Drink! Fight! Rock! 

The Pack, Mistah F.A.B., the Federation, Street to Nowhere, Maldroid, Kid606, and Jern Eye compete in the South by Southwest free-for-all.

The inevitable mayhem still disorients and entertains when it finally strikes, late on the night of March 17, at the South by Southwest music festival deep in the heart of Texas. In a quiet tree-shrouded nook several blocks from the downtown 6th Street chaos, the twee girl-voice of obscure male singer Chris Garneau fills the warm night sky. Part of Berkeley's Absolutely Kosher label showcase, Garneau sings so girly that even girl singers make fun of him.

We're all taking turns doing so when suddenly I spy a fast-moving roundhouse in my peripheral vision. I duck and spin just as a woman completes her swing with a cry of "You fucker!" and the bottle in her fist breaks over some dude's head.

Crack!

"Holy shit!" onlookers say.

The crowd backs away as she lands blow after blow until the guy turns around and clocks her in the face.

Whack!

"Hey, man!" people say. "Hey! Hey, hey, hey!"

It had to happen. Combine 1,500 bands, 120,000 Homo sapiens, and five days' worth of free booze in the space of ten square city blocks and let's face it — someone is bound to get punched in the face.

SXSW is definitely a blast, but it's an exhausting, disorienting, sometimes harrowing one, not just for the media, but for the musicians and the good residents of Austin. Locals give up sleep to keep the bar tabs open and the cabs rolling as throngs of visitors drop millions on the Party Business — which is just as boring and cutthroat as any other biz, except you're supposed to be awake at 3 a.m. and able to function on seventeen Absolut-cranberry cocktails.

East Bay rap teams such as the Pack and the Federation joined rock acts like Street to Nowhere and Maldroid, working some of the toughest crowds around. Meanwhile, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings and UK supergroup the Good the Bad and the Queen earned every last dollar, while more obscure bands such as Tampa lesbian rappers Yo Majesty and Montreal dance-funkers Chromeo cemented reps among those searching for the next big thing.

And that next big thing? Uncertainty. Many players feel they're one paycheck or record deal or album away from getting shitcanned as this panicked $12 billion industry hemorrhages money. People are talking bailouts, airline-style. From obscure rock bands to CD buyers for Nordstrom, no one has any idea how much digital music will cut, paste, or remix the system, but they're all scared for their jobs.

Inspiringly unafraid is fresh-faced Berkeley rap group the Pack, which has signed to Jive and has a debut album scheduled for June and a national tour starting in May. Earning 3.35 million MySpace page listens before their high-school diplomas, these four kids are Savs with Sidekicks and they know it. Their confident March 16 performance on the Beauty Bar patio with the Federation, Saafir, and Rico Pabon took the fifty-member audience through "Vans" and "Candy" from their Skateboard 2 Scrapers EP, then demoed "I Look Good" from their upcoming album.

Afterwards, the Federation got "18 Dummy" on the crowd before showing Texas how to wear their "Stunna Glasses at Night." The hyphy showcase would've been much bigger were it not for Yo Majesty, which was murdering the crowd inside the Beauty Bar proper. Fuck that shit! became the catchiest chorus of the night, amid three hours of sweaty, sometimes-naked voice-losing debauchery that included Montreal's A-Trak and Kid Sister from Chicago. See all these acts if you get a chance.

Brooklyn soul-funk phenoms Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings entered the SXSW pantheon after conjuring the spirit of James Brown and casting a spell over a crowd of five hundred last Saturday night. After witnessing Jones' sassy command of her audience, the rock bands in town might as well just turn in their distortion pedals. "That show was ten times better than the second-best show I saw all week," one jaded attendee declared. Comments on our EarBud blog about Jones' live video got the same reaction: Super fly.

The Good, the Bad and the Queen also humiliated fellow artists. Backed by a bassist from the Clash, a drummer from Fela Kuti's band, and a guitarist from the Verve, Gorillaz singer Damon Albarn took a crowd of hundreds to a very dark place beyond Gorillaz' Demon Days. Emotionally unhinged from insomnia, gutter food, and overstimulation, the audience's inner scales tipped under the weight of the band's once-in-a-lifetime performances of "Green Fields" and "the Bunting Song" from its self-titled 2007 release. The foursome was so casually professional, it may as well have told the other bands, "See, you retards, this is how to do it." The music can be depressing, sure, but at least the Prozac nation has a decent soundtrack.

Back with Chris Garneau and his streetfight, seven dudes drag the brawlers out by their armpits. We've moved past Pack mania and Damon depression into an overloaded zombie state where the little things hurt and amuse the most. Order is restored before Garneau even notices what just went down, so he continues to sing, but every tender note becomes funnier and funnier when juxtaposed with the gnarly brawl. We grab tent poles to steady ourselves and imagine it was his fey voice that drove the pair to violence. Then the laughter begins and lasts an inappropriately long time. Like, well into 2008.

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