Chris Herrington's SXSW Diary: Day One 

Wednesday

Due to various complications getting out of Memphis, Flyer photographer Justin Burks and I were pretty late rolling into Austin Wednesday night for the annual South By Southwest Music Festival. By the time we got checked in to our hotel, registered and credentialed for the festival, and found sustenance in the form of enchiladas and guacamole, it was almost midnight.

There are more Memphis-connected acts playing this year's festival -- perhaps the country's largest annual music-industry showcase of (mostly) emerging artists -- than ever before. But the only Memphis act on the slate for Wednesday night was hip-hop-/rock-/soul-hybrid faves Free Sol, whose 9 p.m. showcase was going to be a longshot even if we'd gotten an earlier start out of town.

Wading into the fray at close to midnight, we missed a chance to see Kimya Dawson, the singer-songwriter who's become a very unlikely star via her appearance on the Juno soundtrack, because she played an hour earlier than her scheduled set time. Finally, we settled on getting into the large indoor/outdoor club Emo's to see Ohio blues-rock duo The Black Keys.

On the way to Emo's, we spotted Memphis-based Folk Alliance director (and one of the SXSW founders) Louis Jay Meyers crossing the street. Once inside the club, the warm-up music piping through the PA was Memphian Jay Reatard's recent album Blood Visions, a sign that Reatard could end up being the most visible and buzzed-about Memphis artist at the festival this year.

The Black Keys, who once did an entire album covering songs by the late north Mississippi bluesman Junior Kimbrough, were good -- strong, confident, their guitarist justifiably in love with the sound he was getting out of his instrument. But they're sort of like the White Stripes without songs or a singer (or as cute a drummer), and I became bored and a little claustrophobic.

Going back outside for air, I wandered down Red River Road and into one of the happy accidents that makes SXSW worthwhile. With six or so bands playing official showcases each night at 80 or so participating venues (not to mention an unfathomable number of unofficial events going on around the clock), the sheer crush of music in Austin each year is overwhelming, so you never know what you might see.

Walking down Red River, I heard a familiar sound -- no, noise -- blaring from the open door of a club, Spiro's. It was a cover of "Funhouse" by proto-punk band the Stooges, a record I adore. I went in to check it out and what I saw was a stage crammed with college-aged derelicts who looked very much like the Manson Family — out of control facial hair, tribal face paint, and acid-casualty expressions. There was a four- (or five?) piece horn section bashing into each other like a mosh pit while they played and a lewd lead singer prowling around exhorting the whole band.

It looked ridiculous, but it sounded just like the apocalyptic jazz-punk meltdown Iggy Pop and his band put on vinyl in 1970. In this case, that wasn't lack of imagination. It was a heroic feat. The band was Dark Meat, from Athens, Georgia. Goes to show you never can tell.

Making my way back up Red River, I met up with my cohorts at Emo's, where they had congregated after the night-ending showcases they'd attended. Walking into the bar, the lights were up, there was a middling crowd milling about, and there was a lone young woman standing on the slightly elevated stage warbling an amateurish but likeable version of the Guns 'N Roses classic "Sweet Child O Mine" into the microphone, accompanied by piped-in music.

A post-showcase round of karaoke? No -- the headliner! It was The Blow, an electronic duo (though the singer's better half didn't appear to be around) from Portland that a Memphian recently returned from the Pacific Northwest tells me is quite popular throughout the region. Proof that, in indie rock, there's a thin line between a put-on and a sensation.

SXSW action goes full-throttle starting today, with Amy LaVere, MGMT, and the aforementioned Jay Reatard among the Memphis-connected artists with official showcases scheduled. Check back tomorrow for a full report on some of the local and nonlocal happenings down here in Austin.

-- Chris Herrington

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