Originally published March 29, 2009 at 12:00 AM | Page modified March 29, 2009 at 11:24 AM

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SXSW notebook: A Seattle writer encounters Seattle bands ... in Austin

Funny thing about flying 1,500 miles to Austin, Texas, last week for the South by Southwest music festival: I ended up seeing a lot of faces from around here.

Special to The Seattle Times

Words from Q

QUINCY JONES imparted these bon mots in his keynote address at SXSW:

"Sinatra told me, 'Live every day like it's your last and one day you'll be right.' "

"Music comes through us. It's not about us. We are instruments of a higher power."

"Jazz is the classical music of American pop music. It's the balance between soul and science. The whole world knows more about our music than we do. It's the essence of freedom in liberation."

"We invented ourselves out of the business. We have iPods and iPhones, but somehow we still got iScrewed."

"Every artist, executive and journalist needs to travel internationally. You gotta go to know."

"Love always sings louder than hate."

Funny thing about flying 1,500 miles to Austin, Texas, last week for the South by Southwest music festival: I ended up seeing a lot of faces from around here.

It's the convenience that's key. Sixth Street, the main drag of SXSW, runs straight through downtown Austin. Fifty-some venues are clustered there in a 10-block radius, so catching snippets of three sets amid several hundred in an hour is not only possible but natural. Such a smorgasbord format is a thrill for fans but tough on performers.

For instance, Seattle lamentress Jesy Fortino, aka Tiny Vipers, struggled within the cavernous confines of the Radio Room during a March 19 Sub Pop showcase. Her soft-sung elegies also had to compete for earspace with the roaringly drunken crowd on the back patio. Locally, Fortino usually plays venues like the Triple Door or Vera Project — rooms that host reverent audiences there to be lulled and transfixed. In Austin, few gave time to the slow haunting of her songs. Similarly, on the patio stage, pastoral popsters Vetiver, one of Sub Pop's latest signees, battled the same barrage of beer-blasted noise. SXSW is a lot of things, but it's not a place for quiet reflection.

Quiet Past Lives is not. Still, their set at the Red Eyed Fly for Seattle label Suicide Squeeze's March 18 showcase was sparsely attended and seemed minimally appreciated, perhaps a result of being too weird too soon in the weekend. It was an unfortunate showing: Singer Jordan Blilie is one of Seattle's most magnetic performers, rail-thin and doubled over howling. Crowd-wise, Past Lives' ringing post rock fared better in broad daylight a few days later at the SXSeattle party. The ebb and flow of hype in SXSW is inscrutable.

In contrast, Manooghi Hi fared fairly well despite having almost no buzz going into the festival. (Not in America, at least. More on that below.) The lower the expectations, the greater the chance of surpassing them, and as a newish group that rarely plays around Seattle, Manooghi Hi was a surprising addition to the city's local presence in Austin. They deserve a mention here for originality alone: Suffice to say you've never heard anything like Manooghi Hi. Maybe because, to the best of my knowledge, their sound has never before been attempted.

To oversimplify, it's like this: panoramic rock 'n' roll fronted by a petite, beautiful Indian woman scat singing in Hindi. The cross-pollination is dizzying — East and West, ancient and modern, pop and classical, ecstatic spiritualism and headbanging rock. The potential for Rusted Root-style world groove dilettantism arises and is crushed by the frontwoman's chops. It's hard to argue her authenticity. Her name is Mehnaz, and it turns out the Mumbai native is a big deal in India, having recorded a national pop hit in 1996. Now she's working with a crew of veteran Seattle rockers in effort to do something truly unprecedented. It's an ambitious project and a stylistic departure for a town very much rooted in rock 'n' roll tradition.

Bigger than them all — bigger than Kanye West, bigger than Metallica, bigger than Jane's Addiction — the biggest icon at SXSW this year was Quincy Jones. Chicago-born and a Garfield High grad, Jones was scheduled to give an hourlong keynote address on the afternoon of March 18; he spoke upward of 150 minutes. From a wannabe grade-school gangster to the man who has had a hand in "over 95 percent of every one of America's musical giants of the last 60 years," 76-year-old Jones was impeccably cool as he dished out pearls of wisdom and closed with an invocation of sorts, having the audience of several hundred music-industry flaks standing, holding hands and promising to make the world a better place.

Jonathan Zwickel:

Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company

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