AUSTIN, Texas — The official music showcases keep on rolling well past midnight during the South by Southwest music festival, but dedicated song-seekers have probably been on the go since before noon each day. That’s when the non-sanctioned daytime parties start hauling out the tacos, nourishing the hungry managers, journalists, musicians and anybody else who’s wandering in and out of the downtown clubs. See a band, eat some Mexican food, drink a Shiner beer — no wonder SXSW is the considered spring break for the music industry.
My favorite band I’ve seen so far is called Phantom Limb, fronted by a magnificent singer named Yolanda Quarty. They filled a Thursday afternoon (March 13) slot at Maria’s Taco X-Press in South Austin — perhaps the most famous taco joint in town. I had heard one of their songs online a few weeks ago, but I didn’t anticipate that their music would move me so much, especially “Don’t Say a Word.” Backed by a very capable group of British guys (they’re from Bristol in the UK), Quarty’s controlled yet commanding voice somehow balanced out the mellow music behind her. I don’t know that one would work without the other, but together, I was overcome with emotion. When I went up to the stage to meet her afterwards, she told me, “I was performing just for you. You have a very expressive face.” What do you say to that?! Phantom Limb on MySpace
The song I was most excited to hear all week is called “Easily Bruised” by Matthew Barber. I stumbled upon it a few weeks ago, while trying to figure out what to see at SXSW. Of course, he started his set with the song, but I was too busy outside the venue trying to determine what the green stuff on my late-night taco was. None of the showcases I saw on Wednesday night (March 12) started on time, so I thought I had some leeway on Thursday night. Oh, well. I caught the rest of his set, and thoroughly enjoyed all of it. One of the song titles might give you an indication of what his music sounds like — “The Beautiful Things We Waste.” When the songs are as strong as that one, I’m all about solo acoustic gigs. And he pulled out a great Leonard Cohen song, “Bird on a Wire.” Barber just released a new album in Canada and said he has some country songs that he’s proud of but doesn’t know yet what to do with. So hopefully he’ll get down to Nashville at some point because we need memorable songs now more than ever. Matthew Barber on MySpace
Peter Bradley Adams, formerly of the duo Eastmountainsouth, performed a brief set at a Sixth Street club called Friends on Thursday morning, while some band banged away on their drums across the street. I’m very glad I wasn’t over there. Adams lives in Nashville these days, so I get to hear some new songs every few months, and he just submitted a new album to his label, Sarathan Records. Can’t wait to check it out. This is the kind of music I like the most when I’m easing into the day — quiet, smart and not a whole lot going on in the background. He was joined by Lex Price, one of the most dependable musicians in Nashville and who’s familiar to anyone who’s seen Mindy Smith on tour in the last few years. Peter Bradley Adams on MySpace
Near the end of the night, I found myself about two blocks from the Americana showcase (a format that is hit-and-miss with me) and a big show by My Morning Jacket (one of the most transcendent bands that I’ve ever seen). Since my car was across the street and Antone’s was just a block away, I chose the Americana showcase. Score! Buddy Miller was singing my favorite song of 2007 right as I was walking in. I still don’t know the name of it, and his album doesn’t come out till August, but you can hear it on a site commandeered by Don Was. I’ve sent that link to dozens of people, and I’m always looking for a reason to do it again. Buddy Miller on My Damn Channel
Austin musicians can still be found at SXSW, and one of my favorites is Colin Gilmore. His music is just so likeable and easy to listen to. He’s a clever lyricist, but not so clever that you get annoyed. He’s also that rare songwriter who knows that good lyrics need a melody to match it. Otherwise, how is a song going to get stuck in your head all day? There’s a rockabilly element to his music that I like, too, and he has fun up there, too. It’s amazing to me how many musicians frown through their whole set, acting like it’s the hardest job in the world. I know SXSW is a tough crowd, but come on, live a little. Colin Gilmore on MySpace
I wish I hadn’t left the bar to get a taco after Gilmore’s set because when I returned, the venue was wall-to-wall full to hear Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers. I’ve been playing their CD almost every day since I received it a few weeks ago. One of the songs, “4th of July,” was written about everything that’s gone wrong in his life so far (losing his friends, contemplating suicide, etc.). But, wow, it’s so easy to sing along to! Apparently the band tours relentlessly, and now they can draw a sizeable crowd wherever they go. This was my first time to see them, and I was pleasantly surprised by the capacity crowd. I love spreading the word about new bands, but it’s equally exciting to join a throng that’s one step ahead of you. Those are excellent reasons to keep coming back to SXSW. That — and the tacos. Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers on MySpace