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The Austin Diaries: Four Days at South by Southwest


Click to read about: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4

Wednesday, March 13, 2002 - So, here I am, on the plane about to land in Austin, Texas for my first South by Southwest festival and convention. I have never been to Austin before, and I have no idea what to expect. I am pretty pumped to be going down to attend this, and who knows whatís going to happen or who I might meet while Iím there? Iím psyched to see the keynote address tomorrow that Robbie Robertson will be giving, and to get into the trade show with Steve to man the OnlineRock booth. Of course, Iím also psyched by the prospect of four straight days of music, hundreds of bands in dozens of bars, and Bar B-Q! Lots and lots of the best Texas Bar B-Q we can eat! Will this be the ďBig Rock and Roll AdventureĒ for us? Will OnlineRock grow by leaps and bounds as a result of our appearance here? Will we find the ďNext Big ThingĒ in a bar in Austin? Will Steve and I get tattooed and pierced and leave our wives and children?

Ahh, the Rock and Roll life, man. Anything goes and anythingís possible, living on the edge with limitless energy and all set to a live Rock soundtrack. It just doesnít get any better! At least thatís how it feels right now, building it all up in my head with no care for reality. But reality is only a ghost in the basement right now, and not something to be overly concerned about. Rock has a way of displacing reality, anyway. Itís going to be four days with the pedal to the metal, and the brakes just donít work once you get up a good head of steam. Who cares about reality! Who needs sleep!

Before the plane lands and the revelry begins; I realize there is one problem that Rock and Roll canít solve, I need to take a leak! But Iím in the window seat of a completely packed and cramped Airbus 320, with two very large people asleep in the seats next to me, and the seats in front of me are set all the back. No way out!! Maybe I can hold it until we get to Austin??? Not likely, not after three vodka tonics. Iím going to have to wake them up! I think Iíll resume my writing later.

OK, itís time to resume! Itís 3:00 am and Iím back in the hotel now. No, Iím not tired, thanks for asking. I landed in Austin around 10:45, got my baggage, and hailed a cab.†† The weird thing about the airport is that as you go walking through from the gate to the baggage carousel, they have all these guitars in cases along the way. I saw a wild looking Les Paul that once belonged to Billy Gibbons sitting in a glass case. To tell you the truth though, I hate to see guitars in glass cases. Pretty much for the same reason I hate Zooís; you see these beautiful living things imprisoned and unable to do what they were put here on earth to do! You know that awesome Les Paul will never make a piercing Blues cry ever again, and that makes me sad. Iíve decided that liberating all the imprisoned guitars is a noble and worthy cause, wherever they are. But I donít think the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame would take to kindly to someone smashing all their displays and running off with the axes, what do you think? Anyway, Iím head rushing, sorry! Let me tell ya about my first night in Austin.

So, I get my cab and tell the cabbie in my best Edward G. Robinson impersonation, ďThe Driskill Hotel, and step on it!Ē The cab driver turns his head around to look at me and asks in a voice obviously very impressed, ďThe Driskill? No problem sir, that is like the best hotel in Austin. I believe that is where President Clinton stayed when he stayed in Austin. Right away, sir!Ē†

ďOh greatĒ, I think to myself, ďnow heís going to expect a big tip from me!Ē Iím here on a pretty tight budget, but apparently Steve wants to stay in deluxe accommodations, and that is fine with me. So we drive in from the airport, and itís still very warm out. The cab driver has the windows cracked, and Iím glad he does as I can feel the nice breeze in the back. The air has that smell of a warm summer night, as well as a particular scent; a very flowery fragrance permeating the night that I will come to understand is normal for Austin in the spring. I love it, and this weather sure beats the 55-degree rain I left in San Jose!

As we pull up in front of the Driskill, I can hear the music blaring. The Driskill is situated on the corner of Sixth and Brazos, and a lot of the clubs hosting music during this event line both sides of Sixth Street. As I pay the cabbie (He got a good tip, ah, what the hell!) and grab my bags, I hear the sound of grunge coming from a club kitty corner across from the hotel. I hear an acoustic guitar from closer range, and turn to see a girl singer busking in the street. Sheís got a PA and sheís belting it out, sounds pretty good. From further down I hear a band crankiní out the metal jams, and some Texas boogie comes wafting in from another direction. I havenít even gotten to a regulation bar yet, and already Iím listening to a bunch of great stuff! But, I gotta hurry if I want to go club hopping tonight.† Itís 11:15 and I have to pick up my badge at the convention center and they close at midnight. So I pick up my pace and beat it into the Driskill, and over to the piano bar where Steve is waiting.

