AUSTIN, Texas -- Of the dozens of lineups around town Saturday night (March 20) on the final evening of the South by Southwest music festival, one concert emerged as the place to be: a double-bill of the Mavericks and Patty Griffin at the amphitheater-barbecue restaurant called Stubb's.
The unbilled "Special Guest" -- expectations always run high when this is on a sign at SXSW -- turned out to be Ozomatli, the band that made headlines earlier in the week when their conga line moved outside of a nightclub and a drum hit a police officer in the head. The drummer was arrested, as was the bassist (for breaking a noise ordinance) and the band's manager (for interfering with the duties of a public servant).
Yet the band held no grudge as it offered one of the most energetic sets of the weekend. With its mix of urban and world music, complete with an invigorating brass section, the band members again leaped into the crowd, finishing with a conga line through the Stubb's yard. I knew nothing about them prior to this show, but I'd definitely go see them again.
Going on next, the Mavericks definitely had their work cut out for them. Though they have traveled with their own brass section in the past, this time they boasted two keyboards, a perfectly warm night and an eager capacity crowd. Concluding with the gospel tune "Save a Prayer," the eclectic band proved they've still got the magic.
Patty Griffin lives in Austin, and she is beloved there. (Witness the winding line of locals waiting to get in Saturday night.) While most big SXSW shows are too loud to notice the audience chatter, this one was neither too loud nor too chatty. Griffin's poetic lyrics were not muddled, and people listened attentively. Last week, I had written that Oh Susanna's "Alabaster" was my favorite new song of the festival, but Griffin's encouraging "Don't Come Easy" just might have eclipsed it. Her new studio album arrives April 20.
After grabbing a quick taco from a nearby trailer, I traipsed to the Crowne Plaza Hotel, catching an elevator to the 18th floor for the UK sensation Jamie Cullum. If pressed to choose my favorite set of my three days at the festival, I'd pick this one. Maybe it was the 24-year-old's showmanship -- banging on the edges of the actual piano as much as the piano keys, jumping off the speakers in a hotel conference room, telling silly stories about nothing in particular -- or maybe it was the way he slid from Radiohead to "Singing in the Rain," all the while maintaining a keen jazz sensibility. If anybody less charming had kicked a piano during "I Get a Kick Out of You," I'd be out the door. Instead, I was enchanted throughout the whole thing. With the glowing Austin skyline visible from the windows behind the stage, and Cullum winding up at 1 a.m., I chalked up this year's SXSW as a success.
The night before, I wasn't so sure. Friday began at a free outdoor show at Auditorium Shores. If any artist had the buzz during SXSW, it was 16-year-old Joss Stone, also from the UK. Her Web site says she's working on her "official" debut, but I can't imagine what's wrong with the album she's got out now. Reminiscent of Joan Osborne's last album, Stone's The Soul Sessions was the second-highest seller last week at Waterloo Records, the city's primary destination for recorded music. (Austin's Los Lonely Boys were at the top.)
But back in the city, the next two hours were almost a total disaster. I couldn't find a band worth sticking around for, which meant barhopping without the benefit of a beer buzz. However, let me use this lull to offer fashion tips gathered from the trendsetters: For women, the new thing is gigantic sunglasses and shawls. (Neither of which were necessary on Austin's warm nights.) For men, try striped dress shirts, especially if the stripes are actually patterns -- usually small flowers. Patterns similar to the bed sheets in your grandma's spare bedroom are also in. Musicians, of course, still wear black.
Frustrated with the Sixth Street scene, I caught a cab to La Zona Rosa for Dwight Yoakam. Again, the line was stretched around the block. (No doubt, he is still a country star.) Now signed to New West Records, the cool Californian offered some fresh tunes, as well as a few covers. But it's those classic Dwight hits -- "Turn It On, Turn Me Up, Turn Me Loose," "Honky Tonk Man," "A Thousand Miles From Nowhere," "Guitars, Cadillacs" and "Fast As You" -- that redeemed my night. Long live Dwight!