As the venerable South by Southwest music festival approaches its twenty-fifth year of existence, numerous pockets of the country have begun to try and kindle their own industry-centric events borrowing heavily on SXSW’s successful mix of nonstop music and engaging panel discussions. Even this year’s CMJ Music Marathon started to reach the explosive levels of minute-by-minute hype that Austin’s gargantuan rock-and-roll party town enjoys ever year. So it begs the question: is it wise to start another such festival with SXSW so deeply entrenched and powerful? The answer to that question is quite simply: it depends. If quality talent is present, and the industry minds participating are bringing progressive ideas to the table, it’s worth going nearly anywhere. In its second year of existence Santa Barbara’s New Noise Festival triumphed in the face of the overwhelming uphill battle that is trying to establish such an event.
For those outside the Southern California area, Santa Barbara is about a 90-minute trek up the Pacific Coast Highway. Relatively speaking, it’s not that far a journey, but Los Angeles residents are typically hesitant to take long-distance drives unless there’s a really good reason. The local traffic is after all, atrocious. However, the road north along the ocean is picturesque and vibrant. After passing the Malibu stretch of the PCH, the Channel Islands become visible to the west and the ocean is one endless vista after another.
Appropriately given that view, the first performance of this day of New Noise featured the killer combo of trip-hop legends Massive Attack and world-conscious chill-out collective Thievery Corporation at the Santa Barbara Bowl. The staff present was beyond friendly. Each and every member seemed eager to help and lacked the arrogant “loser with a clipboard” mentality that plagues for too many shows nationwide. Thievery Corporation was already mid-way into their poignant party politics and funk-infused chill-laden grooves. “Richest Man in Babylon” echoed over the hilltop heading up the to venue proper. The band has lost none of its spark live. Without sacrificing their subtle knack for flourish and detail, the band (helmed by Rob Garza and Eric Hilton) becomes an enigmatic, joyful show. Utilizing an impressive array of onstage singers and musicians (it’s still gratifying to see Gogogo Airheart’s Ashish Vyas holding down the bass duties) the group concludes with the explosive “Warning Shots.”
Massive Attack live assemble their form of low-BPM downtempo music in altogether different ways. Their aim is for a darker and more introspective mood. The band performs ensconced in shadows; minimal lighting is present until the most up-tempo moments rear their head. The entire band is framed in front of an enormous LED backdrop that constantly displays facts, figures, progressive slogans or images. The de facto leader of the group Robert Del Naja (a.k.a. 3D) starts things off with b-side “United Snakes.” The darkness gives way to delicate beauty as Martina Topley-Bird enters stage right for “Babel” off the group’s latest album Heligoland. Group mainstay Grant Marshall (a.k.a. Daddy G) joins Naja on the next number “Risingson,” a methodical, unforgettable track from Mezzanine. Legendary contributor Horace Andy follows, belting out the hair-raising/inspiring upper register of “Girl I Love You.” By the start of song five (“Future Proof”) the UK collective has cemented their pristine groove. Not to mention classics “Teardrop,” “Angel” and “Safe From Harm” still appear later on in the set. No surprise coming from world-class producers, but the perfect mix is as enrapturing as any single member’s performance. Heligoland track “Splitting the Atom” showcases this in abundance with Naja, Marshall, Andy and Topley-Bird all balancing around a keyboard melody that is infectious where by all rights it should not be.
Day two starts off with a bevy of thought-provoking panels. The first is a dissection of the benefits of social networking. The panelists (from reputable outfits such as Epitaph and CAA) each express determined need for the usage of such streams as Facebook and Twitter, but also speak to the cautious usage of them, to not have the artist’s appear money hungry.
Topspin C.E.O. Ian Rogers leads the next panel alone. Rogers details a concise plan for bands and managers intent on growing their music business. He references the previous industry-wide practice of expecting success on a small percentage of artists as a practice that won’t hold up in the modern phase of the music industry. Rogers’ presentation leans heavily on the message for artists to “be reasonable” about their career prospects. He lists the proprietors of Secretly Canadian records as an example and how they’re “doing fine,” aiming for break-even success with every act on their roster. His presentation only hints at the potential that his company’s services have already proven time-and-again they are capable of, but more importantly it speaks to the heart of the challenges the current music business is still struggling to adapt to.
