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.
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.
Plenty of other great up-and-comers deserve mention; some we saw (Elliott Brood, Rachelle van Zanten, Peter and the Wolf, Aloha, Phosphorescent, Dr. Dog), many we didn't (Serena Maneesh, Envelopes). But to some extent, the best things about SXSW '06 weren't the big-deal bands, the hidden discoveries or the ultra-secret parties but rather the strange and amazing moments that only a town converted into an all-music, all-the-time mecca could house. There was the Flaming Lips' cover of "Bohemian Rhapsody," topped only when Peaches (Peaches?!) jumped onstage to help them play Black Sabbath's "War Pigs." (Peaches?!) There were the humorous exchanges between Bobby Bare and his son for the man's first Texas concert in years--a moving, gorgeous set of country standards done the way only a talented father and son can.
There's also the milk and cookies I ate in a church pew while Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, along with Rhys Chatham and a cast of avant-garde guitarists, blasted me with walls of white noise. Or the Canadian country hootenanny with Carolyn Mark, Sarah Harmer and a never-ending sea of talented guests who turned an Austin dive into the Canadian embassy of Texas, or when Neil Young waltzed right into a day party and hung out with Noah W. Bailey while watching Chicago's the M's.
Those moments were reason enough to leave Dallas for a few days, but they weren't reason enough to forget how great our scene is. Midlake followed those Flaming Lips with a wonderful showcase of Van Occupanther's best new songs to a huge crowd. All seven members of the Theater Fire reconvened on Saturday to wow an even bigger international audience with their decidedly homegrown flavor. The Happy Bullets, relegated to a stage outside the main SXSW club artery, still landed an uppercut with one of their tightest gigs yet, while the Drams enjoyed multiple gigs with Kris Kristofferson and the Drive By Truckers, winning over scores of out-of-town Slobberbone fans with Brent Best's new power-pop vision.
Pikahsso's funk-hop and best-in-the-biz stage presence was a total coup for Texas' rap community, a group that had been dumped in far-away venues (leaving Dallasites like Steve Austin and Money Waters unseen by most SXSW patrons). Then again, Bosque Brown was stuck in the worst club possible--one next to a loud, annoying, top-40 rap DJ--yet played through the background noise to stun a mass of newcomers with one of Mara Lee Miller's most confident gigs in recent memory.
So what does it mean when Bosque Brown, the Drams, Centro-matic, the Theater Fire, Pikahsso, Record Hop and the Happy Bullets are responsible for some of the best showcases at SXSW? According to the odds, not much--after 20 years of SXSW, bands know better than to expect a magic deal after one showcase. But SXSW isn't about the odds. It's about the memories, and this year, Dallas, Fort Worth and Denton left more than a few behind for the rest of the world to enjoy.
Noah W. Bailey contributed to this report.
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