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by Bill Frater

It's been four years since my last trip to the South By Southwest Music Conference or “South By” as the locals call it. I was pretty excited about it and had done much online research about upcoming showcases and parties. It's always held in Austin, TX, in March, before it gets too hot. Austin is a very hip and liberal town, a city of blue surrounded by a state of red. The people are uniformly friendly and courteous and put up with the influx of out-of-towners.

This was SXSW's 20th anniversary and their largest yet. I read that they sold 8 to 10 thousand “laminates”, which are the little dog collars that registrants must wear for preferential entrance to the clubs. The original idea of SXSW was to showcase and promote new and upcoming artists, while also having daily music industry panel speakers and discussions. My guess is because of South By's recent popularity, they sell a huge amount to non-industry regular music fans. It has grown into something akin to a large music festival; only it's held at 400 separate stages, and each band only plays for 40 minutes.

One reason for the huge turnout this year was having Neil Young as the keynote speaker. Jonathan Demme, who directed Neil's new movie Heart Of Gold, was also there, but mostly to support Young as a friend and to answer a few questions about the film. According to SXSW co-director Louis Black, they had always wanted to get Young, but were afraid to ask him. There is something about Neil that crosses generations and garners him a lot of respect. He drew such a huge crowd that they had to use a 2nd ballroom for the overflow crowd who had to watch it on video. Neil said that he had been worried about the interview for months, yet he seemed relaxed and came across as both funny and intelligent. He said, “I'm not a special person” and was mystical without trying to be. When asked about where he gets ideas for songs he said that he wasn't sure where they came from but he made sure he had a comfortable place ready for them when they did come. "When the muse comes, I just get out of the way, I don't edit it. It's the purest form of creativity ... you just have to be there and available."

Neil was not scheduled to play anywhere but the big rumor was that he might join Richie Furay, not a far stretch considering they were both in Buffalo Springfield together some 40 years ago. It made for a long line to get in and a large crowd at Antone's on Thursday night. Richie didn't need Neil to put on a great show. His voice was sounding as young as ever and he was enjoying playing the old tunes as much as we loved hearing them. On one occasion he punched his hand in the air after “Just For Me And You” because he knew that the band had nailed the song. Lots of old Poco and Springfield tunes- “Kind Woman”, “Go And Say Goodbye”, “A Good Feeling To Know” were all there sounding great mixed in with some new songs from his upcoming CD Heartbeat Of Love. He did mention Neil and how they met and how he was honored to sing 3 of the songs that Neil wrote which he then sang. Richie also has an autobiographical book, Pickin' Up the Pieces, due in April.

After Richie's set Antone's emptied out and made some breathing room for a nice set from Stephen Bruton. This started the Americana Music Association's showcase including Radney Foster, Marty Stuart and Hank III closing it out at 1 AM. According to the AMA's Jeff Green, Hank III's punk portion of the show turned into quite a scene with stage diving and fist fights! I interviewed Hank III while I was down there and here's the link to the mp3 of the interview.

The real key to enjoying SXSW is pacing yourself and not trying to do too much. This year I told myself that there were 5 artists that I especially wanted to see, and I only missed one, Big Al Anderson. I just don't have the energy or the patience to run around town to catch everybody.You look for clusters of good artists and you study the day party schedules where you can catch just as many bands, often in more intimate settings. Sugar Hill Records and Harp Magazine had a private party Friday afternoon at Jovita's and Nickel Creek did a loose (yet hot) set in front of maybe 50 people, followed by Scott Miller. Another intimate moment was getting up "early" to catch 6 songs by the Little Willies at Waterloo Records. This is the new swing-jazz-country band featuring Norah Jones and Richard Julian. They were loose and having a good time.This is the stuff that makes the trip worth it.

Austin has really turned into quite the "foodie" town too. Downtown is full of cool and inexpensive little taco, noodle and whatever places. And the more unique, the better the food. From Threadgill's, which is full of memorabilia from the Armadillo World Headquarters, to the Magnolia Cafe where we were waiting for a table next to Austin legend Roxy Erickson. South Congress is full of hip used clothing and folk art stores. And, unlike San Francisco, hip doesn't mean rude.

3rd Coast Music master John Conquest has moved his Not-SXSW party to the new Opal Devine's at Penn Field, way south on South Congress outside on the deck where we caught the only sunshine all week! John booked a strong line-up Thursday afternoon and evening just because people love the guy's enthusiasm. We stuck around for Jimmy LaFave and the great James Talley and John Lilly, both backed by the always-tasteful Bill Kirchen on lead guitar. He also had James Hand, Jo Carol Pierce and Anna Fermin among others.

One of the best bands I saw were the Doc Marshalls who came down to Austin from New York with no SXSW official showcase but nevertheless did a smoking set at Waterloo Ice House Saturday night. Lead singer Nick Beaudoing writes heartfelt original roots songs and then straps on a button accordion and tears up Cajun two-steps with fiddler Mat Kane. Here's a band that could've worked any room in town that night and blown 'em away.

Friday night at the 18th Floor at Capitol Place was No Depression's showcase. The place was a sterile lounge on the top floor of a downtown hotel. I caught the last three acts there, Boston's Sarah Borges, sounding better live that on CD; melodic roots rock with a confident edge. That was followed by Tim O'Reagan, who took awhile to warm up to leading his own band (with Jim Boquist), but they had a clean 60's-folk-rock sound with harmonies that brought up memories of The Byrds, Dylan and even Chad & Jeremy (thanks Jeff Green). O'Reagan has been with the Jayhawks for years and if his live show is any indication, his forthcoming CD on Lost Highway will be awesome. The night ended with local great Bruce Robison, who has a new one coming out soon. As always, Bruce was as comfortable as an old set of cowboy boots.

In the surprise show and gossip area… Lyle Lovett closed The Parish on Friday night, he said he couldn't remember the last time he'd stayed up this late. The upstairs bar was on 6th St which was a zoo on St. Patrick's Day, so the medium-sized room wasn't even full. Rosanne Cash was the surprise guest the next night at Stubb's, it was her fourth show during SXSW. She brought Lyle out to sing "Seven Year Ache" and her dad's "I Got Stripes" to close her show. Steve Earle was around with Allison Moorer, her new husband-produced CD is due in June. The Flaming Lips did a small club surprise gig on Wednesday night. Word is that the ever-expanding Lost Highway will be signing Hayes Carll soon.

More musical highlights… Tres Chicas, Sam Baker, Redd Volkaert & Cindy Cashdollar, Mark Erelli, Rodney Crowell w/Will Kimbrough, Adrienne Young, Steve Wynn, Ericson Holt, James McMurtry, The Gourds, BeauSoleil, Kris Delmhorst, Willie Nile...

Who we missed: Marty Stuart, Gary Bennett, Al Anderson, Jessi Colter, Robyn Ludwick, Tom Russell, Sarah Harmer, Deadstring Brothers, The Resentments, World Party, The Mother Truckers, Neko Case, Hank 3, Radney Foster, Chatam County Line, Kinky Friedman, Garland Jeffries, The Pretenders… oh well, there's always next year.

Big thanks to Rob Bleetstein (RadioioCountry) for the photos. Top to bottom... ROSANNE CASH, LYLE LOVETT with ROSANNE CASH & JOHN LEVENTHAL, NICKEL CREEK at Jovita's, LITTLE WILLIES, SARAH BORGES.

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