People had already warned me about (a) the relentless PR schmoozing that transpires at the Convention Center and at the parties; (b) the sheer impossibility of seeing even half of the groups on your must-see list; and (c) the horrendous waits outside restaurants and concerts du jour.
How'd I navigate it? Glad you asked. Regarding point (a), I decided it was mean-spirited to partially obscure my SXSW name badge and leave publicists guessing as to whether I was high enough on their food chains, so I patiently played the game. Plus, I could tag along with and take notes on my roomie, who happened to be Robert Baird, well-known former Tucsonan, currently the music editor of Stereophile, and a self-professed aficionado of schmooze. And to be honest, while many musicians, indie publicists and aspiring journalists bore the unmistakable stench of career desperation, the conversations I had with old contacts, some dating as far back as my late '70s fanzine days, were entertaining and rarely superficial. Whenever my voice started to go (I arrived in Austin with a headcold) I ducked into a discussion room. Particularly entertaining was the Publicists and Journalists: The Forbidden Dance panel wherein national critics like the Chicago Tribune's Greg Kot and the Philadelphia Inquirer's Tom Moon griped about the often heavy-handed tactics musicians apply when courting publicity for their latest projects; Columbia Records' Howard Wuelfing and indie publicist Steve Martin (head of Nasty Little Man, the Beastie Boys' PR firm) simply rolled their eyes and fell back on the tired "Hey, the musicians are sensitive artistes!" argument.
RUBBERNECKIN': KID BLUES prodigy Shannon Curfman, decked out in cowgirl boots and hat and with cell phone glued to her ear, working the corridors of the Convention Center; the gorgeous and gregarious Miriam Linna of Norton Records fame, running up and gushing about having just obtained Chip "Wild Thing" Taylor's autograph; and local pet rock Daniel Johnston, wandering around dazedly and confusedly (no doubt negotiating a showcase setlist with the voices in his head).
AS TO (B), I learned to keep things simple and simply play the percentages, lining up my club-hopping on a proximity basis. This sometimes meant subbing my top pick at a particular time slot for a second or third pick closer by, but what the hell, it's not like I was losing money on tickets.
RUBBERNECKIN': JOHN CALE, in town to pay tribute to the late Sterling Morrison at the Austin Music Awards (and to plug his own recently-published autobiography, What's Welsh For Zen), turning up at the Jennyanykind show Thursday night; Mary Lou Lord, busking before an adoring clutch of fans Saturday night on Sixth Street; and Neil Young with his wife Pegi, in the balcony of the Paramount Theatre Friday night for the premier of his Austin-filmed Silver & Gold concert documentary (the Youngs, it turns out, were staying at the same hotel as I, but unlike a similar situation last year in Las Vegas, I opted not to stalk him).
WITH (C), WELL, I got lucky enough consistently enough to be a poster boy for Satisfied SXSW Attendees, Inc. Not only did I always get to diners just before the crunch hit, I never had to wait in line for more than 10 to 15 minutes at the shows. For a packed Steve Earle, I mistakenly wandered into the club through a wrong -- and unguarded -- door. The line for the Continental Drifters show was huge, but I happened to get in just before the fire marshalls clamped down at the entrance. And judging by the insane demand for invites to an afternoon launch party for Revolver magazine (a new Spin wannabe) with Guided By Voices headlining, Baird and I were extremely fortunate to be spotted right when we strolled up by one of the publicists in charge, who duly whisked us past the front of the line and into the bash just in time to see the two gals in the other buzzband on the bill, Nashville Pussy, taking their tops off. Gotta love the power of the music press.
