Wednesday. A direct flight out of Boston got us into Austin a bit earlier than past years – which meant time for BBQ before digging into the music. Good thing too, as we didn’t hit any more BBQ the rest of the trip… First musical stop was the Guitartown/Conqueroo party at The Dogwood – a once solid Irish pub, now looks like a spiffy LA spa. We walked in on Jon Dee Graham’s set inside, followed by Maxim Ludwig & The Santa Fe Seven outside. They started slowly but really heated up by the closer “C’mon Stacy.” A few songs into Ian Moore’s set it was time to head across the river to Guero’s courtyard on Congress Street to catch Eric Hisaw. Hisaw’s sound mix was flat and his vocals buried, but the bittersweetness of “Tomorrow” still shone through. Up next was a good, if not as-soaring-as-I’ve-seen, set by Monahan’s.
The evening kicked off with Brent Amaker & The Rodeo at Velveeta. A combo of 50’s tv cowboy, Johnny Cash solemnity, and country music bad-ass cliches made for a hoot of a show. The burlesque interlude and cover of Kraftwerk’s “Pocket Calculator” only added to the absurdity and entertainment.
One of the benefits of the short sets at SXSW – which some complain about but I enjoy for the potential bursts of blistering musical transcendence – is the ability to hit shows listed at half hour intervals. So it was off to Olin & The Moon at Black & Tan and then back again to Velveeta for Otis Gibbs. I’d never seen Gibbs before but he hit me as important a political folk artist as we have today. The songs resonated soundly with our anxious times. Highly impressed.
Esther’s Follies is an odd place. Tropical fish wall paintings and stage seating – it looks more like magician time. Instead it was Telegraph Canyon. Not better than last year, but their blend of jangly country band and majestic pop act is an wonderful mix and left me eager for their upcoming release. With the goal of closing the night with These United States – on the far side of downtown – and the effects of too much beer and bourbon, we staged the trek with a stop at Antone’s for The Greenhornes. I’d forgotten what an odd, endearing, and rocking act they are. And Antone’s wasn’t too packed. I have too many memories of being a sardine there. These United States are a great live band and they didn’t disappoint. No head in the bass drum singing this time, but Jesse Elliott’s intense performance – almost – kept all our eyelids all the way up…
Thursday. Over the years we’ve come to spend an afternoon – even two – at Jovita’s for Twangfest. The performance spaces are great, the crowds relaxed, and the food tasty. This year, zoning problems with the new, larger stage (unfortunately now positioned in the parking lot instead of the back deck) forced all the performances inside. Viva Voce kicked off our afternoon, and although I found the swing between bombastic rock and schmaltz jarring, it was overall a great set. Strand of Oaks followed with an amiable lulling-rocking performance. But the band that blew me away were Ha Ha Tonka. The name makes me cringe. But their gospel-tinged bluegrass has swung me before and did so again. I’d just forgotten. Songs from their upcoming Bloodshot album, “Death Of A Decade,” sounded especially good. Great Lake Swimmers finished off our Jovita’s stint. The addition of violin since last time I’d seen them swayed my traveling companions but didn’t bump the radar much for me. Off to Sam’s Town Point. Way off festival. The whole line-up looked great but we went early to hit Tex Smith and Leatherbag. Sketchy location in all the best ways, unfortunately light crowd. We only caught the last half of Smith’s trad act which fit perfectly with the locale. I’m not sure Leatherbag will ever exceed my first live impression at The Red Scoot Inn a few years back – plaintive country quietude – but the VU-like full-band-rocking version is a beautiful but different beast.
Thursday eve started at Klub Krucial, a horrible space that looks more like a cell block than a concert venue. But Matthew & The Atlas magically transformed the place with a delicate tone and the gentlest folk harmonies – more beautiful than the recorded material I’d heard suggested. I was really looking forward to seeing King Creosote next. I don’t know if I was a bit disappointed that KC and band (Kid Canaveral playing back-up) didn’t play a “win-the crowd-over” set or happier that they played it more like a house party for friends. Probably happier… Next, Or, The Whale closed out their set with a raucous version of “Call and Response” joined by Olin & The Moon and audience members on stage. Then, on to Jason Isbell at Swan Dive. Way too packed. Way too hot. Why I hate 6th Street and vicinity. The new songs sounded awfully good though, especially “Alabama Pines.” Next, Red 7 for Slim Cessna. Sorry. Second time seeing them and still don’t get it live… Caught a few songs by Thee Oh Sees out on the patio and was really enjoying John Dwyer’s surfer dude/Lux Interior-crossed assault until my old-man-crabbiness couldn’t handle the pushing-smoking-hipster onslaught induced claustrophobia… But the night-closing, last few songs by The Thrift Store Cowboys on the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden set every thing right.
Tomorrow: Friday and Saturday
(photos by okpete)