Finally hitting the streets of Austin for the sprawling South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival is a relief of sorts, because the machinery of fun is finally set into motion. One may have a plan, or a schedule, and of course that just gets thrown out the window once the music starts flowing from all directions.
We tried an experiment of sorts on our first full day of SXSW: we thought we’d stick in one general place and see what would come to us. We chose a two-or-three block area along the city’s West Sixth Street, a decent distance away from the epicenter of madness closer to downtown. An open-air club called the Dogwood and its next door neighbor, the Molotov, served as our ground zero for Wednesday music, with a side trip to the great Waterloo Records in-store (actually outdoors) stage a block or so away.
The Austin-based soul singer Nakia (yeah, the Team Cee Lo guy from the first season of “The Voice”) was not a bad way to start the day. Wheeling through some horn-drenched soul, he drew an enthralled crowd off the street who appreciated his histrionics. Nakia has a wonderful, soulful style and we thought his was going to be the best voice we’d hear all day. We were wrong.
Then came the full-frontal rock and roll onslaught of Michael Des Barres, the actor/singer who fronted Power Station for a while back in the 1980s. Des Barres is an old-school rock guy. As he explained to us, “The best rock is below-the-waist music,” says Des Barres. “Plain and simple, rock and roll is a synonym for f***ing. It’s not a synonym for meditation … it has to get your body moving and your fluids flowing.”
And that he did, with a crack Austin pickup band that Des Barres admitted he had rehearsed with only once before. Rolling in to “Carnaby Street,” his rock manifesto and title track for his latest album, the Marquis blew our hair back with a short but intense (and loud!) set.
It all rolled to a stop with Des Barres’ own “My Baby Saved My Ass,” mixed into a medley with “I Don’t Need No Doctor,” and a tantalizing taste of “Get It On (Bang A Gong)” done up Power Station style. Des Barres made good on his promise: his set hit hard below the belt and for the record, our ears are still ringing.
Upon strolling next door to the Dogwood, we encountered the great Texas singer/songwriter Billy Joe Shaver on the sidewalk. Billy Joe, carrying his University of Texas tote bag with god knows what inside, said he was going to push up his short set to fill in for the scheduled act who was stuck in traffic.
Lucky us. Billy Joe’s set was nothing but classic: kicking off with “Heart of Texas,” he then rolled into “Georgia On A Fast Train” then slowed it down a bit with “Honky Tonk Heroes.” With the audience in the palm of his three-fingered right hand, Shaver unleashed the gorgeous “Live Forever” before ending on a up note with “Old Chunk of Coal” and the singalong “Try and Try Again.”
Billy Joe’s an American songwriting treasure; at age 73, he’s in the twilight of his epic career so catch this great performer live if you get a chance.
We also liked a raucous country rock unit, American Aquarium, out of Raleigh, North Carolina. They had a nice throwback sound reminiscent of early Steve Earle, or the Gin Blossoms. We couldn’t pick out any of their song titles but it all went down as smoothly as the day’s third-through-fifth beers.
Then, back to the Molotov for a surprise: a pop-up set by the great Raul Malo, frontman for the newly revitalized band The Mavericks. Raul told us he’s going to play with the Mavericks today (Thursday) and Friday in Austin, but his little set at the Molotov consisted of some old rock covers designed to showcase his utterly out-of-this world voice.
He rocked “Shake, Rattle and Roll” then put a velvety texture on the evening with a beautiful take on Roy Orbison’s “Blue Bayou.” A few songs later, he was off into the night – and we are going to try really hard to catch The Mavericks, who incidentally have a great new album, In Time.
It was fairly jarring to step over to the Waterloo Records stage for an overcrowded performance by the rap act Macklemore and Ryan Lewis, currently riding the hit “Thrift Shop.” Starting 15 minutes late, the rappers entered to the ponderous “Thus Spoke Zarathustra/2001 A Space Odyssey/Elvis” intro.
Macklemore mumbled a few unintelligible words and then the sound system blew. After a few minutes delay, they came back and said “let’s pretend this never happened. Should we start the show over?” Oh, please do.
So they start over and stumble through their first tune which received less than enthusiastic response. With their 45-minute allotment quickly draining, they went to their smash “Thrift Shop.” Halfway through a trip to Goodwill, the sound system blew again and the enormous crowd that had been standing in the hot sun in the parking lot, on the street, across the street, on top of buildings and anyplace else they could find, were restless and fed up.
Soon as the hit was over most of the crowd dispersed. On the way out, one guy said it best: “I can’t get those 25 minutes back.”