Band On The Run

Testing Austin city limits at the South-by-Southwest Music Fest.

SXSW. The letters nowadays evoke a bevy of passionate feelings both positive and negative in anyone that is even a casual music fan. You'd think this little music conference dubbed South-by-Southwest couldn't possibly live up to both extremes, but it finds a way.

Yes, tiny cell phones adorned industry-greased palms outside every venue I happened upon. Yes, they seemed to talk about music more than listen to it. Yes, you'll find more cowboy hats sitting uneasily atop pretenders' heads than at a recent D.C. inauguration. (A friend from Austin remarked that at least it got Dubya out of town.)

But let's focus on the positive, shall we? Good music is everywhere and most of the folks out to see the bands are still just music fans, pure and simple.

My band, Fourkiller Flats, being amongst the seventeen-and-a-half-quadrillion not accepted to SXSW, decided to wrangle, manipulate and cajole our way into one of the countless unofficial showcases that go on in the glaring daylight. We were persistent and fortunate enough to land an opening slot at Bloodshot Records' annual Yard Dog BBQ (with no actual barbecue to be found), as well as an in-store at Cheapo Discs. With these prized gigs in hand, we headed to Austin.

Upon my arrival, my industrious band mates informed me that Dale Watson would be playing that night for free at Ginny's Little Longhorn. After I quickly introduced my aforementioned Austinite friend to the band members who would be sleeping on his couch, floor and bathtub, we all headed off to see if this could be true. Sure enough, crammed into a corner, Dale Watson and his band (with Deke Dickerson sitting in on lead guitar, no less) blistered a nightlong set of country standards and originals for a hot, sweaty, honky-tonkin' crowd. If you wish Nashville still remembered Hank, Buck and Merle, you wish you were there.

After a solid five hours of sleep, we headed out to play our noon--ouch, that's early!--set at the aptly named Bloodshot party. We were the first to play and got lucky when our start time was delayed 15 minutes, because at least 80 folks wandered in during those precious minutes, doubling our audience. We loaded our gear onto the stage erected in the smallish backyard of the Yard Dog folk gallery on South Congress and managed to pull off a pretty decent set greeted with gratifying enthusiasm. Feeling pretty good, we began taking advantage of the free beer. (Well, truth be told, we began a little before the set.)

That's right: free beer. And not just for the bands either. The Austin Chronicle reported the next day that no less than 13 kegs at our little event were tapped that fine afternoon.

This leads me to an important digression: An amazing array of talent performs throughout these daytime shows at various spots around town. Despite all the complaints about the pricey wristbands ($105, if not purchased in advance) and the supposed need to procure the even pricier badges, South-by-Southwest can be done on a budget. Most of the shows I hit were free, and most offered free beer and/or free food. On Friday night I spent 10 bucks to get into an official SXSW event, had no trouble with the crowd, and was able to enjoy three bands I was very excited to see. On Saturday night Matthew Sweet was headlining a long line-up at a free outdoor show near the Texas state capitol. Freeloading at these events helps you lessen the feeling that you've been exploited by the increasingly huge and annoying SXSW corporate machinery.

Anyways: after the Bloodshot party and a powernap, I headed out Friday night to a club called Opal Divine's, where we caught the last half of Beaver Nelson's raucous, roots-rock set. He's an Austin singer/songwriter who was expected to take the world by storm many years back, only to be caught up in many label entanglements. He's just starting to regain momentum and show signs of that promise. Next came Blue Mountain, a trio from Oxford, Mississippi. They turned in an excellent set of slide-guitar fueled barnburners, although some excessive guitar-hero histrionics distracted a bit from the fine songwriting. After slipping upstairs for a massive plate of nachos, I returned to the outdoor stage for a solo set from Danny Barnes (formerly of Bad Livers). The crowd had thinned considerably, and those who left early missed Barnes' masterful flat-picking guitar skills and his haunting, nasal but somehow piercingly clear voice. His recent material finds him somewhere between his bluegrass days of yore and a more folky, Richard Thompson-like solo performance. It was the end of a very long day for me, but I stood mesmerized until the last note.

On Saturday afternoon I managed to catch singer/songwriter Jeb Loy Nichols (formerly of Fellow Travelers) back at the Yard Dog. (Free beer! Free food!) I skipped the 11:30 a.m. show at the Continental Club, where free jalapeño pancakes (yikes!) were being served while Herman the German, a local surf rock/oddball mainstay, took the stage. Jeb Loy Nichols turned in a charming solo set. His post-Fellow Travelers material is getting a little too laidback for my taste, but he still has one of those voices that just draws you in and affects you emotionally. Nichols is American but lives in London, so it was a rare chance to see him live.

Our set at Cheapo was a little disappointing in terms of turn-out, but we had a good time. In a Spinal Tap moment, a small label owner from Sweden expressed some interest in us after the show. (I'd love to be able to say, "But we're huge in Sweden!") The title on his business card was "Country Rock Specialisten." Ya gotta love that.

That night we made an appearance at the official SXSW Bloodshot Records showcase. They snuck us in for free without wristbands, but knowing we had a 16-hour van ride ahead of us, we made an early exit.