Watch some of Rogers’ presentation right here:
New Noise’s keynote address by Warped Tour founder Kevin Lyman is the final panel. Lyman sits on a table at the front of the room and holds an open-forum discussion. Generously offering years of wisdom, eye-opening stories and honest facts about the state of the business, he discusses his own efforts with the Mayhem Festival and Country Throwdown, and how those two have easily bankrolled the long-running Warped Tour recently. He promises to do battle with larger venues to try to bring the cost of food down at this year’s Warped Tour. Lyman also speaks about his numerous initiatives (bio-diesel fuel, solar-powered stages) to make the tour more environmentally friendly. When questioned what he thinks about bands/managers/entities trying to do ticketing for themselves instead of through Ticketmaster or Live Nation, he commandingly replies, “Go for it.” But Lyman also talks about the sobering need for bands to want to hustle, work hard and not necessarily get rich quick. Like Rogers before him, he offers that the best plan for the future might be for artists to find a way to live within their means. It’s inspiring to hear him speak and he brings a no-b.s. mindset that couches the current state of music as the battle for each and every dollar that it is.
The day ends with this night’s showcases on State Street (the main drag in Santa Barbara). Newcomers Kitten are first up at Whiskey Richard’s—and by newcomers, it’s literally newcomers. Leader singer Chloe Chaidez is still only 15! Alarming enough given one might guess 23, but even more so is that she rocks with ruthless abandon. Karen O references will certainly abound in the coming years, but a more fitting comparison might be Paramore’s Hayley Williams, only with more edge and grit. Chaidez leads her band through a mix of material that leans sometimes towards the pop-punk variety, but also manages to skirt the boundaries of garage and heavy alt rock. Chaidez climbs amps and thrashes from side-to-side. The crowd is eating out of her proverbial hand within minutes. No doubt about it, this is new star in the making. Kitten’s got claws!
Up the road at the SOhO Restaurant and Music Club, another eye-opening new band had their own unique slant on the new-folk movement. Legitimate brother and sister Robert and Rachel Kolar both sing while Robert plays lead guitar. The band’s rough-around-the-edges folksy style (think the quiet moments of The Dead Weather, Ryan Adams or Mt. Desolation) is accompanied by a tap dancer, Lauren Brown. Brown’s tap dancing serves the group’s percussion. Fans of Tilly and the Wall might remember they used the same trick quite well. With H.M.B.S.M.S. though, the band look the part (with top hats and elegant evening gowns) and exude the soulful resonance necessary to connect with the crowd.
And last but not least, back on the other side of State Street, recent Los Angeles hype receivers Fitz and the Tantrums closed out the festival at Velvet Jones. The good news is, this band delivers. Fitz (real name Michael Fitzpatrick) and his main vocal support Noelle Scaggs are the real deal. Like the winning funk fury of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, Fitz and the Tantrums are an energy-laden slice of soul power. The two bop from note-to-note insisting on crowd engagement and participation. Fitz himself owns the stage, playing to the action of each successive phrase. Scaggs is a revelation, screaming out with as much stage presence as Fitz does, she adds just the right amount of spirit to make each song pop. The band even does an exuberant cover of the Eurythmics’ seminal “Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” where the band incited the audience to join in on a lively call-and-response extension of the tune’s bridge “Hold your head up / Move it on.”
New Noise deserves great credit for putting together such a great experience. The city that holds it, Santa Barbara is beautiful and concise as well. Concentrated enough to be conducive to a series of related events, but not so big it’s impossible to get from one place to the next. The fest may not be as gigantic and nearly never-ending as Austin’s gargantuan, aforementioned industry mega-fest, but it doesn’t really need to be. The average industry insider, music enthusiast and common fan would all say the same thing. They’d rather have a simple event loaded with top-notch talent and information, than a mediocre one with lots of filler. Even if at a glance the below-the-line artists may not be of namesake power, it’s far better that they all are high quality. Both in formal panels and musical lineup, New Noise accomplished this effortlessly. That’s how you capture lightning in a bottle.