One of the most exciting (and potentially maddening) aspects of SXSW is how it truly becomes your own festival. With 1500 officially scheduled bands and countless other bands not affiliated directly with the conference, but playing their own gigs at day parties and non-SXSW venues about town, one can make a schedule perfectly tailored to one’s own specific taste in music. The biggest constraint is how far you are willing to go to make your schedule happen.
While the bulk of the SXSW showcasing clubs are located on or near 6th Street between Red River and Congress Avenues, there are also multiple venues dotted across the area west of Congress and a concentration of venues in the South Congress area on the other side of Town Lake (which looks suspiciously more like a river than a lake). So your perfect schedule may feature shows in multiple areas throughout the day and accomplishing that is no small feat when taking downtown traffic, parking and the inevitable slippery schedules at the individual venues into account. Thursday was a day that would put my festival-going skills to the test.
The day started off delightfully enough with a migas breakfast at Star Seeds Cafe north of the downtown area. We ran a little long, so it was a bit of a wild ride down to Jovita’s on South 1st Street (across the lake/river) to catch THIS Is American Music: a group of four like-minded bands who did a short tour of the Midwest late last year. After parking in the nearby residential neighborhood, the strains of “The Great Gravitron Massacre” could be heard as Columbus, Ohio natives Two Cow Garage had already taken the stage, er… patio. The Drams were next and surprisingly sharp given that they had already given a blistering set the night before at Mother Egan’s and were just about to head out to make another day party at Club Deville. Not at all surprising was Glossary giving the best set of the bunch with their swinging rhythms and road-weary melodies. Local favorites Grand Champeen brought up the rear with loud, rollicking versions of their tame recorded material before being joined on-patio by their lingering mates from Two Cow and Glossary for an all-star (and note perfect) rendition of “Born to Run”. Sadly, it was announced that this had been the final gathering of THIS Is American Music, but there was a joyful spirit in the air that gave buoyancy to the rest of the afternoon.
There was little time to linger afterwards, so margaritas were quickly downed and we drove into the heart of the beast to catch some mid and late afternoon showcases on 6th Street. Traffic was thick as a slice of Texas toast, so hopes of catching the last half of Motorhead’s 3pm set at Stubb’s were quickly dashed. Instead, a beeline was made for Maggie Mae’s and the Planetary Group’s Skewer BBQ day party. Maggie Mae’s is a classic Austin venue that is partially covered and partially open to the elements, although the rooftop area was completely covered by a large temporary tent structure. I avoided the free barbeque which looked like it had been sitting out for a while, but in typical day party fashion, the free booze was flowing and I gladly enjoyed a couple of complimentary beers while shuttling back and forth between Maggie Mae’s rooftop and the inexplicably connected Thirsty Nickel’s music room.
First up was a unknown power trio at the Thirsty Nickel. I tried to find out who they were after the fact, but it kind of doesn’t matter seeing as how they did not leave much of an impression. They did, however, do a pretty crappy and uninspired version of The Who’s “My Generation”. I was only killing time at that point, so after they finished I moved back over to Maggie Mae’s to see the last few songs by Look See Proof, a quartet of young Brits playing lackluster emo/new wave tunes accompanied by the ever more ubiquitous yelpy vocals. Finally, the band I’d come to see came on – Brooklyn’s very own Longwave. Fresh from wrapping up their new album and without a label, they powered through a 25 minute set featuring all new material with the exception of “Tidal Wave” from their signature album, 2003’s The Strangest Things. They’re not a band that is reinventing music, but they write some damn catchy songs and put on a good show. Back over at the Thirsty Nickel, a rhythm & blues revival band was working up the crowd if not quite working them into a frenzy. Highly entertaining in a New Orleans kind of way and a fun diversion. Could have sworn the lead singer told me they were called Lil Def, but who knows if I heard her right over the din. The day party wrapped up with a performance by Elf Power who played their typical fine assortment of jangly songs, but seemed to be missing at least one member. There were a good two to three dozen signed and numbered limited edition Skewer BBQ posters adorning the walls of Maggie Mae’s and a bouncer kindly agreed to look the other way while I removed one as a souvenir. Unofficial swag!
An attempt was made to check out The Black Angels at Red-Eyed Fly, but it was not meant to be as there was a line of badges and wristbands half a block long. So as the evening drew near, it was time to make another drive across the lake/river to the South Congress area, this time to check out the unofficial South by San Jose lineup sponsored by Jo’s Coffee in the San Jose Hotel’s parking lot. A distinctly different vibe in comparison with 6th Street, to be sure. Still busy, yes, but a more mature crowd and a less frantic scene overall. Bobby Bare, Jr. took the stage slightly before (!) his scheduled time and played a few acoustic songs before launching into the rock with his band featuring Son Volt’s Chris Masterson on lead guitar. After that rousing set, The Felice Brothers came on just as the sun was going down to deliver their ragged tales of murdered cabaret singers, Cincinnati seductresses and general barnyard mayhem. They seemed genuinely pleased to be performing in such a welcoming atmosphere after somehow being booked into the posh bottle service only gentlemen’s club, Pangaea, the night before.
Following the Felice Brothers, it was time to make another move to 6th Street, specifically Habana Calle 6, for the Undertow Music Collective’s showcase. Upon entering, my wristband was scanned for the first time in two days and I began to realize it may have been an unnecessary expenditure. Magnolia Summer from St. Louis was just about to get started but unfortunately they were without their drummer and their typically catchy alt.country tunes just didn’t translate. The real attraction of the evening, however, was Glossary and the decent-sized crowd was augmented by members from Two Cow Garage and The Drams coming out to support the Murfreesboro band giving their last ’08 SXSW performance before leaving to hook up with Drive By Truckers for a pair of shows in Memphis and Nashville. If Glossary had earlier put on the best set of the morning at Jovita’s, they brought their A+ game for the official showcase at Habana Calle 6 and put on the best set of the day, hands down. There was a sense of urgency (perhaps brought on by the looming ten hour drive) but also an assured steadiness as they confidently rocked out a selection of the best songs from their past three records. Among the highlights was Two Cow’s Shane Sweeney joining the band onstage to take the second verse on “Blood on the Knobs” shortly after he drunkenly confided to me that he had ‘officially made himself a member of Glossary’.
Although the day had been long and taxing, there was still one more pair of acts to catch before the end of the night, so I hoofed the half mile march to the legendary Antone’s on the other end of the 6th Street scene to catch the incredible Buddy Miller who was just a few songs into his set upon my arrival. The room was jam packed with an older crowd who were treated not only to Miller’s remarkable guitar playing, but also a fine duet with drummer and fellow Spyboy veteran Brady Blades, Jr. followed by two more duets with surprise guest Tift Merritt. Unfortunately, the evening ended with the crowd thinning out considerably before the closing set by Austin local James McMurtry. While he eschewed his superior back catalog for his bland newer material, he still put on a performance that demanded attention as his cat-like glance darted across the room from fan to fan while weaving stories of hard luck that must surely make his novelist father proud.
By that time, I’d seen fifteen acts at six venues and crossed the lake/river four times over the course of twelve hours and it was time to return to the motel for some serious crashing. Of course, the first thing that starts running through your mind as you lay down in bed is what’s on tap for the next day. And while I did have a schedule more or less mapped out, Friday would be the day to teach me that SXSW can and will take your best thought out plans and lay them to waste in a flash.