South by Southwest is, for me, an overlaying of the unfamiliar over the familiar. I lived in Austin, Texas, for about a year in my childhood and grew up four hours northwest (not that far by Texas standards) in Abilene. To me, the sun is brighter in Texas, the air clearer, the light contrasts sharper. Austin is old and stately and also trendy and cosmopolitan. Radical liberal citizens live there and so do gerrymandering Texas Republicans.
There is no doubt that the place lives up to its slogan as Live Music Capital of the World — at least for a week in March, when the town's plebian class of musicians triples, quadruples, quin-fucking-tuples (who even knows?) as bands from around the world descend upon the place like crows.
Along with this murder of plumaged musicians come managers, publicists, label representatives, concert promoters, photographers, journalists and bloggers. And, of course, thrill-seeking music fans, with badges and without.
SXSW turns the Austin of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Texas cookin' and Ann Richards — the town I know — into a temporary Grand Bazaar of the music industry.
Had my life followed the trajectory I dreamed of in high school, I'd be hauling an amp into the back of a bar to play for 13 strangers along with the rest of 'em. Instead, I'm a badge-carrying observer sent to monitor, as best as possible, the exploits of musicians from a town far to the north and with no music-industry culture to speak of.
How did Kansas City fare in Austin this year? Ask the bands that went. I can tell you only what I saw.
On the almost-famous end of the maypole were the Republic Tigers, who, as promised, were treated like rock stars by their label keepers from Chop Shop Records: television music consultant Alex Patsavas and label president John Rubeli, who were at every Tigers event, from the shows to the blog interviews, talking to everyone and anyone they came across. Tireless, these two.
The band still had to shlep its own equipment but at least had help from Record Bar soundman and fellow KC musician Dave Gaumé, who made sure that when the group played its Saturday afternoon Atlantic Records party in front of mad industry types, including TV personalities Joe Levy and Matt Pinfield, the band sounded downright holy.
On the still-struggling-for-fame-at-home end was Bacon Shoe, dishing out gross-out lyrics and twisted, squelchy beats between the Roman Numerals and the Architects at the Anodyne Records showcase on Thursday afternoon then playing at 8 p.m. the next day at a non-SXSW venue. As with all local acts, it's always interesting to see people react to the Shoe — specifically, to hype man 'Toine's whirling, trash-can-humping dance moves and to the fresh-cooked bacon dished out by Mr. Ruggles. At the aforementioned nonvenue, all the bacon got eaten by those in attendance, and a T-shirt was sold besides.
Two (not new) local acts arrived at the buffet carrying big, juicy steaks of superior, refined musicianship: the Life and Times and the Wilders.
Growing from the local post-hardcore scene as a shoot from the stump of Shiner, the three-piece TLAT produces dark cliffs of melodic guitar noise, drum avalanches and gruff vocals. The band closed out the Anodyne showcase with a set that contained many new songs and sounded transcendent. The group has become more intense over the years but also more accessible in terms of songcraft.
A few hours after TLAT, I found myself pressed close to a railing a few feet from the Wilders, onstage at the Ale House, their fiddle, dobro, guitar and upright bass working like parts of a steam engine under the group's boisterous charm and twangy vocals. Amid all the uninspired and uninspiring 25-year-old indie rockers at the festival, it was great to see something authentically American and full of heart and also not too serious — and know it was from Kansas City.
Soon, the Texas sun is gonna get ugly and awful, and the industry is going to continue to boil with anxiety as everyone struggles to sell the music. Who knows what SXSW — much less the KC scene — will look like by next March? Until then, see you at the show.