After two weeks, three states, hundreds of dollars passed back and forth over the craps tables in New Orleans and Biloxi, five thousand words devoted to other projects, and millions of brain cells lost to the demon alcohol the edges of memory for this event have softened. I told you I’d lose the thread, but thankfully I keep notes. For this section I’m pivoting from the first to the second point of view. It’s probably best to get some distance from the protagonist.
It is Saturday, March 21st and the South by Southwest festival is in full swing. You’re just entering your fourth decade gleefully ignorant to the life lessons that would be painfully evident to any other person. The sky is gray, mist alternates with soft rain and though your body aches from youthful hedonism, lack of sleep and poor diet your spirit remains high. You’ve already missed many acts morning and if you don’t get that useless sod of a photographer moving, and quick, you’ll be missing another. You throw a double vodka Redbulls into his belly and hail a cab.
Of course the streets are slow going and you arrive across town at the Continental Club just in time to miss Bobby Bare Jr. The photographer shrugs his shoulders, ask “What?” You blame traffic to preserve the friendship. It makes little difference though as you spy Mojo Nixon out in front of the club. Shaking the hand of a man you’d only known by voice over radio for years was well worth the loss. Dressed outrageously and holding court before the Club, Mojo Nixon was all smiles and jokes, a quick mind and dirty mouth.
Christopher Paul Stelling, (a name you’ll become more familiar with later) sings a catchy little tune called “Fathers and Sons.” It’s an ode to the love and competition between generations of men, and was perhaps the perfect private anthem for McMurtry to take stage. Much like Bobby Bare Jr. before him, James McMurtry has come up in the shadow of a legend. His trad country meets electric evil Texas sound is populated by the same type of characters his old man writes about. He’s done alright for himself, but like Lilly Hiatt or Roseann Cash there’s always that thought of lineage in the back of the listener’s mind. It does a disservice to both the artist and audience.
The Club has a stamped tin ceiling, recreating a time you never lived through but believe in. There was little of that though, time, and through the crowd you push out and into a hip little district of Austin off the main drag that carries with it the knowledge of both age and experience. Across the street, some short set was caught by the young men of Surfer Blood. It was fine enough in its own right, a group with a catchy name playing catchy, somewhat easily forgettable tunes. It was standing room only, lots of talk and little action, entertainment for the whole family. It was fine but with so much going on it’s hard to justify wasting time on children.
Back into town and you were supposed to meet up with Ms. Hiatt for an interview, but mostly to flirt. You were supposed to catch Cale Tyson, there was something else in the mix somewhere. Joe Fletcher, was it? Lord knows Houndmouth wasn’t going to let a lil’ hardprint gone digi-press like No Depression in. John Moreland? Maybe it was Luke Bell? Makes little difference, what can you do? The base of operations, Esther’s Follies, was hosting a Ted Talk, and so you was sucked into a party with the lowest common denominator.
Over to the Licha’s Cantina’s showcase hosted by Brooklyn Brewery you were subjected to a little piece of the Lord. Lou Reed famously sang, “It’s either the best or it’s the worst. Since I don’t have to choose I guess I won’t.” Nothing could be closer to the truth. Have a taste of Brooklyn, then. Watch these kids down in Texas when they’re out of their element. Their mustaches are common-place, their eccentricities run-of-the-mill. They seem oddly…normal.
Amidst all the talks of MTA stops, dumb haircuts, and geo-politics one found perhaps the best line up of the whole weekend. No sooner had you both sat down to rest tired feet than a bit of the future come to surface in the periphery. There’s a band out of Denver named after a Walt Whitman lyric called the Yawpers (Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass) who in the finest tradition of anarcho-folk generates incredibly powerful noise out of acoustic instrumentation. Ol’ boy Nate Cook comes over like a bit of good luck during hard times. You chew the fat industry like and with him comes an introduction to his producer, Johnny Hickman. Better known by the imitable leads to come up through the 90’s on tracks like “Low,” and “Teen Angst,” Johnny didn’t look a day over 30. It was all smiles, and “Yeah, David’s kind of a dick but he’s my best friend,” as Anthony D’Amato tuned up in the background.