Steve is sitting at the piano, drinking a martini and talking to the piano player, Kirk Hale. I run my stuff upstairs real quick, while Steve orders a martini for me. He said it would only take about ten minutes to walk down to the convention center, so we have plenty of time, and that sounds good to me, I need a martini. As Iím sitting with Steve at the piano listening to Kirk play us his repertoire of classic Steely Dan and Todd Rundgren tunes, I begin to tune into the elegance of the Driskill. The bar is quite large, and the ceiling is impressive. I learn from Kirk that it is only painted, but it looks like real stamped copper, they did a great job. The furniture is Ethan Allen chic, and over by the hallway that leads to the elevator there is the head of a bull, with huge horns, mounted on the wall. It says to all the guests, yes, this is a chic hotel, but itís a chic hotel Texas style!

We finish our martinis and scoot on down to the convention center to get my badge. Steve wants to head over to Stubbs, a Bar B-Q place with a big stage in the back, to see Junior Brown later. So we walk the few blocks down to the convention center and it takes about 30 seconds to snag my badge, and we are on our way. The first stop is a little bar called the Rehab, and a nondescript band is playing some nondescript Nirvana-esque rock. We hang for about ten minutes, which is all the time they had left in their set. The small crowd seemed to like them, but I thought they were pretty unoriginal. We head out down the street, and as I hadnít had any dinner, I grab a slice of pizza. Itís pretty decent pizza, and I inhale it as I take in the street scene on Sixth. There are a some kids dressed like circus performers leaping about in the middle of the street, one girl is trying to juggle but is not having much success. The balls keep hitting the pavement, and when your balls hit the pavement, thatís not a good thing! There is a small group of onlookers standing in front of the Hard Rock Cafť, laughing. There is a line to get into the Hard Rock, so we decide to blow it off and keep moving.

We keep going past a succession of small clubs on Sixth, past places with names like The Black Cat, The Drink, Gatsbyís, Maggie Maeís, The Vibe, etc. Sixth Street is literally lined on both sides by live music clubs, and each of them has a band going, full tilt boogie! Is this what heaven is like? Iíve never seen a scene like this in all my life, even Haight Street in SF during itís second hey-day in the eighties was never like this. We keep on going until we reach a street named Red River, and hang a left into the Plush Room, where a rootsy rock group is holding court. We stay there long enough to have another drink, and then bail. They were all right, but again, nothing too original. (This scenario would be repeated over and over during the next three nights; enter club, hear band. Leave within ten minutes. Whatever band it was, they all sounded too much like their influences, and not enough like themselves, with few exceptions. More on that later) So we head on down Red River to Stubbs to catch what was left of Junior Browns set.

Stubbs is a Bar B-Q joint like no other I know. Itís down home and funky, and the brisket is out of this world. They also know how to make a good martini! But if you go around back, they have a great outdoor stage setup. Stubbs had some of the bigger names of the festival playing on their stage, guys like Junior Brown, Johnny Lang, Robert Bradley and Jerry Cantrell, late of Alice In Chains. We flashed our badges (if you have either a badge or wristband you can get into the official SXSW gigs for free) and walked back just in time to catch the last 30 minutes of Junior Browns set.

The first thing you notice about Junior Brown is his guitar. Itís a weird custom made (I heard Junior made it himself.) thing thatís a double neck guitar, but not your standard six-string/twelve string combo. Itís got a regular six-string guitar on top, and the bottom is some kind of steel/slide guitar. He doesnít strap it on either, it sits on a stand and he plays it from behind the stand. Now, thereís something original, dammit! He played a great all instrumental medley for the end of his show, and he sounded like a countrified Dick Dale as he quoted bits of Secret Agent Man, the theme from Bonanza, and all manner of surf styled ditties, finally ending up with a country/surf version of Foxy Lady! It was after one oíclock when his set ended, and Steve and I moseyed back toward the hotel. Mosey is what you do when you are in Texas, and mosey we did, checking out the other bars, and the scene in general, cruising back up Sixth Street at a leisurely pace, soaking up the atmosphere. What a great beginning to our Austin adventure. Tomorrow: The Show!

Click to read about: Day 1 | Day 2 | Day 3 | Day 4††††††††††††

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