The unusual suspects

At South by Southwest, the magic moments count the most

In 10 years of the South by Southwest Music and Media Conference in Austin--the annual gathering of music-bizzers that has become the largest such confab of its kind, drawing well over 5,000 registrants and more than 600 bands--there have been plenty of great concerts and a myriad of impressive showcases and panels by artists both legendary and anonymous. Some of those have led to successful deals with record labels, some have resulted in suicide pacts with record companies. Most often, though, the magic disappears into the night and heads for the next town, where the only time anyone mentions a "buzz" is after three beers on an empty stomach.

This year, March 13-17, there was plenty of magic to go around, especially for those who head to Austin understanding they will find their greatest pleasures between the cracks--a great song here or there, a dramatic performance among so many typical bands, or the way a singer bends a note for only a few seconds. The music business prides itself on cynicism, but there are a few people every now and then who keep the faith--a few who practice enchantment, who can levitate themselves right off the stage and take the audience with them.

Those who witnessed the Golden Smog concert at the Austin Music Hall last Thursday night can testify to this: They saw magic made that night, so much so that they learned how to saw the woman in half and pull rabbits out of hats. It was magic, all right--a downright resurrection, the living awakening the dead.

The Smog's set was dazzling from start to finish: With four frontmen and guitarists--Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Jayhawk Gary Louris, Soul Asylum's Dan Murphy, and Run Westy Run's Kraig Johnson--dueling it out, sharing vocals and trading instruments and propping one another up on their guitar-strap shoulders, there are few bands that have the potential to overpower like the Smog. As the band proved in front of 3,000-plus people at the Music Hall, Golden Smog can make beautiful music (as evidenced by a cover of Rosanne Cash's "Seven Year Ache"), burn the house down (Nick Lowe's "(What's So Funny 'Bout) Peace Love and Understanding"), and build it up again (their own "Yesterday Cried").

But as the clock slowly ticked toward 2 in the morning, when the showcases begin to blur into one another and the after-hours party invitations burn holes in the conferencegoers' back pockets, Golden Smog reached into thin air and turned a great rock and roll concert into the stuff of magic. With a few gracious words and nervous gestures, Jeff Tweedy sent exhaustion home in a taxi and awakened a crowd...and, quite possibly, a career.

"I have a pretty amazing treat," he told a crowd that has become jaded enough to dismiss such a promise. "We're going to bring out for you now the man who wrote this song. Please welcome Bobby Patterson."

A smattering of applause. A shout from the bar. A restless shuffle.
To the 3,000 or so in the audience, the name Bobby Patterson meant nothing when Tweedy mentioned it, and they reacted with the appropriate disinterest. Who did he say? Bobby who? They did not know of Patterson's long career as a singer and songwriter in the 1960s and '70s, that he wrote "How Do You Spell Love?" (covered by the Fabulous Thunderbirds) and "She Don't Have to See You," which Golden Smog remade for the recently released debut Down by the Old Mainstream on the Rykodisc label. Patterson, one of Dallas' truest musical heroes yesterday or tomorrow, is only one of many great but forgotten performers, but in Jeff Tweedy, Gary Louris, and the rest of Golden Smog he found young champions who gave him a second chance on a very special night.

"I'm shaking, man," Tweedy said on stage, half to the audience and half to himself. "This is great." He introduced Patterson again, and the crowd applauded with a little more enthusiasm. Patterson waited a minute or two before emerging from the wings. Just a few months ago, Patterson sat in a Deep Ellum Vietnamese restaurant saying that he wanted to make a comeback--not in the little clubs, mind you, but the bigger venues, places that hold a couple hundred people. He never expected this, making his comeback to thousands.

When he finally stepped onto the stage, all red and black leather and swagger, he did not resemble the man who had been away from the stage for almost 20 years. He was the professional, the consummate showman sharing the stage with white rock musicians half his age. He and Tweedy traded lines like kids swapping baseball cards, singing "She Don't Have to See You" like they had written it and performed it this way for years--though they had never once rehearsed their duet. Patterson was in rare form that night, bantering with the band ("Hey, Gary, how many times have you come home late at night?") and rejuvenating the audience. People who did not know Patterson until that night said afterwards they had tears in their eyes, so moved were they by his performance and his voice--a voice that makes women scream and makes men jealous, a voice that gets everyone wet somewhere along the way.

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