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Strength in (low) numbers

Atlanta's SXSW pod made the most of a little

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AUSTIN, TEXAS, MARCH 13-17 -- A city's showing at the annual South by Southwest music conference is hardly the definitive gauge of that local scene's strength. So a seemingly paltry percentage of Atlanta acts performing in Austin last week shouldn't account for too much hand wringing around here. Who's really counting?

Just out of curiosity, I did. And the numbers were pretty bad. In all, seven-and-a-half Atlanta acts could be seen over four nights of concentrated live music (the half being the reformed Magnapop, based partly in Seattle and Atlanta). That compares to 11 from our tiny college-town neighbor, with acts like the Sunshine Fix and Drive-By Truckers. When measured against cities closer to Atlanta's size, the number fares even worse: Seattle had 24, San Francisco 30 and Chicago 45. Even Philadelphia sent 14 acts.

On the bright side, Atlanta's proud few seemed hand-picked to ensure the widest possible diversity, from garage rock (the Forty Fives, the Woggles) to abstract hip-hop (Prefuse 73), world-beat-inflected hippie grooves (Janah) to prog-metal (Mastodon), mainstream modern rock (Butch Walker) to bright and dark shades of college rock (Magnapop, Shannon Wright).

While no Georgia bands played on Wednesday's opening night, Thursday kicked off with a study in contrast at Emo's. As Athens' Seaworthy, the solo project of Macha frontman Josh McKay, translated its exotic combination of Eastern mallet instruments and samples into a live trio setting in the main room, Emo's Jr. kicked off its night with all-American tag-team garage-stompers the Forty Fives and the Woggles. While Seaworthy woozed its audience into a trance, the Woggles pounded their retro shtick -- tuxedo shirts, tambourines, etc. -- into a rock 'n' roll freakout.

An hour, a couple blocks and several worlds removed from Emo's, six-piece ensemble Janah made the most of its sterile surroundings inside 6th Street's new Hard Rock Cafe, pulling off its percussion-heavy world-beat/bombastic rock stew. Unfortunately, Janah's look -- somewhere between Phish-style hippie and Men Without Hats' Ren-fest fashions -- may well doom this act to an exclusively jam-band audience, despite the fact that Janah offers nary an extended.

On the other hand, the get-ups weren't a whole lot more off-putting than Butch Walker's skinny-tie anachronisms -- not to mention his new song, in which a self-pitying male narrator tells how it sucks for him to have gotten his girl pregnant. Fronting a three-piece backing band that appeared to feature some ex-members of the Brand New Immortals, the high-energy ex-Marvelous 3 frontman unveiled metallic power-pop from his forthcoming Arista solo debut.

On Friday night, Shannon Wright kicked off the bill at the Austin Scottish Rite Theatre with a performance by turns chillingly still and disconcertingly ferocious. Wright, who performed alone amidst an enchanted-forest stage set straight out of A Midsummer Night's Dream, alternated between piano and guitar, keeping the audience spellbound.

At midnight, a reformed Magnapop hit the stage upstairs at Momo's. And despite a new drummer and infrequency of gigs in recent years, they pulled off their melodic punk-laced rock just fine. Lead singer Linda Hopper smiled like an old pro who's too far beyond it all to do anything besides have fun.

Saturday night, heavy rockers Mastodon unleashed their hard-hitting, time-shifting math-metal wares, kicking off the Relapse Records showcase. Soon after, an unfortunate overlapping of north Georgia electronic acts found Athens dance-pop duo I Am the World Trade Center competing for crowds with Atlanta track master Scott Herren's Prefuse 73. Both augmented what was mostly pre-recorded material -- IATWTC with keyboards and percussion, Prefuse with turntablist accompaniment. IATWTC livened things up with energetic dancing, while Herren stood still behind his computer and sampler.

Both acts underscored the limitations of transferring studio-built music to a live show. Even so, music worth hearing also tends to be music worth seeing -- and that so few got to see Atlanta acts was a missed opportunity for both performers and audiences.

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