Since I arrived Thursday afternoon I missed the awards ceremonies on Wednesday and what was by all accounts an explosive, leaping-on-tables appearance at the "Austin City Limits" studio by Patti Smith. Damn... Anyway, Thursday night on the deck at Opal Divine's, North Carolina's Jennyanykind braved the start of an uncharacteristic (for SXSW) cold snap and downpour, delivering a solid set of slide-guitar fueled, Stones-y rawk. Then it was over to the Atomic Cafe for a wholly inspiring set of brainy psych-pop from Northwest legends The Green Pajamas, followed by a brain-thumping stew of hard rockage courtesy of Britain's Alchemysts (with special guest Simeon, from the Silver Apples, on synths). The rain stopped momentarily, so I was able to run down the street to Stubb's outdoor stage for a sardine-packed Steve Earle gig, bone-cold and muddy as hell, but still a rousing sampling of his forthcoming album and older classics (El Corazon's "Taneytown" was a monster). Then the skies began to dump once more, so it was back to the Atomic Cafe to witness the mighty Bevis Frond jam, twist and turn upon the psychedelic axis, looks of awed appreciation crowding the faces of fans of the UK legend.
On Friday, following in-store gigs by Marah and Fu Manchu at Waterloo Records, I agonized over whether to endure another stretch outside in the cold for the Alejandro Escovedo-Patti Smith bill at Waterloo Park, or to catch the Neil Young film. I chose the latter, as much for my Young worship as for the prospect of warmth (OK, I'm a wuss). The remainder of my evening was spent at the Austin Music Hall getting my heart kickstarted with some serious doses of Americana courtesy of Kim Richey (the honey-voiced country folkie was backed by the Continental Drifters), Whiskeytown (joined onstage by producer Chris Stamey, they tore up the house), Shelby Lynne (ex-Nashville diva-in-waiting now shooting for outlaw-crossover status and absolutely stunning) and venerable, needs-no-intro songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
Saturday afternoon was the aforementioned Revolver party (I'm still having teenage dreams of Nashville Pussy), then a hectic evening round of pounding the pavement commenced. At the Iron Cactus I saw one of those magical newcomer's sets destined to leave attendees abuzz for some time, Cleveland powerpopsters Qwasi Qwa; fronted by Jesse Bryson (son of the Raspberries' Wally Bryson), the teenage band exuded confidence, winning the crowd over instantly, and displayed stunning songwriting and arranging skills to boot. I looked for Crawdaddy-O a block over but there must have been a scheduling snafu as no one was playing, so it was a mad dash to the Austin Music Hall again. This not only netted me the tail end of an unscheduled second appearance by Bevis Frond but a turbo-charged set from Philly garage-Stones-gospel-funkateers the Delta 72 (whose 000 album is one of my current faves). From there I bolted to Antones to catch insurgent country-rock belter -- and pinup doll -- Neko Case, and then, following a bout of band angst, opted not to remain for the Calexico and Mekons sets in order to see The Continental Drifters over at the oddly-named Mercury Ent. At Jazz club. Two exhuberant hours later, after much stomping, hooting and hollering, not to mention surprise guest spots from Amy Rigby, Martha Wainwright, Kim Richey and the Bottle Rockets, the show was over, but clearly not one that would be forgotten anytime soon, not even by Austin standards. The band locked arms, took a deep traditional bow. Peter Holsapple, dripping sweat and beaming like a kid on Christmas morning, proclaimed joyfully, "I guess everybody can rip those wristbands off now, huh?"
While SXSW technically continued at a handful of venues Sunday night, a lot of attendees, including myself, were content to hit the Austin Record Convention before flying out that afternoon. While there I scored a slew of Springsteen bootlegs, a rare Clash picture sleeve, and an autograph from ex-Small Faces (and Austin resident) Ian McLagan. Nice to finally meet rock critic and record collector extraordinaire Byron Coley face to face, too. Later, at the airport waiting for my flight, I ran into Kurt Bloch of the Fastbacks and, as we have some friends in common, got in some last minute quality schmoo... um, I mean face time. On the flight to Dallas one of the guys from Split Lip Rayfield was seated in front of me. Hopefully he and his bandmates had a good time in Austin. I know I did.