Arts & Culture

Erica C. Barnett as Music Journalist: Her Report from SXSW

By Erica C. Barnett March 22, 2010

Barnett's favorite SXSW gig, The Bowerbirds ...

And of course, PubliCola house band, THEESatisfaction at the Seattle Showcase ...

I haven’t been back to Austin—where I lived for more than seven years back in the ‘90s—since

South by Southwest 2004, and I’m told things have changed dramatically, even since last year. The biggest indicator of that change, literally, is the two massive condo tower on the western edge of downtown, the Austonian, where you, too, can buy a part of the new Austin lifestyle for a minimum price of $500,000 (penthouse units $7 million).

But for me, the most significant indicator that things have seriously changed in these parts is the presence of a dozen or so sparkly new food trucks—bearing names like Chi’Lantro Korean Barbecue, MMMPanadas, and Sushi-a-go-go—on the part of East Sixth Street (just east of the nerve center of SXSW) that used to be populated by tacquerias.

The friend I stayed with, a former colleague at the Austin Chronicle, called it “The Fashionable East Sixth Street District,” in a voice dripping with irony. New or old, however, Austin’s street food scene puts Seattle’s (and Portland’s?) to shame—and frankly, I don’t care about those ugly new condos if they’re keeping Austin’s street vendors slinging wurst and Korean tacos.

Some things, however, stay the same. The lines at South by Southwest (AKA South by South Wait) are still hellish; the weather, except for the past couple of days, is still hot enough to make a visitor break into a sweat in full shade, and there’s about a thousand times more music than you could ever hope to see.

I’m writing this, for example, from the Seattle showcase, featuring (on two stages) more than a dozen different bands. If you can ignore the prominent Experience Music Project posters and Caffe Vita swag, the lineup is actually pretty impressive, including Long Winters-esque The Lonely Forest (technically from Anacortes, but close enough); Grand Hallway (an orchestral rock octet that played on a stage barely big enough to contain them); and Rocky Votolato, a Dallas native whose moving acoustic set touched on the themes of mental illness, depression, and despair.

Even in that rarefied company (seriously—why can’t a lineup like that play in Seattle?), unofficial PubliCola house band THEESatisfaction was a standout. As usual, the Cat and Stas’ set was way too short—about 20 minutes of the daylong Seattle party—but they laid the crowd of Seattle and Austin locals low with their intergalactic blend of Sun Ra jazz and outer-space rap.

Also high on my (highly personal, highly arbitrary) list: Texas songwriting legend Jimmie Dale Gilmore, who played to a half-empty room at a Rolling Stone-sponsored party in an upstairs bar on Friday night. (The party was limited to SXSW badge holders, in this case a bunch of crusty old guys and me).

Last time I saw Gilmore, at EMP around 2003, he seemed scattered and off his game, stopping songs in the middle and asking the audience for his own lyrics. On Friday, however, he showed no signs of dissipation. Maybe he is starting to look a little bit like Willie these days—his long gray hair a little stringier, his jeans a little more worn and baggier—but his signature country warble was clear and true, his command of the songs impeccable.

Another high point for this country music lover: Surprise appearances by country crooner Patty Griffin and legendary guitar twanger Buddy Miller during a long set by country/bluegrass veteran Jim Lauderdale at Antone’s, a midsize club where, two nights later, a crowd of luminaries would pay tribute to the late Alex Chilton. (No, I couldn’t get in).

[Sad Editor's note from Josh: RIP Mr. Big Star.]

A Girls’ Rock Camp sponsored day show at Café Mundi—a railroad-side coffee shop and show space whose slogan, “Hard to find, easy to love,” is sadly no longer applicable in gentrified East Austin—included one completely unexpected surprise: Girl in a Coma, a three-woman San Antonio pop-punk band anchored by charismatic Latina frontwoman Nina Diaz. Diaz’ powerful voice and blistering guitar were incredible, but the real highlight of the show was the crowd of girls, some of them  as young as 6, who stared rapt at the trio and gathered around afterward for a chance to win a guitar signed by Joan Jett, whose label, Blackheart Records, signed Girl in a Coma a few years back. Girls Rock Camp Seattle is now in its second year; Café Mundi, sadly, was slated to close just after South by Southwest.

If I had to pick one show I feel especially fortunate to have seen, however, it’d have to be the Bowerbirds—a North Carolina trio whose quavering, precise pop Cola MusicNerd Anand described as “a majestic post-coital swoon.” In spite of technical problems (or band members’ pickiness) that delayed their brief set nearly half an hour, it was the kind of show that sticks with you for hours afterward: ethereal, intimate, gorgeous in every sense of the word. Perfect, in other words.
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