Surrounded by the Beauty Bar's familiar head logos, members of Halloween Town and Afghan Raiders — along with Neon Reverb co-founder James Woodbridge help Kid Meets Cougar load gear, fine-tune sound, take photos and video and fetch bottled water forgotten offstage. It could be any night in Downtown Vegas, but it's not. It's March 19 at the Palm Door — in Austin, Texas, some 1,300 miles from Fremont Street.
Vegas music's acceptance in wider circles has evolved dramatically since 2004, when a young band called The Killers performed at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival. The Pandas and Strip pianist Mike Jones scored official 2007 showcases; The Cab and Vegas-rooted Romance Fantasy made the cut in 2008; and Afghan Raiders and The Day After did the same in 2009, while both Halloween Town and Ashbury lined up gigs outside the festival proper.
SXSW '10 featured an unprecedented Vegas presence among its 2,000-odd participating bands. The fest invited One Pin Short, Imagine Dragons, Theory of Flight and Afghan Raiders to showcase, and three more local outfits — Kid Meets Cougar, Moksha and Halloween Town — booked independent gigs.
How to account for Vegas' growing profile at the tastemaking event? "Over the last five to eight years, Vegas has built itself up," suggests Holmes Pooser, a booker for Vegas' House of Blues. "Prior to that, we didn't have a lot of artists coming out who were nationally recognized."
Longtime Vegas promoter Brian Saliba sees the difference. "It seems it's easier this year for quality Vegas bands to get on showcases," he says. "It's always been a challenge, and about who you know. This year, the phone calls are coming to us."
Why? Woodbridge theorizes the diversity of the Vegas scene has caught hold of out-of-town ears. "There are so many bands doing so many different types of things," he says. "There's no one Vegas sound; there's just one great Vegas scene. Vegas has finally hit a tipping point."
And that could have repercussions beyond the local scene. "Even bigger out-of-town bands are now more comfortable coming to Las Vegas," says Afghan Raider Mikey Francis. "We spoke to agents at [SXSW] who basically said, 'We're going to make Las Vegas part of the regular West Coast market.'"
Among SXSW 2010's notable Vegas-centric moments:
• One Pin Short's high-energy Thursday SESAC showcase at the Velveeta Room included set highlight "Good Vibes," which lived up to its name when a trombone-and-sax breakdown brought a Gerald Ford portrait tumbling down from stage left.
• A curious juxtaposition between Imagine Dragons' first show (11:30 a.m. Wednesday at gay-cowboy bar The Rusty Spurs for a vocal, dancing audience of 20) and its Thursday-night BMI showcase at Maggie Mae's, where a capacity, industry-heavy crowd merely nodded in approval. But as frontman Dan Reynolds put it, "Every show is important. You never know who's watching." Both AOL and Pitchfork.com agreed, the former inviting the band to record an acoustic version of "All Eyes" aboard its bus and the latter encouraging them to customize a pair of Keds at a high-profile Emo's party.
• Among four full sets, two additional acoustic sets and one studio performance aired on the local NBC affiliate, Theory of Flight singer Beau Hodges tapped The Parish as the best-sounding room. The smaller, more densely packed Lucky Lounge brought forth the best crowd energy, and while a broken elevator at the Sennheiser-sponsored Speakeasy rooftop party forced the band to lug its gear up four flights and contend with a delayed schedule, it produced the most industry interest and positive feedback.
• Moksha's tight deadline to finish debut album Mammal or Machine in time for April 9's House of Blues release show was met the very day the funk-jam band took off for Austin. While two members drove the equipment, the remaining two completed mastering in LA. Meeting halfway in El Paso, Moksha arrived just in time for its packed J Dub All Stars showcase Sunday night at Headhunters.
• Despite canceling their first slated gig due to van trouble, Afghan Raiders squeezed four full performances (and one network-heavy DJ set for Alternative Press magazine alongside renowned producer Tommie Sunshine) into three days, including a tech-savvy official LP33.tv showcase at Soho Lounge. "We were a little more seasoned this year," Francis appraises. "For not having a label, not having an agent and pretty much doing everything independently, I don't think we could have done much better."
• Also late to the party was Halloween Town's Ryan Pardey, who spent three days in a West Texas jail cell following a drug-charge arrest. He hitchhiked to Austin in time for Friday's unofficial Palm Door showcase he co-sponsored with the Beauty Bar and a Sunday slot on Obscure Magpie, Encore and Old Flame Records' two-day, 24-band Two-Headed Party. "I'm an emotional wreck," Pardey sighs. "It's been a weird week."
• Kid Meets Cougar's lone scheduled set at the Palm Door parlayed itself into last-minute inclusion on the EpicSauce.com/Neon Reverb showcase turned raucous, feel-good dance party. "People at the second show said they didn't even know there was anything going on in Vegas," says drummer/singer Courtney Carroll. "There was a definite Vegas presence, and we all sort of surprised them down there." Perhaps most surprising and impressive of all, an extensive Entertainment Weekly interview with Carroll and Brett Bolton ran Monday at music-mix.ew.com.