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Photo: John Brodeur

Capital A

A musician’s (and journalist’s) journey to SXSW

By John Brodeur

Austin, Texas, is about 8 million miles away from anything. It’s true! The main road leading in is I-35, which runs from Minneapolis to the Mexican border; the stretch between Austin and Dallas, two hours to the north, is one of the more traffic-jam-prone sections of highway in the country. The comparatively speedy I-10 runs east to west, from Jacksonville, Fla. to Los Angeles, but it goes via San Antonio, so no matter how you slice it you’re bound to end up on one of the smaller state routes, the kind with traffic lights and small towns that make a continuous breakneck pace all but impossible.

Of course you could always fly in. That’s what sane people do. But I had decided to make a little “tour” of my Texas trip, booking shows in not-quite-on-the-way towns down and back, plugging my musical wares to two-thirds-empty bars at night and driving 10 hours a day in a mad dash to Austin. And the aforementioned impediments—that damn traffic, and those little byway towns where the speed limit suddenly drops from 70 mph to 30—kept me from getting to my first Austin gig on time. A less-than-auspicious start to my four days in the Texas capital.

Photo: John Brodeur

The gigs were a secondary concern, really. I made the trip less to perform at than to take in the SXSW Music and Media Conference. This year’s festival promised to be a middle finger (or at least a blind eye) to the so-called recession, with more than 1,300 bands scheduled to perform in and around the city’s historic 6th Street area, the entertainment district comprising about a dozen blocks and a thousand nightclubs and performance spaces. (All figures approximate.) Not to mention the performances at venues elsewhere throughout the city—for a week each year, every back porch, front porch, coffee shop, Laundromat, and pizzeria becomes a “venue” as people from all aspects of the music industry make their pilgrimage to Austin, like the swallows returning to San Juan Capistrano. Only a lot drunker. And that’s just the music bit; the festival also includes film and interactive components that stretch the excitement out to eight days and nights.

And a middle finger it was—sort of. While the streets teemed with the scent of empanadas and bratwurst and awful pizza, and buzz bands like the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and Vivian Girls played nearly everywhere at once, the Austin Convention Center (where the conference portion of the festival takes place, as well as the overlapping Flatstock concert-poster exhibition, Texas Guitar Show, and Austin Record Convention) buzzed with industry folks scrambling to figure out how to simultaneously save their failing industry and prop it up with enough sticks and glue to make it still look viable. The future and past collided at the trade show, where Internet startups like World shared space with hangers-on like Spin magazine; some panels explored new-model music-career topics like digital music, social media, and film/TV placements, while others were clearly there for prestige points (David Fricke of Rolling Stone discussing Kind of Blue; mastering engineer Bob Ludwig on his oft-overlooked craft). An interview with Tony K., longtime A&R man for Seattle’s Sub Pop Records, was sparsely attended, while the media came out in full force for an interview with Austin-based curiosity Daniel Johnston the same day. Featured speakers included such bright new faces as Quincy Jones, Devo, and Little Steven—odd choices for an industry trying to convince itself and everyone else that it can get along fine without selling actual product.

Photo: John Brodeur

To bolster that “We’re doing OK” image and raise the already high profile for this year’s event, a few megastars—Metallica and Kanye West—turned up for not-very-secret “secret” shows. And while there was an overall who-cares among festivalgoers, that didn’t stop thousands of eager fans from jamming into Stubbs and the Fader Fort (a makeshift venue on the east side of I-35), respectively, for the performances.

Back in the real world, festival highlights included under-the-stars showcases by the Decemberists and PJ Harvey and John Parish; debut U.S. performances by Hot Leg (the shredtastic new band from Darkness yowler Justin Hawkins) and Tinted Windows (an all-star power-pop act who would be the biggest band in the world if this were 1981); and exceptional late-night sets from folk-bluesman Langhorne Slim (who excitedly invited the whole crowd onstage to dance) and Solange Knowles (who led her crack band through a powerful and tightly rehearsed, albeit hour-late, set at Buffalo Billiards). Day parties, like the Rachael Ray-sponsored shindig at Maggie Mae’s, drew around-the-block lines thanks to open RSVP policies; thankfully there were plenty of badge-only events for conference folks.

But for someone who was born and raised in the Capital Region, the main draw at this year’s SXSW was the great variety of upstate New York bands on the showcase schedule and party calendar. Altamont-based hard-rock quintet Ironweed were part of a Small Stone Records showcase at Room 710; Super 400’s set at the After the Jump party (in a backyard in East Austin) featured a special appearance from Big Star drummer Jody Stephens; Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned, Phantogram, and Sean Rowe all had official showcases in the 6th Street area. I tried my best to catch all of them, but balancing fanboy with music journalist proved more difficult than I thought, especially with all the walking involved. You’ll have to excuse me for choosing PJ Harvey over, well, everyone else.

Photo: John Brodeur

Which leads to my point: With so much music going on at once, it’s tough for a little band to make a big noise. Sean Rowe pulled an 11 PM slot on Wednesday night at Stephen F’s Bar, a rather snazzy venue located on the second floor of the Austin Hotel, for his solo showcase. In the early going it looked to be a bust. But as he wound his way through a chilling version of “Jonathan” (from his forthcoming Magic disc), the room started to shift, more bodies entered, and Rowe found his groove. These showcases are sometimes about small victories, and Rowe scored one with his set—a nice bookend to his mention on The days earlier, in which reviewer Paul Ford gave Rowe’s “Wrong Side of the Bed” a five-out-of-five rating.

Saratoga’s Phantogram, relative newcomers to the trials of touring, had a bumpier road to their little victory: Their first two gigs, including their official Wednesday-night showcase, were reportedly messy affairs, with the duo finding their footing on mostly rented gear. By the time of their day-party performance Saturday afternoon at the Compound, another makeshift East Austin “venue,” they seemed to have figured it out, and the few in attendance (including their new management team) saw the show they were supposed to see. I have little doubt they’ll be back for another go next year with the all-important “buzz” status.

Photo: John Brodeur

Speaking of buzz status, ready-for-anything indie-folk troupe Sgt. Dunbar and the Hobo Banned went into the festival with exactly that on their side: NPR’s Bob Boilen called them one of the “great unknown bands” of the festival the week prior, and the band’s Thursday showcase at Esther’s Follies was indeed a great success—so much so that notoriously hard-to-please Chicago Sun-Times pop-music critic Jim DeRogatis turned up and called the band a “a Salvation Army band playing in a junkyard while tripping on acid” on his blog the next day. Of course this is a band who needn’t concern themselves with things like major labels and mainstream popularity—they’re a fringe band if ever there was one—but after their run in Austin, all things are possible.

My own small victories? I ate decently, if not well. (The Sunday barbecue made for a great breakfast-lunch combo.) I didn’t run out of gas money. I saw a lot of great music. And I left with a good feeling about the future of the Capital Region music scene—which, combined with the barbecue, kept me going through at least the first hour of traffic on I-35 north.



Photo: John Brodeur







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