Story by Cree McCree
THURSDAY, MARCH 13
I was a SXSW virgin when I hit the ground running on Day 2 in my black denim skirt and cowboy boots. But not for long. Foreplay began at an afternoon party thrown by The Stranger, Seattle’s hip alternative weekly, where I was handed two drink tickets on arrival (score!). Held at the Red-Eyed Fly, it featured the fest’s best BBQ as well as its best freebie: a red flyswatter shaped like an acoustic guitar. Fortified by killer margaritas, I started groovin’ to the Turn-Ons, whose sound was as retro-cool as the lead singer’s raggedy Beatles sweatshirt. These Seattle lads earned the ultimate seal of approval from music-fest icon Beatle Bob, spotted boppin’ his mop-head up front.
Then it was on to Emo’s, where the snaky Tex-Mex cabaret of Calexico inspired me to execute some fancy Flamenco turns. But it was Chris Whitley who busted my cherry at Maggie Mae’s, where he transformed a TimeOut New York schmoozefest into a high-art temple with his battered steel guitar. In an edgy performance as spiky as his newly cropped hair, Whitley riveted the crowd and spurred me into an antiwar dance when he challenged George W. on his own home turf.
When I finally came up for air, I high-tailed it over to Austin Music Hall to catch Jay Farrar. The new solo stuff from the Son Volt frontman and Uncle Tupelo cofounder was good comfort food, but not nearly as compelling as Jeff Tweedy’s recent work with Wilco. More inspiring was the band I stumbled into at the Mercury: Moonraker, a jazzy trip-hop unit with a smoldering chanteuse. My random roll continued at Emo’s Annex with Grand Ulena, who took the concept of the power trio to its conceptual-art extreme. Blissfully sated with GU’s crescendo of false climaxes, I decided to hit the sack early after a day that began with driving through torrential Texas rains.
FRIDAY, MARCH 14
Duly rested, I made my first official appearance at the Austin Convention Center, where I did the trade-show rounds and scored a laminate for the big Spin party at Stubb’s. It was, alas, a bust: lousy BBQ, boring bands, and pricey beer. Much livelier was the “Activism and Protest” artists’ panel, where antiwar vets Wavy Gravy and John Sinclair joined such foot soldiers as John Doe and REM’s Mike Mills. Buoyed by the Dixie Chicks’ refusal to back down from anti-Bush statements despite radio bans, the mood was cautiously optimistic. As Wavy pointed out, “We’ve got millions in the streets now, and the war hasn’t even started.” Tomorrow, many of us in that room would hit the streets demonstrating against the war again.
Meanwhile, I joined HIGH TIMES’ Steve Bloom for a cruise down E. Sixth Street, where we walked out in protest on a lame pop band called Spymob at the Arista party. The Vibe came to our rescue with Maktub, key instigators of the deep-groove Seattle scene, where dozens of post-grunge bands have discovered their inner funk. Still nicely buzzed from a hit off Steve’s pipe, I made a pit stop at my local digs, where I sipped Coppola Rosso on the edge of Cliff Street beneath a molten setting sun. Glorious!
Then it was back to Stubb's for Chan Marshall, a.k.a. Cat Power. The notoriously skittish singer-songwriter greeted us with “don’t get your hopes up” and departed with “sorry”; in between, she mesmerized the crowd with her deliciously dark confessional dirges.
Luck of the draw pulled me into the tribal percussion of Canvas and the wildly theatrical antics of Gogol Bordello, a Slavic gypsy band by way of Mars. My nightcap was Daniel Johnston, the genius outsider artist who turns mental illness into wondrous song. Appearing with a full band in fine fettle, he urged us all to “par-tay” in his own inimitable way at Opal Divine’s Freehouse. Sweet dreams!
SATURDAY, MARCH 14
With Bush’s itchy trigger finger targeting Iraq, over 7,000 Austinites and SXSW-goers gathered at the state capitol building in W’s old backyard to protest the impending war. Texas and US flags flew above a sea of signs proclaiming “Impeach Bush” and “An American for Peace” as we marched down Congress Avenue to the river, drumming and chanting along the way. The ubiquitous Wavy Gravy helped call us to action, then segued to Sixth Street for the perfect post-march bash: the HIGH TIMES party at the Vibe. Back in the outdoor patio, the sky was blue, the air smelled sweet, and the bud was kind. The line for free beer was long-- but flowed swiftly. So did the fleet fingers of headliner Keller Williams, a one-man band who augments acrobatic acoustic guitar with a slew of other instruments created solely with his vocal cords. It was my first time seeing this high-flying artist, who enchanted us all with his mischievous sense of humor and stoner-smart knack for improvising.
Nighttime brought a nearly full moon and a no-brainer agenda: Head west to the Bloodshot Records showcase at Mother Egan’s. It did not disappoint. Mekons godmother Sally Timms opened the show with all the aplomb of an alt-country Marianne Faithfull, trading harmonies with Kelly Hogan and tossing out barbs like hand grenades. Meat Purveyors killed, twanging up Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” in between asking such burning questions as “How can I be so thirsty today when I had so much to drink last night?”
I spent the next couple hours darting back and forth between Mother Egan’s and Opal Divine’s, where kindred spirits like the Silos were holding forth. But it was back to Bloodshot for the rip-roarin’ finale: The Waco Brothers! Living up to the “Mr. Rock’n’Roll” monicker bestowed by wife Sally Timms, Jon Langford drove the bros through a wildass set that sent their boots kicking over their heads and the crowd leaping into the air. They even blessed a couple’s wedding dance on stage—an altogether fitting climax for my virgin SXSW year.
I’ll be back.