I normally advise Americana-loving friends who enquire about sxsw simply to visit Austin at any time of the year and check out venues like the Broken Spoke or the Saxon Pub to get the authentic Austin feel. You’ll be sure to see the likes of Jon Dee Graham, William Harries Graham, Bob Schneider, Darden Smith, James McMurtry and other such stalwarts of the scene. But there are certain sxsw American events that are unique to that week and are not to be missed.
The Yard Dog Gallery on South Congress has a yard at the back which is covered by a gazebo during sxsw and it is really worth spending a whole afternoon there, because the music is invariably top notch and the audience respectful and very much “up for it”. A common characteristic of all the places I shall describe is the superhuman amount of alcohol consumed. I’m by no means teetotal but I tell you, the amount these guys put away is mind-boggling. Nursing a three dollar local IPA, I was hugely entertained by a highly-wired Austin Lucas (whose Alone In Memphis always brings a lump to the throat), who also duetted with Mara Connor.
After that, the place was trashed by an incredible band from Philadelphia called Low Cut Connie, whose singer Adam Weiner spent most of his time leaping on and off his piano and into the audience, while his band crouched and prowled around him. Not since the Jim Jones Revue at the Mean Eyed Cat has such a seedy and dangerous boogie groove been heard in Austin. Could that be topped? Oh yes, with the supercharged political punk of Lee Bains III and the Glory Fires, music at its most primal and at the same time its most intelligent.
There’s much anguish in Austin as the quaint out of town venues are gradually being knocked down to make way for condos. Such is the fate of Maria’s Taco Express, so I made a pilgrimage to sip a frozen Margarita and enjoy the Mastersons, a duo that keeps getting better and better.
Not directly Americana but doubtless of interest to AUK readers was a slightly hung-over show by Grandaddy at Waterloo Records. This legendary store holds free outside events that are becoming ever more ambitious. At the same spot, Robyn Hitchcock charmed the assembled Anglophiles with his partner Emma Swift and Austin’s Spoon caused consternation as the surrounding roads were blocked by the crowds swarming to see them. Jason Lytle appeared again at Easy Tiger in a supergroup assembled to celebrate Bella Union’s twentieth anniversary. Midlake were joined by Lytle, and Travis’s Fran Healey for a joyful run through of their various hits plus some new songs too.
One of the few Americana showcases taking place in a central venue was that of New West records, a label with an enviable roster of talent. Laying out their wares were the Secret Sisters (how must they feel now that sweet-voiced duos have become such an overcrowded market?) and Sara Watkins (slightly troubled by intermittent power cuts). Andrew Combs caused confusion – at least to me – by performing with Cale Tyson’s backing band (see below). Some members of the Deslondes used to be in Hurray For The Riff Raff and continue to pursue that rootsy direction with skill and energy. HFRR, meanwhile, have long since moved on from Americana showcases and were displaying their new political indie-rock direction at bigger events all over the city. The much-anticipated Aaron Lee Tasjan started on a tremendous high but rapidly declined into a set of bafflingly bland material that belied his flamboyant image.
The Americana highlight of my sxsw is undoubtedly Saturday’s annual Brooklyn Country Cantina extravaganza at Licha’s, curated by “Bug” Jennings of the Defibulators. This exhausting succession of 25 artists (count them) lasts from 11 am to 11 pm over two stages and always throws up surprises and exciting moments. Cale Tyson and his (other) band brought things to a rousing climax (apparently he has different bands for different regions) but for me the highlight of the day, and indeed the whole festival, was a highly-emotional and deeply affecting twenty-minute set from Nashville’s Langhorne Slim. They don’t come better.
All photographs by Paul Dominy