It’s hard to imagine what South By Southwest must feel like for the natives of Austin: They probably don’t embrace shutting down the streets of downtown and the noise and traffic that results. I don’t see anyone without a badge or wristband at any of the showcases, official or otherwise, nor anyone who doesn’t look like a tourist here for the weekend. But Austin has music in its DNA, and you can’t help but notice it just from wandering around the city streets. The trendy restaurants west of the chaos along 6th street all book their own live music that you can hear as you pass by, seeming almost like an answer to the festival. And, oh, the panhandlers: I saw two bluegrass/country bands on one single block of 6th street, not to mention a full-blown virtuoso of the recorder playing a Celtic tune (‘Is that a fucking bagpipe?” asked a passing drunk) and a highly spirited rendition of ‘Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” by a man sitting at a bus stop.
But on Wednesday night, the locals had Austin Music Hall.
The crowd at the massive two-floor venue definitely skewed older and/or weirder than anything you’d see at Emo’s, from platinum tips and cowboy boots to spiked hair on 50-year olds sporting Dicks and Butthole Surfers T-shirts. The showcase was thrown together by the Austin Chronicle, so fans expecting the Dicks with special guest David Yow were forced to wait through an awards ceremony, with presenters in full formal dress honoring everyone from the Dicks to local metal bands and morning-show DJs. They’d actually arranged folding chairs all along the floor of the venue, and people sat in them the whole way through the Dicks’ set. As a first-time SXSW attendee, I had little idea what I was getting into, but the good-nauted heckling from the pit seemed incongruous with the ceremony onstage. To see David Yow walked off by a woman in a ball gown as he gave the crowd the finger, however, might have been worth it.
As it turns out, ‘special guest” means ‘coming out to sing one song,” and Yow came out for the Dicks’ ‘Weelchair Epidemic”, which his Jesus Lizard famously covered. Yow was dressed rather formally himself in a suitjacket and big-boy pants, but it didn’t stop him from bounding across the stage like a madman, only stopping to rally the crowd in the chorus of ‘hep, hep.” He’s a tough guy to get a photo of. As for the Dicks, they played as if nothing had changed in 20 years, even if everyone was sitting down. They were powerful and concise, and their set was far too brief. The rest of the night would honor Doug Sahm and close with a performance by Roky Erickson. It’s comforting to see that there’s room for all these originals to be honored somewhere.
Across town at Mohawk’s was a gathering of Anticon and Ghostly International artists. Abstract sound scientist Dosh and his band sounded greatand I say sounded, because none of them were visible through the hot, overcrowded room. Yoni Wolf of WHY? was on hand for a rare ‘unplugged” set, just him singing and playing a keyboard. ‘The Vowels Pt.2” flowed straight into ‘These New Presidents,” both from his latest album Alopecia, and Wolf’s voice was more than enough to hold the crowd at attention. He then went on to play new, unreleased songs, and while I can’t say the stripped-down arrangement was the ideal way to preview brand new tracks, it proved that SXSW can deliver something special for the superfansnot just two dozen sets in a weekend from the same nationally-touring indie bands.