Austin's Sixth Street during SXSW

South By Southwest: A Personal Journey


I've kind of grown up with the South By Southwest music festival.

The event began just as I was starting to write record and concert reviews for my college newspaper, and a couple years later, I received press releases about the conference when I began the Pop Stops column at The Star. The conference's legend and scope have grown, and every February and March, I receive dozens of e-mails and press releases from bands, record labels and publicists hoping that, as a member of the music press, I'll be flying to Austin to check out their acts.

This year, I did just that. While the panels and keynotes featuring a variety of names in the industry from publicists whose names I've seen for years to record producers to cult artist-producers like Eric Ambel and Chris Stamey were fascinating, it was the music that really drew me, and I dove into it within hours of touching down at Austin's airport. Over four days, I saw and heard more than 20 bands, including a couple of old favorites (Superdrag, Rasputina and The Smithereens' Pat Dinizio, who was at the convention to look for unsigned bands worthy of a grant he's shepherding), recent favorites (the astoundingly energetic pete and Sugarbomb) and a bunch of unsigned or previously unheard of acts.


I started the week, Wednesday night, at the Lounge Ax-cool of the Red-Eyed Fly for an outdoor stage show by the U2-ish Pale (Woodlands, Texas) and finished it at the Fly at 2 a.m. Sunday with a drink on the bar's couch, as outside another Texas act was setting its instruments on fire. In between, I discovered the dark confines of the Metro, the goth hangout Elysium, the rambling planks of the converted house that hosts Opal Divine's Freehouse, the cool chrome fishbowl of the Iron Cactus (which has great salsa!), the wide hoe-down-ready floor of the home of Texas blues rock, Antones and a dozen more.

My pick of the week? One of our own.


Chicago's OK Go put on a surprisingly tight, fresh, fun show on my first night in town that left me thirsting for the band's debut, due later this spring on Capitol Records. There were a slew of Chicago acts showcasing in Austin, including the Dishes, the Nerves, Cheer-Accident, Chevelle, Slitheryn, Kelly Hogan, the Waco Brothers, and many more, but I'd never run into OK Go back home...and now I'll be looking for them to enjoy more of their Cheap Trick power pop mixed with Weezer retro-synth fun. They wowed the audience not only with their energetic originals, but with crowd-pleasing covers from Elvis Costello, Rick Springfield and a picture perfect duet from the Les Miserables musical.

Other standouts were the harmony pop rock of Dallas' Sugarbomb (who were on the top of my best albums of 2001 list) and Newark, N.J.'s grunge rockers pete, whose manic, charismatic singer played both to the crowd inside the club as well as to the passersby on the street who stopped to peer through the windows at the back of the tiny stage.

New York's ever quirky Rasputina (three girls in corsets playing cellos with an industrial rock beat) put on an entrancingly eerie set and Australia's Pacer 21 showed itself to be a promisingly strong rock band with Foo Fighters overtones.

Bottlerockets, a Missouri band on a Chicago independent label put on a solid country rock set that had attendees lined up outside the gates to get in and Lust Murder Box, an unsigned Austin act showed potential with their mix of industrial beats and gothic rock.

Jon Auer of The Posies

Four nights and nearly two dozen performances later, I was tired, but still thirsting for more. Sunday seemed the appropriate time to close the week with a gospel brunch at the famous Stubbs barbeque house where Better Than Ezra had played earlier in the week. Refreshed and full of barbeque and spirit, I left the classic roadhouse atmosphere of Stubbs wishing to hear even more SXSW showcases.

That will have to wait until next year. But for the next few months, my brain (and suitcase) is packed with a wealth of new music to explore.