Southwesterly Whirlwind

From Enon To Mary Lou Lord And All Bands In Between.

OUR JOURNEY TO South By Southwest this year began in earnest in Houston, where we had planned to hang out with friends and relax before the chaos of Austin hit. What folly: being just three hours away from Austin, Houston was pre-SXSW central, and we took full advantage of it during our two-night stay, ably knocking a few must-see bands off the list even before reaching Austin. We spent both of those nights at Rudyard's, a cozy upstairs room with tables that never seemed to get too crowded. It's a great place to see bands, and not just because the friendly bartender bartered a free beer for "a few nice words about Rudyard's."

We saw a band there that'll probably be all over the press very soon: Enon is ex-Brainiac singer John Shmersal's new band, and also features two members of the fabulous Skeleton Key. While stylistically all over the map, the band's prevailing theme is funky electro-pop, seemingly the new trend in indie music these days. Mark my words: catchy pop with retro new-wave keyboards is soon to be all the rage. Next up was the much-hyped Girls Against Boys lounge-jazz side project, New Wet Kojak, whose set was pretentious, uninspired and downright boring.

By contrast, the following night's performance by British punk mainstays The Mekons, now in their 23rd year, was utterly riveting and rambunctious, and the between-song banter proved funnier than most stand-up comedians' best bits. Any jaded band of 20-somethings could take a few lessons from these folks (hear that, New Wet Kojakasses?).

And then it was off to Austin.

During the registration process at the Convention Center, we chatted up our first famous person, the very gracious Mekons leader Jon Langford, and met a fellow writer from Cleveland, whom we dragged -- willfully -- to an in-store performance by Calexico at 33 Degrees Records. Our homeboys kicked much ass for an attentive and appreciative audience, enthralling our Cleveland captive so much he didn't complain once, even when we dropped him off 45 minutes late for an interview he had scheduled.

Our night began by catching the end of Amor Belhom Duo's set, which captivated the 40 or so people present -- not bad when you consider that likely no one in the crowd had heard of the Duo when the night began. After braving a traditional SXSW downpour and a wrong turn, we cabbed it to the SpinArt Records Showcase at Waterloo Brewing Company, where we saw crowd-pleasing sets by Poster Children and Seattle veterans The Fastbacks. Afterward we hightailed it over to La Zona Rosa for a blissful set from alt-country mavens The Jayhawks, who, in the absence of departed member Marc Olsen, still provided a heady dose of the good ol' Midwestern magic we've come to expect. Then it was back to Waterloo in time for the bouncy closing set from Denver's pseudo-'60s pop gods Apples in Stereo before crashing for the night.

With the previous night's hangover still buzzing in our heads, we caught the tail end of a most rockin' set from No Depression poster boys Whiskeytown before heading off to the Dreamworks showcase at La Zona Rosa, wherein both Creeper Lagoon and Elliot Smith turned in impressive performances of almost entirely new material from their upcoming albums. Our night concluded at Beerland, where, following an all-male wedding ceremony, we were treated to a rare performance by one of the most offensive bands on the planet, Minneapolis queer-core duo The Frogs, who delighted a huge outdoor stuffed-under-a-tent-to-capacity crowd of revelers.

After catching sets from Kelly Hogan and The Cosmonauts and The Waco Brothers at the Bloodshot Records Barbecue, we napped intermittently throughout the afternoon, forgoing the early evening Alejandro Escovedo and Patti Smith show at Waterloo Park. It was the final night of SXSW, and it promised to be a long one.

Due to a stellar lineup and plain old fatigue, we spent the entire night at the Austin Music Hall. During the walk over, one of our ranks astutely remarked, "Hey, that's Guided By Voices!" And sure enough, as we caught the strains of "Hot Freaks" bellowing into the evening air, we realized we had stumbled upon the tail end of the hottest ticket of the week: the Revolver magazine launch party, which featured sets from The Unband, Nashville Pussy and GBV. We barged our way into the club's by-then-unobstructed doorway just in time for the Ohioans' last few tunes and free Revolver T-shirts.

At the Music Hall, we were seemingly the only ones pleased to learn that the "Special Guest" was UK's Bevis Frond, who treated festival-goers to a second performance of mesmerizingly beautiful psychedelic stoner pop. Next up was a dynamic 45 minutes of Philly's finest groovy white-boy gospel rock, courtesy of The Delta 72. (It's worth noting that we spotted the most famous people per capita at the Music Hall on this night: Elliot Smith, members of Nashville Pussy and The Fastbacks, and Mark Eitzel were all in attendance). Modest Mouse kept the party going until they lost a bit of steam midway through their set, cut abruptly short when frontman Isaac Brock announced, "I just heard the voice of God in my monitor, and he told me to stop." Sebadoh seemed to be worried about retaining its street cred, and to remedy the situation spray-painted a backdrop on a white sheet before opening with the somewhat dated anthem "Gimme Indie Rock." It was a decent show that fell largely on deaf ears. Interestingly, the crowd bestowed the week's most enthusiastic response on the show's non-musical closer, HBO cult hero acoustic comedy duo Tenacious D.

Dead on our feet, we proceeded to the annual Spin magazine wrap party, whose theme seemed to be Bands Who Used to Live in Arizona. The lineup featured the Meat Puppets and The Supersuckers, but having moved only about 15 feet in line after a half-hour, we cried uncle and made our way back to the hotel. On the way we were treated to one last surprise: indie goddess/Courtney Love nemesis Mary Lou Lord was playing on the street, and we stopped and took in the last strains of music, Austin-style, before collapsing for the night. For that matter, for the week.

Come to think of it, I could use a vacation now more than ever.

Shows we wish we'd seen, but didn't: Crawdaddy-O, who played before we actually made it to Austin; Patti Smith, who was reportedly everything you could possibly hope she'd be; Giant Sand, whose showcase was located across town, thereby making it logistically impossible to catch anything but Giant Sand; white-hot buzzing country diva Shelby Lynne; and Austin's own experimental critical faves The Golden Arm Trio, who received rave reviews from everyone we talked to who had seen them.

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