AUSTIN, TEXAS — South by Southwest is an exercise in patience and preparation, and when it’s done right, the payoff is all about music discovery.
My first stop on Tuesday afternoon (March 11), even before the hotel, was Stubb’s BBQ for a small show sponsored by BMI. By 6:30 p.m., I was standing inside with a plate of brisket and a glass of red wine, watching the magnificently understated Tony Joe White get his groove on and thinking, “OK, now I’m happy to be at SXSW.”
The swampy songwriter played a couple of tunes from his new Hoodoo album but saved room at the end for “Polk Salad Annie.” Of course, he’s been around for decades, but this was my first time to see him perform. He sets the bar pretty high when it comes to natural cool.
After a few greasy tunes by rising R&B ensemble St. Paul and the Broken Bones, one of the festival’s most buzzed-about bands, I ventured toward the heart of the city. At 8 p.m., I got in line to see John Moreland, an Oklahoma songwriter whose catalog has been tapped by FX’s Sons of Anarchy.
Because it was so early in the evening (and the festival), there wasn’t a lot of chatter in the crowd, so I was able to really listen to his direct, well-crafted material, presented with just Moreland and his guitar. Personal favorites include “God’s Medicine” and “Nobody Gives a Damn About Songs Anymore.” Let’s hope he’s wrong about that latter sentiment.
I rarely get over to South Austin for the nightly showcases, but this year I made an exception for Rusty Truck, a country band led by photographer Mark Seliger. This was the group’s first-ever gig in Austin, and the Saxon Pub crowd seemed attentive and interested. I listened to the band’s newest album Kicker Town a lot last year when it was released and ended up buying the CD at the show anyway. The twangy music fit the vibe of the room perfectly, especially the songs “Buildings” and “Rattle Trucks.”
From my vantage point near the back, I noticed that almost nobody in the place had a laminate and very few people were tapping on their devices. It was almost like the SXSW of the 1990s when I first started coming to the festival. A refreshing change of pace.
On Wednesday morning, I attended a video session inside of a loft on Congress Avenue and heard Desert Noises, a Utah-based band that is releasing a new album this month. Typically I think they are plugged in and boisterous, but their low-key performance was a neat way to start the morning. (That and plentiful coffee and breakfast tacos in the green room.)
A few blocks away, there was an in-the-round performance in an ad agency’s lobby — every location is up for grabs at SXSW. I didn’t want to miss this lineup: Wade Bowen, Rodney Crowell, Robert Ellis and Charlie Worsham. All four are exceptional writers, but if I had to pick, I’d say hearing Ellis’ “Only Lies” was my top moment. That song is haunting and the lyric that says “Just because a thing’s convenient, well, that doesn’t make it true” is spot-on. For non-Nashville attendees who aren’t often exposed to “guitar pulls” such as this, it served as an ideal introduction. It was also a treat to witness Worsham’s unabashed reaction when Crowell punched him on the arm and said, “That’s a good song.” (Indeed it was — “Mississippi in July.”)
In the afternoon, I dropped by the Nettwerk Records party on Sixth Street to hear Run River North, a roots-rock ensemble from Los Angeles. Lead singer Alex Hwang is very charismatic and I enjoyed the fiddle and electric bass weaving their way through the arrangements. As Korean Americans, they stand out from the crowded field of new bands, even when Hwang joked that he just found out two weeks ago that he’s Asian. Their original music is melodic and dynamic, and I really feel like they could go places, quickly.
After a dinner break and a thorough investigation of the Rainey Street bars — just doing my job here — I made my way to Lambert’s BBQ to hear John & Jacob at a SESAC showcase. Contemporary yet slightly retro, the young and energetic Nashville duo has already been featured on NPR, and their song “Be My Girl” was performed by characters on ABC’s Nashville. “I’m Comin’ Back for You” is quite the catchy number, too. Not shy about melody or tempo, the guys have crafted an appealing commercial sound, and the trumpet solos were a fun, unexpected touch. Lots of potential here. Their new album is expected in July.
I wrapped up the night with Austin-based duo Jamestown Revival playing around the corner. They launched their set with the Everly Brothers’ mellow “Kentucky,” then ramped it up with songs from a new album, Utah – A Collection of Recorded Moments From the Wasatch Mountains. Best friends since the age of 15, the fellows have an affinity for wisecracks and a natural musical blend that is invigorating and engaging. With the potential hit “California (Cast Iron Soul),” they have a lot to offer Austin’s musical community and not only during SXSW.