SXSW Day 1: Welcome to Texas

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Published March 19, 2009

On Highway 35, the first ‘Welcome to Texas’ sign you see is posted outside DW’s Adult Video. This is a place where everything is done on a grand scale. The radio evangelists were warning about temptation and as I got closer and closer to Austin, I burned with desire—it is Spring Break after all—to see the next big thing at South by Southwest in the Texas heat.

Sixth Street is the epicenter of the festival. It’s closed to traffic and visitors wander from club to club past pizza stalls and street performers. The tattoo parlors stay open until 2am-a nod to fact that people begin to lose their inhibition after midnight. At any given moment you can hear music bursting from half a dozen places at once.  Everything is coming at you—bicycles, rickshaws, people handing out CD’s, bouncers trying to lure you into bars by yelling, “no cover, no cover.”

In this part of the country it’s about more than just music. Barbecue might just be the greatest thing Texas has offered the rest of the union, and there are as many prejudices preceding rib joints as there are about bands.  Before making it to Austin, I visited Taylor, a small town about 30 miles outside town, for a preview. At Louis Mueller’s BAR B Q, three generations of Muellers have been perfecting brisket and ribs. The beef brisket sandwich is justly celebrated, and the sausage is excellent- and it’s all accompanied by a jar of beer. The bands have a lot to live up to.There are so many bands that they’re booked to play all the clubs, but also in parks, tents, ballrooms and alleys. Grizzly Bear affiliates Department of Eagles, for instance, played the 4AD showcase at the Central Presbyterian Church. It was a subdued setting for the eerie, downcast, guitar-driven songs. This was music with misgivings and definitely not meant for dancing—so it was convenient that the audience was seated in pews.

“South By,” as people call it, means different things to different people. Some bands fly in, get the royal treatment, and play their sets live for National Public Radio. Others drive cross-country, crash on friends’ floors just for the chance to play. Haley Bonar is one of the latter. The excellent singer-songwriter made the drive from her home in St. Paul, and she and her band are staying in the apartment of a friend of a friend of a friend, she told me. “It’s old school guerilla style.” Bands will do whatever it takes. She only had one thing she wanted to be sure to do while at South By: “I want to see Devo.”

It’s the 35th Anniversary of Austin City Limits, the television institution that’s hosted everybody from Johnny Cash to David Byrne. I headed there to see Andrew Bird, perhaps the most famous whistler going. It’s very different than the steamy clubs—this is a well-mannered, sit down affair, perfectly suited to Bird’s sophisticated arrangements. Bird’s wry sensibility and self-aware, sardonic lyrics, have made him something of an indie darling. Watching him perform it’s easy to understand why: his songs navigate from smart chamber pop to more heavily textured tracks-at times he samples his own whistling and then whistles over the recording. Playing a set drawn mostly from his new album, Noble Beast, he gives cleverness a good name. He spoke for many of us when he said, “I’m beginning to like Austin more and more.”