South by Southwest’s Day Parties Build Buzz, Too

Justin Townes Earle, Jason Collett Sing at Afternoon Shows

AUSTIN, Texas — In the next couple months, you’ll probably come across a story somewhere on Justin Townes Earle, a singer-songwriter who is releasing an album on Bloodshot Records later this month. It seemed like every time I turned around at South by Southwest (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, last week, he was performing at a day party or giving an interview off to the side. And when I’d cross paths with fellow writers, and we’d start comparing notes, whose name did I hear the most? Justin Townes Earle.

Sure, you can still make connections at the official nightly showcases or by shaking endless hands at the industry trade show. But if you want to meet all the right people, you have to offer some additional options, and the unofficial day parties – where musicians can sing live and then mingle afterwards — provide the ideal opportunity to visit with the movers and shakers in the biz.

I only had one celebrity sighting all week, and that was the top-notch celebrity blogger Perez Hilton on Thursday afternoon (March 13). He was holding court at Cedar Street Courtyard to hear the Swedish pop star, Robyn. Everybody keeps asking me what color his hair was, and I’m here to report: It was magenta and gold. Some unfortunate technical issues squashed the electronica side of her music, but Robyn rose to the occasion with an acoustic/dance set. The show must go on, after all. If anything, her scaled-back set encouraged me to buy the album because the lyrics (which were not drowned out by thumping bass and synthesizer) were as catchy as anything I heard all week.

One of my favorite SXSW day parties was sponsored by Nashville-based American Songwriter magazine on Thursday afternoon (March 13), where I was lucky enough to see Jason Collett, who’s also in the collective known as Broken Social Scene. His music is a lot mellower than his band’s, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed his country-tinged songs. A newly reunited Sixpence None the Richer was also on the bill, as well as Kim Richey, Trent Dabbs, Keith Gattis, the Dodos and, yes, Justin Townes Earle.

On Friday (March 14), I dropped by a day party sponsored by Next Big Nashville, a similar-but-smaller music conference that takes place in Nashville in September. That’s when I personally caught Earle’s set (one of the most engaging performances I saw all week), as well as the singer-songwriters Garrison Starr and Megan McCormick. I’ve been a fan of Starr’s edgy-but-literate music for several years now, and McCormick has the potential to draw a similar audience, especially with her killer song, “Honest Words.”

On a sunny Saturday afternoon, I swung by Sixth Street for Collin Herring, a singer-songwriter from Fort Worth, Texas, who recently recorded a song I love called “Punches.” If you can capture that sense of frustration in a song without sounding like a complainer, I’m on your side forever. Meanwhile, the anti-war parade marched by outside, trailed by a truck with a bubble machine. I regret that I couldn’t get into Rachael Ray’s day party afterwards. I am a proud charter subscriber to Everyday With Rachael Ray magazine, and plus, I was kind of hungry. But that freed up enough time to catch Bruce Robison’s mini-set at Threadgill’s in South Austin. He’s written some of my favorite country songs of the last few years, including “Wrapped” by George Strait and “Travelin’ Soldier” by the Dixie Chicks, and he’s got the perfect singing voice for a lazy day.

After that, I returned to Sixth Street to check out Freddie Stevenson, a singer-songwriter from the UK, who happened to sit two seats over on my flight to Austin. His album comes out there in April, and his first single is about how the author J.K. Rowling is stalking him. Well, I guess she needs to do something now that the Harry Potter saga is over. From there, I paused at the Utne Reader party (their swag bag contained stylish, environmentally friendly tote bags and tiny bars of natural soap) before finally catching up with Stephen Kellogg & the Sixers, the most energetic band I saw during the festival. I really like their latest album, but I essentially got crowded out of their official showcase earlier in the week – so thank goodness for these day parties. Hopefully you’ll hear their name a lot more in the coming months, too.

View photos from South by Southwest day parties.