AUSTIN, Texas -- Everybody's hanging out at the bar, and it's a full house inside on Thursday (March 16). People are craving tacos and, luckily, they're everywhere you look, along with chips, salsa and everything else that goes along with the beer munchies. A cool band you've never seen before is onstage, singing a really good song you've never heard. You should probably buy the album. And don't be tired. It's only 1 o'clock -- in the afternoon, that is.
In a nutshell, that's the daytime party experience at the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference (SXSW) where musicians from around the world -- and their many admirers -- converge upon the bars of Austin long before happy hour starts.
Most of the bands on the daytime stages also have officially sanctioned performance slots during the four-night festival, but they face some serious competition when the event boasts 1,400 other bands and more than 60 venues. Others who don't get accepted for a showcase can be found at record stores, magazine parties, sidewalks, plazas -- anywhere there's enough room and passersby to play a few songs and sell a few CDs.
"You have more of a chance of surprising people and playing for people who haven't heard you," said Riley Briggs, of Edinburgh, Scotland. His pop band, Aberfeldy, appeared at SXSW last year, playing several barbecue restaurants. (Ironically, one of their catchiest songs is titled "Vegetarian Restaurant.") This year, they performed at a barbecue sponsored by a British music organization -- even though the barbecue in question was served in tortillas accompanied by beans and rice.
Before his set, Briggs said the band got lucky last year because Aberfeldy received a lot of positive press at SXSW. This year, he's in town to build the buzz for a new album coming in the summer. They're also filming a music video this week, something with Mexican wrestlers and werewolves, he says.
Across town, at the cocktail bar Molotov, young Nashvillian Andy Davis is singing his heart out onstage for about 20 or 30 spectators. He's first on the bill, ahead of "name" artists -- at least in the world of knowledgeable music fans -- like David Mead, Glen Phillips and Amos Lee. The show is sponsored by American Songwriter magazine, so there's no chance of singing along with any Billy Joel tunes.
Asked why he accepted the invitation to play at Molotov, Phillips said, "Because I'm here. Otherwise, I'm going to be wandering around trying to find food somewhere." (Naturally, there was a taco bar at this show, too.) He adds, "It gives me something constructive to do during the day. I'm sure I could give good business reasons, too, but those are secondary."
Actually, Phillips -- formerly of the pop band Toad the Wet Sprocket -- is releasing a new album in May, and he's spent a good part of the week meeting the CD distributors, the label people and the press. By the time he takes the stage in mid-afternoon, the bar is about half full. Cover is only $5 (without SXSW credentials) for the whole sunshiny afternoon. The windows are open and so is the bar. What can compete with that?
Well, there is one thing: The official SXSW, in all of its trade show/panel discussion glory. Following his Thursday afternoon set at a club on the far end of Sixth Street, Kris Kristofferson was at the Austin Convention Center to speak about his incredible career. Other noteworthy musicians taking part in Thursday's Q&A panels included k.d. lang, Sam Moore, Neil Young and Morrissey. Throughout the week, a number of music icons, from the Beastie Boys to Judy Collins, will provide insight into the world of famous musicians.
As one of the three members of North Carolina's Tres Chicas, Caitlin Cary is not likely to even set foot in the Convention Center. The undisputed queens of the daytime stage this year, the trio will play seven unofficial shows throughout the week, including one on the MySpace party bus. Their schedule is so packed, they had to turn down the famed Alejandro Escovedo party, which Cary says is perennially her favorite gig of the week. (She's played the festival about a dozen times, whether in Whiskeytown, as a solo act or in Tres Chicas.)
"The cool thing that happens is you get to jam with a lot of other bands, if 'jam' is the right word," Cary says about the daytime experience. During an early afternoon tribute to Gram Parsons this year, the band was joined by guitarist Tim Easton as well as the British rock band Goldrush, whom they'd never even met, but they all hit it off immediately.
At shows like that, Cary says, "You can relax and pretend you're not at SXSW."
Turning lemons into lemonade, the nonprofit Austin Music Foundation threw a party at the Lucky Lounge to showcase three popular local bands, including the fun and youthful pop band Friends of Lizzy. None of them got official SXSW shows, however.
"These bands in particular had a bunch of people who wanted to see them, and we wanted to make sure that happened," said Nikki Rowling, a cofounder of the organization that supports Austin's musicians -- which she estimates at somewhere between 8,000 and 10,000 in all. With the help of guest speakers and boot camps, the AMF's goals are to help local, aspiring artists find a sustainable career path and to teach them how the biz works.
Another primary objective of the organization, as well as the party, is "showing other people what Austin is about," she says. The room is filled with club owners, managers and starving artists munching on chips, queso, guacamole and, of course, tacos.
"We're showing solidarity for the Austin music scene," Rowling says. "This is Austin ... for Austin."