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SXSW Finals

Emo now for the future! Too-cool Hudson River School wins the big trip to Austin.



We’ve really got to get around to actually rigging the annual Showdown to South by Southwest competition—everything would be sooo much easier. For 10 years running, there’s always been some group of semi-vocal pinheads who insist the outcome is predetermined and it’s all a scam. Try organizing a three-night event involving 70 bands, 20 clubs and a small army of independent judges who are only compensated in beer sometime ... have a headache already, don’t you?

One conspiracy theory goes that SXSW Showdown vets Erosion had a lock on the win because they’re one of my personal favorite local bands, as well as friends of mine for years. Never mind that they’ve lost the last four times they’ve competed, this past Sunday included. Not for lack of trying, as always: Erosion’s ultrasonic art-punk assault was furious (and loud, loud, loud) from the first note to the last, but their brand of brainiac rock & roll sometimes doesn’t translate to casual listeners looking for a quick hook or genre bin to confine them to. The rapt audience—which singer Jon Bean crowd-surfed over at set’s end—”got” Erosion, but Austin will still have to wait. Total judges’ score: 217 (out of a possible 275).

Another conspiracy theory floating around concerned the mysterious last-minute cancellation of odds-on favorite Sunfall Festival. Some believed the Provo band pulled out to give pals Hudson River School more of a fighting chance. But a phone call to Sunfall’s manager confirmed that group members were stricken with severe stomach flu following their Thanksgiving Point show on Saturday night with ... Hudson River School. Crackpot theorizing will likely continue.

Nearly as loudly as Erosion closed Sunday’s Showdown at the Zephyr Club, metalheads The Opposable Thumb opened it with a hair-flipping post-grunge blast at 8 p.m. The raging quintet’s frontman preached from a pulpit in a clergyman robe for faux-blasphemous visual effect initially before stripping down to rock-guy gear for the remainder of the set. Shoulda left it on—the sight of him stomping around in that Pope coat was hysterical. Total judges’ score: 196.

Quirky acoustic-blues folkie Ben Suchy (or is it Suek?) brought the tension and volume down considerably with his unassuming Beck/G. Love song stylings and mildly nasal execution. “Mildly” could pretty much sum up Suchy’s entire set—he and his backing players were polite to the point of near-invisibility onstage, letting his well-crafted tunes take the spotlight instead. Total judges’ score: 218.

Blues-jam monster Laughing Man, on the other hand, brought mucho energy and serious musical-chops game if not quite enough originality to impress the Showdown’s five judges (always a sticking point with blues acts, unfortunately). Teamwork is obviously Laughing Man’s mantra, with everyone whittling solos and no toes being stepped on in the shredding process—and what SXSW Showdown would be complete without bongos? Total judges’ score: 197.

In the end, it was the so-hip-so-now emocore pop of Hudson River School that won the hearts and scorecards of the Showdown judges—one even commented on how HRS left her with a “happy, upbeat feeling.” Bear in mind, the very same judge wrote that Erosion “should try to give more of a positive attitude.” This ain’t supposed to be the ward talent show, but there’s absolutely no denying that Hudson River School—together for barely a year—is a polished, tight unit onto the right sound at the right time. Runners-up Suchy and (last mention, promise) Erosion are slightly more original but HRS, as they so accurately put it on their website, are “cooler than 10 cool things.” Total judges’ score: 224.

During the week of March 8-17, City Weekly will send Hudson River School to showcase for music-biz types at the 2002 South by Southwest Music Conference & Festival in Austin, Texas. Thanks to all who played, attended and criticized this year’s Showdown to SXSW, and the glitches should be ironed out by next year—at which time, new and improved glitches will probably be introduced. Again, rigging this thing would be sooo much easier ...