The upside, though, is that there are plenty of options to turn to after your “plan” is shot to hell by large crowds and fire codes. I hit the ground in Austin Wednesday afternoon around 3 p.m. Texas time, and even though I didn’t see a single band I was planning on the first night, by midnight I had still managed to see six bands’ sets, eat some of the local BBQ and throw down a few Lone Stars and Shiner Bocks.
More than 2,000 bands are reportedly on hand for the 25th anniversary of SXSW, and there are shows all day and all night. And while a music geek gets giddy looking over the schedule, you quickly also realize how many awesome things you’re going to miss. The more diverse taste you have, the more painful it can be. Wednesday night, I was looking at a favorite band (Queens of the Stone Age) or some kitschy retro fun (Duran Duran at a BBQ joint!) or a hip-hop pioneer I’ve never seen before (Peanut Butter Wolf).
Naturally, all were so packed by the time I wandered by that I saw none of them. But that wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t get in to see an unexpected blast of my punk-rock past courtesy of Keith Morris (Black Flag, Circle Jerks) and his new band Off, playing right before Rastafarian riff gods Bad Brains.
When I come up with a potential schedule at SXSW, I break it down into three categories for the band showcases. There are artists who I always want to see, whenever and wherever they play (Queens of the Stone Age fall in this one). There are old favorites who never seen to come to Salt Lake City, or whom I’ve never seen for one reason or another. And there are the myriad young “buzz bands” swirling around the festival. These are the bands who, similar to film buzz at Sundance, that you hear good things about from your fellow fest-goers and add to your list of wanna-sees. My Wednesday night, while not what I planned, ended up including a taste of all three categories.
My first official showcase came courtesy of Freedy Johnston, an outstanding singer/songwriter who might have played the Zephyr way back when, but if he did, I missed it. He falls in the “old faves I’d never seen” area, and catching his set turned out to be a wise decision. Johnston is a great storyteller, and his between-song jokes and tales about his music’s genesis was a treat. Making it even better was the fact his showcase was not in a dingy club, but in a pristine, sonically excellent church, St. David’s Bethel Hall. While Johnston played guitar and ukulele, his sidekick played slide guitar, and together they made some potent folk and pop, including excellent takes on “Neon Repairman,” “This Perfect World” and “Rain in the City,” Johnston’s latest album's title track.
As he played, Johnston saw someone wheeling a harp into the back of the church: “I guess if they’re bringing in the harps, our time is almost over. It’s been a great last gig.”
Next up, I ran to see Jimmie Dale Gilmore and the Wronglers, a combination of a Texas favorite with a San Francisco band led by the founder of the Hardly Strictly Bluegrass festival, Warren Hellman. File this show under “favorites I try to see every time, anywhere,” because Gilmore is a true treasure, whether performing solo, as a member of the Flatlanders or, now, with this bluegrass/roots crew. (Some of you might know Gilmore for his role as “Smokey” in The Big Lebowski).
Gilmore and the Wronglers played in a tiny room in the swanky Driskell Hotel, and the joint was packed with locals curious to hear Gilmore’s new project. They weren’t disappointed, even if the band—featuring two fiddlers, Hellman’s banjo, along with bass, guitar, drums and Gilmore’s guitar--was a little clunky at times. Songs ranging from “Time Changes Everything” and “I’m Thinking Tonight of My Blue Eyes” were excellent, but the show hit a truly transcendent point when Gilmore lent his unmatched warble to “In The Pines.”
After that, the night was an on-the-fly proposal. I stopped and watched a rootsy group of street musicians (pictured), then managed to get into legendary punk club Emo’s to catch the aforementioned Off and Bad Brains sets (list those under Bands I Want to See Anywhere, Any Time). Keith Morris was his usual manic self through Off’s set, which consisted of lengthy stories broken up by one-minute songs of furious thrashing. It inspired a fine little mosh pit that only got better when Bad Brains took the stage after a long sound check. The punk legends’ blend of mesmerizing riffs and occasional reggae asides sounded surprisingly strong, and relevant even three decades into their career.
My day was bookended by catching a couple of the “buzz bands” I’d never had a chance see. YUCK has a great name, and better sound, and they were playing an afternoon party at Club DeVille while I walked to my hotel from the convention center. Noisy guitar freakouts interplay with power-pop moves in delicious ways with Yuck, and I’ll definitely make a point of seeing them again this week. And I ended Wednesday night with Denver indie-pop couple Tennis, whose Alaina Moore proved a remarkable vocalist even when she had to compete with a noisy bar and a nearby outdoor show nearly drowning her out.
On tap for Thursday? Hopefully a visit to Flatstock, where Salt Lake City poster artist Travis Bone is one of the featured folks, along with some day parties, evening showcases and a search for the perfect taco. Tune in tomorrow to see if any of that actually happens.