Sunny Days and Soulful Nights at SXSW

Duhks, Reckless Kelly, Staples Showcase at Austin Festival

AUSTIN, Texas — For all but about 20 minutes, the sun shone brightly every afternoon during the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival that ended here Sunday (March 20). The perfectly warm weather prompted music fanatics to get their melody fix long before seeking out their evening enchiladas.

Traditional country fans couldn’t beat Thursday afternoon at Jovita’s, a Mexican eatery in South Austin. With the windows wide-open and the lure of tasty margaritas and endless baskets of chips, one could have easily overlooked the band. But that would have been a shame, as Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell (who both came up in the Raleigh, N.C., club scene) previewed their upcoming album of appealing, ’70s-inspired country duets.

The next day at Jovita’s, the Duhks offered several tunes from their eclectic debut album during a leisurely showcase sponsored by their record label. (Like many first-timers to SXSW, Jessica Havey said she had a “revelation” that she just might have to move to Austin.) An hour later, across town, the city’s own roots-rockers Reckless Kelly set up at Scholz Beer Garden for a breezy, easygoing party sponsored by Texas Music magazine.

At 8 p.m., Billy Joe Shaver pulled up a stool on the small stage in the parking lot of Jo’s, a coffee stand across from the Continental Club. A few vintage clothing vendors had set up shop, and it was truly an all-ages show with teens singing along with newer Shaver classics like “Freedom’s Child,” “I’m Gonna Live Forever” and “Love Is So Sweet.” For those debating whether to chase their margaritas with ice cream from Amy’s across the street, take heed — their satisfying Tequila Sunrise flavor is the ideal compromise.

By then, the sun had set, so it was time to hit the clubs — or in my case, Austin Music Hall. After two days of meandering, I chose to stick around the cavernous room for a night of soul. Amos Lee, a former schoolteacher from Philadelphia with one of the purest voices at the festival, added a cover of Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl” to his set. Yet, it’s his own “Arms of a Woman” — which would have been a huge R&B ballad had it been written in the ’60s — that will melt the heart of any romantic.

The Blind Boys of Alabama offered a rousing set from their new album, Atom Bomb. One of its members (who is indeed blind) was lifted from the stage into the audience, parading through the crowd of excited listeners. Watching from the balcony, the beaming smiles that he encountered lit up the room as much as the roving spotlight. The Grammy-winning group rearranged “Amazing Grace” to fit with the melody of “House of the Rising Sun,” incorporated spiritual lyrics into the Isley Brothers’ “Shout” and harmonized beautifully on the soul classic, “People Get Ready.” With the fervor steadily rising in the blend of their voices, the inspiration was overwhelming — not only because of their love for the Lord, but because they proved that “cool” has no age limit.

Mavis Staples counted on her “little brother” Marty Stuart to lead the band (and cover a few vocal parts), but it’s her growling voice that remains such a gift. After her nerves had visibly calmed down, she announced that nobody except Alligator Records wanted to sign her these days because she was “old-school” and that the other labels would rather have Beyoncé. “That’s OK,” she declared. “I used to be a Beyoncé. If Beyoncé lives long enough, she’ll be a Mavis!” Following her stirring take on the Staple Singers’ signature “I’ll Take You There,” the huge audience response nearly brought her to tears.

Robert Randolph and His Family Band closed the night with their invigorating mix of soul, church and jam band styles. (Randolph was also the subject of a documentary at the SXSW film festival this year.) Although it was still Friday night, it could have been easily mistaken for a Sunday morning.

But let’s not forget Saturday. I wanted to check the new movie about Townes Van Zandt that afternoon, but it was already sold out. Instead, I ended up at Pok-e-Jo’s Smokehouse. I’d read positive things about the Scottish band Aberfeldy which just happened to be next on stage, and I found them to be delightful. (Who can complain about dual xylophones?) Lead singer Riley Briggs also charmed the audience with his offbeat and somewhat cynical view of life. Speaking about drinking to forget, he said, “Believe me, it can be pointless.” With bouncing melodies and rich lyrics, it was perfect music for an outdoor Saturday afternoon.

That’s when it hit me: Never have I seen so many musicians during daylight hours. But at SXSW, you get used to seeing things you’ve never seen before. For example, there was Nicolai Dunger (a Swedish act that fit squarely into the Americana format) and a band that continued its outdoor showcase in the pouring rain and disturbing thunder — and the crowd stayed firmly planted.

Naturally, on the other side of the tortilla, SXSW attendees can catch up with longtime favorites as well. Aimee Mann and the Wallflowers both previewed their new material at Stubb’s BBQ, with both artists still in fine form. After a reunion set from Son Volt, Los Super Seven closed out the night with Raul Malo, Rick Trevino, Joe Ely and Ruben Ramos each taking turns at the microphone. In songs from the new album, Heard It on the X, their spirited take on “My Window Faces the South” sounded nothing like the Western swing and bluegrass staple it is, and “Talk to Me” resembled something you’d hear on an infomercial for a slow-dance-of-the-’50s CD. Backed by the band Calexico, the ensemble effortlessly combined elements of rock, country and Tejano music — music from their own heritage and experiences.

In fact, that sense of “writing what you know” is perhaps the one thing that ties together every showcasing band, making SXSW a must-do destination for those who love and appreciate music of every stripe.