The South By Southwest Music Festival is a music fan's wet dream, but as they say, the best laid plans of mice and music critics. During my two days and three nights in Austin, I saw some anticipated acts flop and some unknown groups make the biggest impact on me of all.
On Wednesday, the opening night of the festival, I caught a capacity crowd for Belle & Sebastian at Stubb's, a beautiful outdoor shell on the north end of Red River.
On Thursday, I had more time to prep and planned an ambitious evening: Catch Spoon at the Town Lake stage across the river from downtown, bounce over to Beerland for the Goner showcase, then back to Stubb's for Fiery Furnaces before rushing back down to 6th Street for the band that defines buzz, New York's Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.
But Spoon was late to come on, and their sound was a bit lost at the large open-air venue of Town Lake. The Fiery Furnaces did a better job filling the air at Stubbs. Lead singer Eleanor Friedberger looked confident and in control of the group, which says something about the progress of this band, famous for the onstage antagonism of its sibling founders.
It was on my way back from Stubbs that I ran into what would stand out as the high point of the trip. Playing to a crowd of nearly 200 people was a New Orleans street band who identified themselves only as The Hot 8. They were in full second-line swing, with a six-piece brass section anchored by bass and snare drummers.
In contrast to some other acts that played on the street outside crowded venues, the Hot 8 were set up on a nondescript corner. Half a dozen cameras were filming the event, and a small circle of fans formed right in front of the band to dance.
The music was so infectious that people were leaving the long line to see Flaming Lips/Clap Your Hands to see what all the fervor was about. By the time I left to get in line, the group had the whole crowd singing along in a Creole patois that only a scant few probably understood.
From there it was back to the original plan. The Flaming Lips were billed at SXSW as a "special guest," but they packed them in at Eternal. Frontman Wayne Coyne had spent the earlier part of the evening rolling around 6th Street in his human-sized hamster ball and conducting a sing-along.
Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finished off the evening at Eternal. This Brooklyn-based quintet made the jump to indie stardom before being signed, capitalizing on Internet buzz to sell records. Their rich, organic sound is a powerful platform for lead singer Alec Ounsworth, who sounds like David Byrne but wastes less time, ripping into the audience and the scene with witty, self-deprecating lyricism.
But as good as Wednesday and Thursday were, my final night at SXSW was a bit of a flop. I made it into one of the hardest tickets in town, a triple bill of Dungen, Elefant, and The Sword. Sadly, Dungen took its sweet Swedish time tuning up, then played a set that sounded half-way to Jamville.
There is a strict rule at SXSW that all clubs close at 2 a.m. So despite the fact that the Sword was only warming up to a salivating crowd, they were only able to play for about 15 minutes before they had to leave. Dungen, whose long delay had wasted the time intended for Sword, was visibly nervous as an angry crowd turned to heckle them before exiting.
So there it is, a whirlwind three days, packed with disappointment, surprise, and satisfaction. Still, exhausting as it was, the SXSW experience is one I am eager to repeat. Maybe my veteran status will help me plan better next time, or maybe I'll just have to get lucky again.