized voices of Bono & Co., and the heavy, tangled pop of British shoegazer bands like Ride and My Bloody Valentine.

I've given up trying to understand these things. I have my suspicions that somewhere in New York there exists an indie consortium whose sole purpose is to dictate when enough time has passed to put Velcro shoes, cowboy hats, and Slowdive records back into circulation.

The mechanics of cool may be beyond me, but South by Southwest 2002 at least offered the comforting reassurance that one Bay Area band was included in the vanguard. The neo-shoegazery Stratford 4 from San Francisco had Spin photographers at their feet when they played the Jetset Records showcase. As proud as I was of my homies, I have to admit some confusion as to what -- apart from a lifelike/realistic British accent and some nice distortion pedals -- the band had going for them.

Other local musicians -- Her Space Holiday, Chuck Prophet, Blevin Blectum -- made the trek to Austin as well, albeit with less acclaim. The one I was most excited about was Gold Chains (aka Topher Lafata), the San Francisco laptop beatmaker and MC who had put out an amazing five-song eponymous EP on Orthlorng Musork last year. Funky, unpretentious, and funny, the CD made Gold Chains the one must-see concert on my long list of South by Southwest shows.

When Gold Chains -- wearing a generic black knit shirt, slacks, and glasses -- got on stage for his 8 p.m. slot, most of Austin was still having dinner. There were probably about twenty of us there to see the diminutive Lafata flip open his Mac laptop, peer into it, tap a few keys, and unleash the first tentative beats through the PA system. Grabbing the closest microphone, he apologized for the early hour, saying he was used to going on at 5 a.m. A few people clapped. Lafata turned up the beats, and threw out his arm. And that's when the party started.

On his CD, Lafata proved he could unite drum machines, samplers, and computer looping software in a crashing maelstrom of next-level beats. But in person, Lafata raised the bar even higher, playing off his prerecorded soundtrack like a coked-up karaoke king. He roamed the stage enraptured and on fire, breaking shuddery freak dance moves, and lacing his geeky odes to Roland 808s and portable DATs with hometown shout-outs.

The applause and shouts from the audience got louder as more conventioneers filtered into the club. By the time Lafata sailed into the Stereolab teardown of "Rock the Parti" the crowd had grown to maybe fifty. Nobody was dancing -- there was too much room and the lights were too bright. But I think most people in attendance realized they were seeing the future. A future beyond fashion and light-years ahead of the painstakingly greasy, dyed-black rocker look currently endorsed by East Coast style councils. That night, a dressed-down computer programmer in a knit shirt and glasses ruled Austin. And for the duration of his set, the Bay Area was the absolute center of the world.

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