Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Top Ten Things about SXSW 2014

10. Airport Tacos.  It sounds absolutely ludicrous to say that my favorite meal was at the airport waiting for the flight back to Chicago, but it’s true, for the second year in a row.  They come from famous BBQ joint the Salt Lick, and they are sloppy, spicy and delicious.  As a bonus, the margaritas at Ray’s Roadhouse (owned by Asleep at the Wheel’s Ray Benson) are equal to Guero’s, and the band onstage featured an adorably pregnant Katie Rose from the Shotgun Party.

9. The Donkeys.  On Thursday I broke the cardinal rule of going to see a band, I wore their T-shirt.  But with the crush of people everywhere, I feel like it is advertising rather than gratuitous.  As I rushed past the Bayou to get some free BBQ courtesy of Billions, a tall, handsomely grizzled man said “I like your shirt.”  I’d thanked him before I realized it was Donkeys’ drummer Sam Sprague.  He probably wondered why I was going the wrong way.  It was an absolute killer set, one that made me wish I was going to see them more than once.  I couldn’t stop smiling.  They are touring coast to coast this summer and I think a road trip is in order.

8. La Quinta.  Not quite as close or posh as the Hilton Garden Inn, but just as convenient.  It was cheaper and the beds were even more comfortable.  It may have been the first time I could wait to sleep in my own bed again after five nights in a hotel.  Thanks again to my yearly roommate Lauree for getting a badge and the huge room discount that goes with it.

7.  Ha Ha Tonka.  I only saw them (gasp) twice this year, but I kept running into them.  It was weird not to have them at the Bloodshot showcase, but they were all hanging out.  They also came out to see their friends, and now mine, the Spring Standards who I love more every time I see them (despite some crippling sound problems tonight).  And their set Thursday night topped off the best day/night of the fest.  In fact, it deserves its own spot on the list.

6.  Thursday.  From start to finish, the Whigs, Chris Mills, the Donkeys, JD Wilkes & the Dirt Daubers, Paul Burch, Jon Langford & Skull Orchard, Mandolin Orange, Autumn Defense, The Baseball Project, Phil & Dave Alvin, Ha Ha Tonka.  So many of my favorites, all in one day, plus free BBQ.  Thanks Thursday.

5.  The Bloodshot Yard Dog Party.  The one day I don’t have to plan because I know where I will be from 10 am till 6 pm.  There were great sets from Luke Winslow-King, Bobby Bare Jr, Rosie Flores, Lydia Loveless, and of course Tonka and the Waco Brothers.  There was delicious beer compliments of LaGunitas, whiskey compliments of co-owner Nan, and tequila from co-owner Rob.  What else could a girl ask for?  I know, fish tacos and margaritas, both obtained at Guero’s afterwards.  I even caught a set from Ezra Furman on the way back to the hotel, though by that point I was close to pulling a Marcus.

4. Jon Dee Graham.  I usually see Jon Dee at the Guitartown party within hours of arriving in Austin.  This year however he played at noon, which I couldn’t have made even if our flight hadn’t been delayed three hours.  That meant I didn’t see him till Saturday at Mojo Nixon’s Mayhem at the Continental, and boy was he happy to see me.  I got a giant hug from the stage, which had everyone around me wondering who I was and how I rated.  I know it’s his favorite show he does during SXSW, and it was a killer today.  He dedicated a searing version of “Airplane” to his friends while smiling at Laura and me.  A few hours later we moved upstairs at the Continental, to the appropriately named “Gallery,” for an art opening featuring his bears and drummer Darren Hess’s portraits, as well as music by the artists and their subjects.  Hess’s subjects that is, no bears were allowed, but Walter Salas-Humara and James McMurtry both took a turn.  Hess’s solo material is a revelation, he has more in common with the pop sensibilities of Matthew Sweet or Michael Penn than he does the Texas singer-songwriters he backs.  Sunday was Jon Dee all day starting with the gospel brunch at Strange Brew and ending with an edition of “& Friend” that went till midnight.

3. The weather.  There have been many years where it was too hot, and one memorable day when it was far too cold, but this year was just right.  Most days had a high in the upper 60’s or low 70’s, overnight in the 50’s.  I even wore a pants a few days.  It was nice to not have to shower twice a day.

2. Jon Langford.  The only person who may play more shows than Jon Dee Graham is Jon Langford, but he does it rather sneakily by playing some of them with the Waco Brothers and some of them with Skull Orchard.  He showed dedication getting to Austin on time.  His flight from Chicago was cancelled, so he flew to Houston and took the Greyhound.  In fact, almost all the Wacos had a tough time making the Bloodshot showcase on Wednesday.  Mandolinist Tracey Dear was on my flight, and Deano lives in Austin now, but the rhythm section didn’t make it to Texas till late that night.  Luckily Langford knows a lot of people, and they had no problem getting subs.  Langford also curates a day of terrific music at the Gingerman, on Thursday of course, and I spent a lot of the day there.  The Donkeys were the best set, but nothing made me happier than when Chris Mills jumped on stage to sing backing vocals with Skull Orchard and Langford backed away from the mike, giving him a whole verse.  Swoon.

And number 1, Chris Mills.  I was delighted last year when Chris Mills went to Austin for the first time since I started going.  I didn’t expect to see him there again so soon, but with Alexandria receiving its official release just a few weeks earlier it made sense.  He was the best part of Langford’s line-up (sorry Jon), and his showcase on Saturday was terrific.  Last year he focused mainly on the new songs, but this year his sets were more like his basement show had been, a nice sampling of his terrific catalog.

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