Austin's biggest music fest was anything you wanted it to be. Dallas acts made theirs a blast.

On Wednesday afternoon, Austin's Beerland was dark, humid and barren. The punk and rockabilly music club isn't meant for the daytime, let alone daytime concerts, let alone daytime concerts by the acoustic, thoughtful cast of Fort Worth's Theater Fire.

At the sparse afternoon show, the odds were against the out-of-towners. Not that the band was surprised--these are usual odds for DFW/Denton acts at the 20th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, a four-day music explosion that pits Interstate 35 visitors against Norwegians, Japanese and at least 1,000 other acts who needed more than one tank to get to where four of the Theater Fire's seven members stood (three were stuck at their hometown jobs...damn those odds).

When the band finished its lovely abbreviated set, packed with mandolin, fiddle, accordion, horns--more than four grown men should ever wield at once--the house lost on its odds--a swarm of fans appeared from the shadows to approach the stage, beg for the band's CDs and ask too many questions in too many European accents. The barren showcase's success was a testament to the Theater Fire's sound, a swirl of Texas influences masterfully molded on their forthcoming LP Everybody Has a Dark Side, but it was also proof that SXSW doesn't have to be an insular, forgettable weekend for our city's best musicians.

Bosque Brown survived a lousy venue to wow its SXSW 
audience on Saturday.
Mary Sledd
Bosque Brown survived a lousy venue to wow its SXSW audience on Saturday.
At SXSW, Britons, Germans and New Yorkers witnessed 
the wonder of the Theater Fire.
At SXSW, Britons, Germans and New Yorkers witnessed the wonder of the Theater Fire.

This year, SXSW was what fans (and bands) made of it. With a record schedule of more than 1,400 acts, along with a free unofficial party list that was twice as thick as last year's, fans could stock up on their favorite genres in droves. Doors-appreciative stoner rock? Backpacker rap? White noise? Country? My Chemical Romance? In 2006, no style was left unturned. Same fortune went for bands--with more attendees (and free party aficionados) than ever before, spillover guaranteed that pretty much every act could scrounge up an audience.

Add an asterisk--or a dollar sign--to that free spirit. Official showcase entry was a minimum of $150 for wristbands bought in Austin (plus whatever eBay auctions added for out-of-town bidders), and hotel accommodations filled up months ahead of the March 15 start date. Mix with traffic, parking nightmares and a record turnout and you've got the makings of a South by SouthMess. But, again, the fest was what you made of it. If you wanted to obsess over traffic, wristbands and hotels, you could, but if you found a parking spot near downtown and milled about, something good--and often free--was always just a few steps away.

Wednesday had plenty of metroplex quality for SXSW patrons to stumble upon, with the Theater Fire's successful show across the street from the NX35 Denton-centric day party (featuring Record Hop, Robert Gomez, Hogpig and the Drams) and down the road from the Deathray Davies' packed performance at Emo's. And that was before the fest's official nighttime showcases had even begun.

Fort Worth's Collin Herring played to a packed house at Exodus that night, and his band drew mostly from last year's The Other Side of Kindness with the high, wailing cry of father Ben Roi's pedal steel ringing off the stone walls during rockers like "Back of Your Mind." Herring's atmospheric slow tunes don't work as well as his more upbeat numbers, and he has a tendency to scream at inappropriate times, but all in all it was a fine showing for Fort Worth's alt-country kid.

Speaking of inappropriate screaming, Dallas' Strange Boys rocked their young hearts out at the Velvet Spade that same night, fighting through sound nightmares and drum-kit trouble to unleash most of debut EP States Newest Noise Makers, along with a few new tracks and covers, to a packed house. More than a few gray-haired folks sat in the back, pleased by Ryan Sambol's dying-cat shrieks and room-spinning guitars, though any hopes that the boys were offered a record contract on the spot were killed the next day when bassist Philip Sambol was spotted on 6th Street begging for change. When approached, he said he wasn't joking.

It was a silly sight, but it also made signs posted around the Austin Convention Center seem even sillier--"TURN PIRACY INTO PROFIT," they read, touting a Web site that would save bands from losing sales to MP3 downloaders. Wrong audience, Mr. Sign. These 1,000-plus bands are so hungry for fans, pirates or no, that they'll play up to eight free showcases around Austin in a week.

Out of the hungry masses, a few relative unknowns made amazing impressions through the week that might turn anything into profit sometime soon. Austin's Pink Nasty (real name: Sara Beck, real hometown: Wichita, Kansas) delighted a Wednesday night crowd with both a sweet voice and guitar style so perfect for pop-rock, it's no wonder she stood out as part of Bonnie "Prince" Billy's Summer in the Southeast live album last year. MP3 blog favorite Jose Gonzalez was less showy--and to some, outright boring--but his understated acoustic showmanship proved gorgeous for patient concertgoers who heard the Swede pull off dazzling solo covers that would embarrass even Nick Drake, particularly his take on Massive Attack's trip-hop classic "Teardrop."

Minnesota hype band Tapes 'N' Tapes rode a recent Pitchfork Media rave through a never-ending stream of Austin concerts, proving again and again that their catch-all record-bin sound of '90s indie favorites actually had its own unique charm (and just might outlast the hype). Aging Detroit band the Volebeats proved the most underrated of all SXSW bands, playing a pitch-perfect set of twangy '60s pop to a criminally small crowd at Habana Calle 6. The lonesome, starry-eyed harmonies of singers Jeff Oakes and Matthew Smith would have left even the Everly Brothers with their jaws on the floor. And Seattle's Band of Horses sounded like a dream collaboration between the Shins and My Morning Jacket; the band's tightly constructed anthems of loneliness featured anthemic guitar crescendos, irresistible melodies and the beautiful vocals of Ben Bridwell, who sings with a high-pitched coo favored by both Jim James and the Baptist Generals' Chris Flemmons.

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