Like a proper starving artist D’Amato is as thin as a pencil stroke. Alone on the stage he is naked before the crowd, he strums the guitar sparingly, but when his mouth opens he sings with a wealth of spirit from a diaphragm better suited to the waste line of an Italian tenor, not his lean frame. His music is the type of introspective, self-depreciating first person point of view song-writing first popularized a decade and a half ago by Connor Oberst. It’s been done to death, and poorly by legions since then, but D’Amato’s music manages to rise above the glut of impersonators.
Exiting the surprisingly clean Licha’s restroom, wipe that felony from your face and act normal in case the police happen by. Go stand out in the rain for all the good times where everybody’s hopelessly miserable. There will be relief; it comes in the form of Christopher Paul Stelling. Freshly signed to Anti- and featuring the most deft right hand since (God rest his Soul) Earl Scruggs, C.P. turns six strings stretched across a hollow box into a thing of glory. You’ve seen him up at Newport. You’ve seen him down in Savannah. [Stopover] But you’ve never seen that boy play with such abandon as he did during his eighth gig of the week at SXSW. Propped before one of the finer publications, an Acoustic Guitar magazine banner, he finger picked that git-fiddle like a kid out playing in the rain. Slinging the instrument over his shoulder and playing it behind his back at a speed practiced hands would be in awe of while singing to bring down the rafters Stelling was an other-worldly force. Stopping only for tokes and to let the audience catch their breath the generally non-plussed NYC crowd became like side characters in a Victorian novel, beside themselves in silent appreciation of the protagonist. In this age of imitation, worry none ye, there is real talent yet.
When the last notes die you find yourself at the bar with Johnny Hickman drinking to the success of a record deal offered to a certain musician. Trading goes of whisky and dirty jokes you spot an object of desire in the face of violinist Halli Anderson as the Asheville, Yankeelina group River Whyless take stage. There’s a soft spot in your heart for fiddle players, probably has something to do with the instrument’s tie to Satan. Without that shrill fiddle line cutting melody high above the register only to dive back down and support the rhythm you wonder if there would be much at all to the River Whyless. And that voice! That face! Their music is fine by its own merits, but something about Anderson’s inclusion adds a dimension that couldn’t be captured by the stale formula of well-fed white guys with guitars.
You watch enraptured, your mind producing romantic plot lines that don’t have a hope in hell of ever coming true until their set breaks and your senses come to. Out front Nick Loss-Eaton of Leland Sundries is playing a solo set. If you know anything about the musician, you’d know how very close he came to death a short while ago. But he isn’t dead. He’s alive and singing! Nick banters back and forth with the crowd, drawing the audience in and using that attention to his advantage while carrying out every duty of the band by himself.
Up next the oddity that is Tall Tall Trees is put on display. You’d have to see it to understand completely, and writing will do it little justice, but Mike Savino is taking the concept of the banjo as a percussion instrument to new levels. He attracted what might have been the largest crowd of the night, slapping the goat-skin with a mallet and utilizing effects pedals to loop the rhythm and percussion up into a tightly wound machine. As should be expected, it takes his songs a moment to set up, but when his sly lyrics and staccato delivery rise above the sonic miasma of his music it’s a sight to behold and a sound to drink in. Strange but endearing, it’s the perfect performance for anyone who named themselves after a Roger Miller song.
Dang me if the good luck didn’t evaporate the second night. You wonder away from Licha’s to find yourself in the company of Agosto, a Spanish rock-pop group and the Ukelady, Hillie Lyman. The parties have all passed you by, and that friend of a friend who swore you could crash at her place hadn’t answered her phone all weekend. Last call issues up. You take your time not wanting it all to end because there’s nowhere left to go but back to the car. Some short hours later you awake crick-necked so the photographer who’s only managed to take several dozen photos can be dropped off back at the airport.
There’s normal people things to be done on Monday at the job where you’re expected to be a professional. There’s coffee there, in the break room, which you hover over because the thought of staring vacantly into the dull blue glow of that computer screen for however many more hours makes you feel like you never should have cut your hair and quit playing the bars. The suits come in, all good natured banter about television plot lines and the exploits of a suburban weekend with the wife and kids. One asks how your weekend went. “Nothing crazy.” You reply with a confident smile, before exiting to hide in another, more solitary part of the office.
In case you missed it, here’s Part I of this reflection.