SXSW: A Reporter's Diary

This year's South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival was, as usual, a whirlwind. More than 1,000 bands performed during the four nights of the festival, and myriad styles were represented- from punk to pop to folk to country and everything in between.

(photos by Mike Levine)

This year's South by Southwest(SXSW) music conference and festival was, as usual, a whirlwind. Takingplace, as always, in Austin, Texas, SXSW offered registrants a tradeshow, panel discussions, and most of all, a ton of live music. Morethan 1,000 bands performed during the four nights of the festival, andmyriad styles were represented- from punk to pop to folk to country andeverything in between. It seemed that almost anywhere you went indowntown Austin, you could hear a band playing.

With so much music going on all the time (even during the day therewere tons of parties featuring slates of bands) it's impossible tocover it all. In fact, one of the inevitable experiences of SXSW isfinding out about great shows that you didn't see. Nevertheless, I wasable to hear lots of great music (and some not-so-great), attend someinteresting events at the conference, and meet and talk to exhibitorsat the trade show. The following is a diary, complete with pictures, ofmy SXSW experience. Hopefully, it will give you the flavor of what it'slike to attend.

Thursday, March 13:

I arrived in Austinin the early afternoon and SXSW was already in full swing. (It actuallystarted on Wednesday.) I heard that earlier that morning, ProducerDaniel Lanois had delivered the keynote speech and even performed a bitat the conference.

After checking into my hotel, I walked over to the entrance of theAustin Convention Center to register (this was the fourth year I'dattended SXSW) and lo and behold it was deserted. After a brief momentof puzzlement (where is everybody?), I remembered that the conferencehad been shifted to the other end of the massive convention centerbuilding. After trudging down some long very long halls, I found theregistration area, which was buzzing with people.

Right next to registration was an exhibit hall containing Flatstock II, avery cool exhibition and sale of rock'n'roll gig posters from a largenumber of poster artists. If you ever wanted rock posters for yourwall, this was the place to go.

SXSW itself was up a long escalator on the upper level. When you gotto the top, you could walk into the main exhibition area, where therewere booths for all types of music-related enterprises includingperforming rights organizations, musician service firms, musicmagazines, indie labels, and even beer and whiskey manufacturers. Inthe middle of the room was the Day Stage, which had performers goingall day long (mostly acoustic acts).

After checking out the trade show for a while, I heard about ashowcase and party going on sponsored by Time Out New York (aNYC entertainment magazine) and Messenger Records. It was taking placein the afternoon at Maggie Mae's, a club on 6th Street,Austin's main street for music clubs. (There are plenty of parties andshowcases that happen during the daytime at SXSW, most of which youcan't find out about through official channels. You have to ask around,or be told about them in advance.)

I walked over toMaggie Mae's (6th Street is only a few blocks away from theconvention center) and the first band, JohnnySociety was just starting. The New York-based indie band(which recently released it's fourth CD, Life Behind the 21stCentury Wall) offered up a sterling set of eclectic rock withplenty of roots influences.

After their set, I walked a few blocks over to Red Eyed Fly, a clubaround the corner on Red River street. There, a heavy band from Seattlecalled Visqueen wasbashing out tunes at another party.

Then, on my way backover to Maggie Mae's, I saw an acoustic act featuring guitar, fiddle,mandolin, and djembe performing on the street. Their music contained acool mix of bluegrass, Celtic, and world-music influences. In betweensongs I spoke with them and it turned out they were a band called Newcomers Home, and werebased in Boulder, Colorado.

I made my way backto the Time Out New York/Messenger Records party in time to hearDan Bern and theIJBC an impressive country and folk-influenced rock band. Theywere followed by the showcase headliner, the enigmatic Chris Whitley,who played soloon an old resonator guitar while tapping his foot on an pickup-equippedpiece of wood that simulated the sound of a kick drum.

After a break fordinner, it was time to head out for the evening's music. First stop wasAntone's, one of Austin's most well-known venues. On tap that night wasa showcase put on by the Americana Music Association. When I walked in,Rosie Floresand the Long Stems were playing. Flores, a singer andguitarist, plays music that blends traditional country, rockabilly,rock, and even some jazz. Antone's, a big, open, high-ceilinged club,was packed, as usual.

Then it was on to the Austin Music Hall- a very large, hangar-likevenue on Nueces, near the end of 3rd street- to hear DanielLanois and his band. Although he's best known for his skills asa producer, Lanois showed that he's also a gifted artist, playingintelligent, somewhat dark, roots-rock on both a gold-top Les Paul anda Sho-Bud pedal steel.

Next stop was a club called Spill on 6th Street (much of6th Street gets closed off to cars at night during SXSW),where a pop-rock band called The Features - who hail from Sparta, Tennessee-were rocking out.

A short distancefrom Spill is the Hard Rock Café. There, the 11PM act was FictionPlane, a group from London, England. I'd found out earlier thatthe lead singer, Joe Sumner, was actually Sting's son. Sure enough,there was a distinct resemblance in both look and sound to his famousdad. Sumner, who plays guitar, bass, and sings lead, led his bandthough a solid set of well-crafted rock. Look for this group to makesome noise on the national music scene in the near future.

Fiction Plane was hardly the only band from across the ocean to playat SXSW. If fact, there was a big emphasis on European bands, withspecial showcases held for English bands, Irish bands, and Swedishbands. But Europe wasn't the only international area represented. Therewas Asian Nite at Elysium, which mainly featured bands from China andJapan; and also the annual Japan Nite showcase at the Mercury. Thelatter always draws an interesting selection of Japanese bands, oftenwith an emphasis on punk and hard rock.

One truism of SXSW is that unless you have the ability to cloneyourself, you're going to miss some good shows. Sure enough, Idiscovered after the fact that on Thursday night, Blur had played apreviously unscheduled set at La Zona Rosa (minus bassist Alex James,who couldn't get into the U.S. due to visa problems). I heard that thatit was tough to get into this show unless you got there well inadvance.

That brings up another reality about SXSW, which is that if youdon't get to the venues early, especially when a major act is playing,you're not always going to gain admittance. (Somebody told me that dueto the Rhode Island club fire, the SXSW venues were being extra carefulnot to exceed their capacities, which resulted in longer than usuallines.) I was to experience problems getting into a venue the nextnight, but more on that later

Before getting to Friday's events, I'd be remiss if I didn't mentionanother highly talked-about performance from Thursday night- the set bythe reunited Yardbirds at the Austin Music Hall, where bothSteve Vai andSlashended up sitting in.

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