AUSTIN, Texas — Following each exhausting South by Southwest music festival — the latest edition concluded here Sunday (March 19) — the inevitable question always arises: “What did you see that you liked?” Taking a slight twist, the question worth posing this year is different. That is, “What did you learn?” Here are 10 such things, in alphabetical order:
1. Advance planning is key. Wisconsin singer-songwriter Jeffrey Foucault’s full, rugged voice seems made for desolate midnight rides. After hearing his striking road song, “Northbound 35,” on the SXSW site, I knew I liked his style — but ended up standing slack-jawed through his entire set. If you like country with your blues, check him out.
2. Breakup songs can be fun. When your album is titled Broken, and every song is about a stomped-on heart, you risk being pitied (or ignored). Not the lively Canadian artist Luke Doucet, whose upbeat, bitter lyrics included this memorable opening line: “It takes a uniquely f—ed up man to break his own heart.” Hey, whatever works.
3. Hear a Texas band. Three personal favorites: Monte Warden comes from a long line of Texans, and you can hear it in his easygoing, rootsy music. Hayes Carll played a night of roadhouse country without drowning out his signature wit. And Billy Joe Shaver had the crowd in the palm of his hand, even during a show in someone’s back yard.
4. Mellow is OK. To avoid the green beer guzzlers on St. Patrick’s Day, it seemed easier to go underground. At the Elephant Room, a cozy jazz club beneath Congress Avenue, the Robin Nolan Trio teamed with vocalist Brandi Shearer for a set of appealing, relaxing tunes. Bonus points for bringing out David Grisman on mandolin for the finale.
5. Nudity can strike at any moment. Right after country-folk singer James Talley’s acoustic set, I found myself beneath a revival tent across the street. A particularly obnoxious singer told two coeds onstage that they’d have to kiss a lot of ass to make it in the biz. But were they willing to do it? I don’t want to traumatize you with the answer.
6. Price your CDs accordingly. The Mudville Project, a Tulsa-based rock band with some country influences, offered their CDs for $5. No North, a hard-edged L.A. ensemble featuring banjo and lap steel, gave their albums away. At least offer some promotional EPs. It’s rare to find an audience more willing to buy new music than at SXSW.
7. Solo acoustic is hard to pull off. A guy with only a guitar in a loud bar doesn’t work. But in a couch-filled conference room at the Hilton, Canada’s Gordie Sampson and Ireland’s Foy Vance connected with the crowd. Sampson’s stunning “Fear of Flying” is ready for a country star to record, and Vance’s powerful folk music is primed for a wider audience.
8. Stubble is in. This became quickly apparent on the second day, while socializing at a host of afternoon parties. About one in three guys had two or three day’s worth of shadow — more than just neglecting a morning shave. And (hopefully) out of fashion: Silk-screened message T-shirts. Luckily, you still can’t go wrong with black.
9. Text messaging is essential. Rather than screaming over the music, type a few lines instead. At every dark bar in town, the blue LCD glow of mobile phones illuminated the faces of the lost and the curious — reminiscent of ghost stories around the fire. But if you suddenly have trouble using it, or even pronouncing it, it’s time to cut back on the vodka.
10. You can’t be everywhere. This is the toughest lesson to learn. Should you try the less-crowded bar next door or catch a cab across town? Check out an early evening Rosanne Cash show or eat at least one healthy dinner? Travel to Austin in the springtime or stay home? Luckily, not all decisions are so tough.