About 8 a.m. Wednesday morning, fully caffeinated, two colleagues and I hopped into a rented Chevy Impala and began the long journey to Austin, Texas, for the annual South By Southwest Music Festival.
This is was my sixth trip to Austin in the past eight years, but this year there was one change in the scenery: Some boldly crazy political billboards. First we saw George W. Bush smiling down at us, posed next to the question: "Miss me yet?" That one we'd heard about. The next one took us by surprise: A glowering portrait of President Obama next to the enormous allegation: SOCIALIST BY CONDUCT.
Welcome to Texas!
Austin, of course, is a different story.
"This Austin isht is crazy. Kinda like an interracial freaknick!" — Atlantic Monthly writer Ta-Nehisi Coates, a personal fave, tweeted from outdoor amphitheatre Stubbs, apparently experiencing SXSW for the first time. And, at SXSW, the freaks don't just come out at night. They're on the roam 24-7.
By the time we got into town, got settled into our respective temporary abodes, and had Mexican food and margaritas on the outdoor deck of one of probably hundreds of Austin haunts that offer such sustenance, the opening night of the festival was half over.
But we still got off to a pretty good start.
My experience of SXSW has been that the artists I end up seeing tend to fit into four categories: 1. Memphis artists we're there, in part, to cover. 2. Emerging bands that are the purpose of a festival meant to be primarily and industry showcase. 3. The comfort food of established favorites. 4. Acts you stumble upon by accident or while waiting for something else.
Squeezing into a jam-packed Stubb's sometime after 10:30, we caught the last few songs from Smith Westerns, a young Chicago rock band whose profile has exploded with the recent release of their second album for Oxford, Mississippi's Fat Possum label and an avalanche of curiously good press. The record had eluded me for weeks, despite several attempts to figure out what the fuss was about. And, live, I continued to shrug — the band's mid-tempo rock coming off as rather basic and indistinct.
But the reason I'd made Stubb's my starting point was an 11:15 showcase by Raphael Saadiq, the former frontman for ’90s R&B greats Tony Toni Tone who has only increased his stature over a decade of solo work and collaborations as our finest practitioner of vintage soul styles.
Saadiq's best music evokes artists such as Al Green, Marvin Gaye, and Smokey Robinson, but his forthcoming album, Stone Rollin' (due in May), is something of a departure, and Saadiq was in Austin to preview his new sound. Perhaps taking a cue from the crossover success of scenemates such as Janelle Monae, Cee-Lo, and Outkast's Andre Benjamin, Saadiq is now experimenting with a modish, rock-influenced sound. In style and fashion, he and his five-piece band and dual back-up singer/dancers attempted to evoke a vision of 1965 in which James Brown and the Beatles morph into one.
This sound is louder, spikier, and more frenetic than Saadiq's past work, and, to my disappointment, doesn't seem to show off his voice or impeccable sense of groove nearly as well as his more straight-soul work. But the performance was spirited, with Saadiq himself strapping on a guitar at times and commanding the stage. I suspect this new material may settle in better on record. Saadiq bookended his set with the new stuff, going R&B with a medley of material from his great 2008 album The Way I See It in between.
We attempted to end the night with Surfer Blood, a terrific Florida guitar-band whose 2010 debut, Astro Coast, seems to be a platform for bigger and better things. But when we showed up late at the Beauty Bar Palm Door for their scheduled 1 a.m. set, they were running even later, a victim of technical problems with the venue's power. When the band finally got going, the sound died three-quarters into their first song and they were forced to call it quits. They've got more shows scheduled and we hope to find them in better form.
On tap for Thursday: Meeting up with hard-touring locals the North Mississippi Allstars and trying to squeeze into a sure-to-be-packed performance from TV on the Radio.