Put up a fight

With bands like these, who needs Austin anyway?

--Robert Wilonsky

Hole in one
Meredith Miller has played Hole in the Wall a million times, with and without SXSW. She can tell stories about her earlier days there, back when she was living in Austin and not altogether sober, about sloppy pool games in the back room and sloppy sets from the stage. Her music likes this room, this dark and woody pub across the street from the University of Texas. It's warm and earnest and relaxed--much like Miller's voice. And the regulars at the club sure like that voice.

Which gave the early Thursday-night set an odd, out-of-the-loop feel, completely detached from the hype and clamor of the festival. Most of the crowd looked like the kind of music-loving Austinites who wouldn't wander downtown anytime that weekend or any other, the kind who show up to see Miller rain or shine every time she hits town, which is still pretty often. It was pouring that night, the climax of a week of threatening clouds. Not many Manhattan publicists with rental cars would risk the drive from the Omni Hotel or wherever, even if they had heard of her. Of the hundred or so people sipping beers, only a handful sported the dreaded industry badge.

Miller's new indie CD (titled madami'madam) had just come off the press, and Miller, who still hadn't unwrapped one from its plastic to study the finished product, hawked it--deadpan, smirking--from the stage: "I guess there's enough here for everyone to have two." She plucked one from a full box. "I hear that inside there's a picture of Dave [Monsey, her bass player] in a dress. I dunno."

The set was short but solid: a wet-haired Reed Easterwood swaying lazily over a banjo and a pedal steel, drummer Brian Wakeland and Monsey keeping their trademark low profiles. At one point, Miller pointed out the big window behind her toward a huge bus parked in the storm. "Did you see our tour bus?" she asked, and the audience laughed. "We're gonna have a party after the show, if anyone wants to come." The bus belonged to Willie Nelson, who was taping a private concert for Austin City Limits across the street, making the over-crowded parking near Hole in the Wall the only reminder that SXSW was even happening.

Later in the set, when introducing her one cover, an old Tom Waits tune, she sealed everyone's suspicion of her true feelings about the festival. "Tom Waits isn't on a label. So he's in town this weekend to try to get signed." She smiled at the absurdity, of the very image of the remarkable crooner shuffling up and down Congress, trying to hand out demo tapes to mouth-breathing label reps. (Waits does in fact have a deal, with the indie Epitaph.)

The audience whooped and applauded, and Miller quietly launched into a rendition that was as sad and sweet and wrenching as anything that would be played by a thousand bands, a thousand musicians who may as well not even have been in town.

--Christina Rees

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