I decided early on that the real action at Austin’s South by Southwest was happening on the floor of the stage. Not only can you spot exciting cowboy boots of many colors, you can also see the quick two step required to maneuver guitar and piano pedals. The singers kneel, dance, and tap their heels. Beers and other beverages litter the stage. Hastily wrapped cables are tangled over Oriental carpets. In addition to the odd, lovely, and strange festival snapshots, I can now add band members’ feet to my repertoire of South by Southwest subjects.
One of the beautiful things about the annual Austin festival is that there is music to be found anywhere – in grocery stores and coffee shops, as well as the official showcases. It is hard to know where you will find gold. I caught several members of beloved Texan country band, The Flatlanders, at El Mercado Mexican restaurant on an otherwise quiet Monday night. Half of the restaurant was eating Tex-Mex and enjoying margaritas, by all appearances oblivious to the legendary musicians playing in the back room. But the crowd in-the-know was singing along to every song, enthusiastically cheering every harmonica and mandolin solo.
My band played in a guitar shop country showcase after introducing ourselves there a few days before. We met a hound dog named Pierre who loved the harmonica and took a fancy to my solos. We caught a set from Wil Cope: his easygoing style calls to mind an indie Townes Van Zandt. Afterward, we got Mexican fruit cups sprinkled with cayenne pepper and walked toward Sixth Street to see some of the big ol’ (free) sponsored showcase and, on the way, enjoyed a full tasting menu of eccentric music personalities and street buskers. We walked by what looked like roller derby practice accompanied by a live band.
Jonny Fritz, wearing a handmade leather guitar strap and a Budweiser jacket, stood solo on the stage recounting intimate stories of love on the road and dogs in various stages of captivity. I have been listening to his new album, Dad Country, on repeat. The pedal steel guitar, shaky, earnest vocals and plebian lyrics combine to make a completely refreshing and accessible mix.
We caught Robert Ellis (also styling a Jonny Fritz-style guitar strap), a songwriter who taps into his Lone Star State heritage for lyrical fodder. He played guitar ardently and with beautiful musicianship, moseying between soft rock and free jazz-inspired five-minute solos. His band was ready for anything he threw at them, from slow country ballads to breakneck speed bluegrass foot-stompers.
We stumbled into an Ava Luna show. Their soulful melodies are punctuated by little rhythmic yelps, like Siouxsie and the Banshees mixed with art house rock and old-time soul. The vocal leads were traded among the band members; the two female singers have quick, urgent harmonies and demanding voices. The crowd pressed against the stage at the Longbranch Inn to hear them, drawn by the band’s strange but altogether danceable tunes.
Friday night of the festival, we took a bus that wound through residential streets, avoiding garbage cans and mailboxes, all the way to the end of the line, where we arrived at Sam’s Town Point on the southern edge of town. Over the doorway of the establishment reads a sign: FRIENDS ARE THE BEST PART OF LIFE. Ramsay Midwood, a singer and organizer for the evening, inexplicably brought a fog machine and rotating disco lights to accompany an evening of homespun country, folk, and rock. A Nashville country-soul outfit, Banditos, were joined (briefly) onstage by a parrot. The parrot, named Harley, was, with his owner and clearly a regular at the joint. The bird was quiet, as if respectful of the music, and remarkably patient about being passed around. Harley’s owner dropped several bills into the tip jar and told Mary, the impassioned singer on stage, that her singing had made him cry. (The same patron later requested Janis Joplin – a weird song choice, but one I am sure the band could have pulled off with aplomb.) Promised Land Sound took the stage and played straight-ahead, Allman Brothers Band harmonies – garage-rock with country twang.
We met the acoustic duo Wildwood and invited them to play a backyard show we helped put together, and serendipitously connected with Actual Wolf and John Mark Nelson. We heard several local Austin acoustic acts who filled the space with lyrical tales of heartbreak, Minnesota, and Southern California. The day began with an uncertain forecast calling for hail and rain. We took solace in the grilled cheese bar and made a little music, sharing some acoustic road songs. There were no amps to mess around with, no cables to untangle. So for us, South by Southwest finished quietly with melodious harmonies and a BB gun propped up on the porch.
California native Chloe Nelson is an art historian and musician moonlighting as a curator of Americana. She’ll be sending in photo-essays from time to time for a Road Songs series on the mnartists blog as she drives across the country, harmonizing and honky-tonking in country outfit Tanbark. She tweets @chloefnelson. All photos taken by the author.