The crack of 2 p.m. comes early at South By Southwest. As that hour dawned this past Thursday, Raleigh’s American Aquarium was approaching the halfway point of its South By Southwest marathon – commencing the fifth of 11 shows they’d play over a three-day stretch.
“Thank y’all for coming out so…early,” frontman BJ barham rasped. “Early for South By, anyway.”
That was the first of three shows American Aquarium played on Thursday, and Barham had to struggle a bit. But like his beloved NC State Wolfpack basketball team (Sweet 16!), he soldiered on and pulled it off. All the same, I was glad I’d done my conversing with him the night before.
South By Southwest has changed immeasurably over the years. It used to be a fun little clambake where a few thousand people came into town to hear a few hundred bands in a few dozen clubs. Add at least one zero to the end of all of those numbers, and that approximates its scale circa 2015.
Twenty-eight years on, South By Southwest has sprawled and metastasized so much that you can’t even put precise figures on the music festival anymore. With all the “unofficial” showcases going on all over town – parties sponsored by everyone from cooking maven Rachael Ray to Triangle-based Blurt magazine – there’s enough madness to make the NCAA basketball tournament look comparatively staid.
It’s fun, and also grueling for the bands. That death-march odyssey American Aquarium put in was pretty typical. Nevertheless, most everyone I spoke to was remarkably cheerful about the whole thing, including the fact that the pay scale for a lot of it was below minimum wage.
“Yeah, I had an actual paying gig yesterday,” quipped Jon Langford, country-punk icon and leader of Waco Brothers. “Made $24 from the tip jar. Livin’ it up!”
For those of us lucky enough to be faces in the crowd, it’s a phenomenal experience where you can sample a huge range of music from all over. I saw everything from the theatrical art-rock of The Residents to Korean folk duo [su:m] to a bluegrass version of The Who’s “Tommy” (!), and it was fantastic.
South By Southwest generates a droning roar throughout downtown Austin, but one of the best sets I saw all week was also one of the quietest. Mandolin Orange, the Chapel Hill duo of Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, conjured up a sense of back-porch calm that felt like being in the eye of a hurricane. They held a sizable crowd pretty much spellbound – a good omen for their upcoming album “Such Jubilee,” due out in May.
At a nearby club, I happened upon a young Scottish group called United Fruit, whose hammer-of-the-gods pounding felt like being pummeled (but in a good way, even though my ears are still ringing). Soon afterward, I heard the very fine Canadian singer Lucette give an unexpected taste of The Old North State with a lovely version of “Oh My Sweet Carolina” – one of several Ryan Adams/Whiskeytown covers I heard over the week. An Austin band called Harvest Thieves also did right by “Hard Luck Story.”
Seeing the rising electronic-music star Robert DeLong at work onstage was like watching someone assemble a mixtape in front of a crowd (a more kinetic experience than you’d expect), and the London pop duo Ting Tings was even more likable live than on-record. Toronto’s Alvvays also played very fine deadpan pop, with singer Molly Rankin throwing out my favorite between-song soundbite of the week: “Come on, participate! I know you’re all drunk! We are, too!”
Dusty-voiced singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham brought along a band that was both casual and as super-precise as anything I’ve heard in recent memory. The Residents’ multi-media extravaganza “Shadowland” was fascinatingly strange. As for Australia’s much-buzzed Courtney Barnett, I found her set excellent if not quite up to the hype.
Still, two shows stood out well above all else. The silver medalist was the aforementioned bluegrass “Tommy,” performed by a Missouri quintet called Hillbenders. I half-expected a “Pickin’ On”-style gimmick, but it was a phenomenal and brilliantly executed homage to the classic rock opera. It was amusing to see how they replicated various flourishes from the original with bluegrass instrumentation – slide Dobro riffs standing in for French horn, choked mandolin strums for drum beats – but it transcended novelty, thanks to frontman Nolan Lawrence’s vocals.
Hillbenders will play “Tommy” in Raleigh on April 18 as part of the Cuegrass Festival, and I cannot recommend this highly enough. I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re in Raleigh for IBMA this fall, too.
As for this year’s gold-medal winner, that was the tribute to Doug Sahm, late great leader of Sir Douglas and Texas Tornados, and one of the Lone Star State’s all-time best artists. A country-soul cat from my old hometown of San Antonio, Sahm pretty much did every kind of roots music there is over the course of his career. That was in evidence at the show, which covered a range from straight-up Tejano to blues to the faux-British Invasion 1960s-vintage hits of Sahm’s original quintet. “Mendocino,” “Crossroads,” “Hey Baby Que Paso” and all the rest were fantastic, served up by a wide range of pals and peers from Austin and beyond -- Steve Earle, Charlie Sexton, even ’60s hitmaker Roy Head (who punctuated his 1965 hit “Treat Her Right” with microphone swings that Roger Daltrey himself would have admired).
By night’s end, close to 50 musicians were onstage playing the Sir Douglas Quintet signature “She’s About a Mover,” backed up by audience sing-along. I don’t think you had to be a San Antonio native to find it incredibly moving, and beautiful. It was spectacular, and a reminder of why Austin might be the best place on earth for a music festival like South By Southwest.