Austin The chaos has begun. Tuesday kicked off the 26th annual South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival, but almost immediately, it was clear the city and festival organizers learned from last year's frequently haphazard experience. Although there were teeming crowds everywhere you turned, the police presence was much more noticeable, and lines seemed to move more smoothly, with almost an excess of staff members on hand for any given venue. Of course, that didn't mean that attendees were able to simply waltz into whatever showcase they pleased, but on this first day, at least, SXSW didn't feel like a runaway train.
After making my way down I-35, checking into both the festival and my hotel, I got myself oriented and headed out for the first show of the night at the oh-so-appropriately monikered Hype Hotel, a clusterbomb of commercial pandering sponsored by, among others, Tito's vodka and Taco Bell (who had reps foisting free burritos on everyone who walked in the door). I was there to see a band I'd meant to catch at 35 Denton, but couldn't: New York foursome Oberhofer.
It's an interesting, kaleidoscopic sort of pop music that pivots from lovely to frightening, often in the space of a single song. At places like the Hype Hotel, the music can be secondary to swag runs, but much of the crowd seemed genuinely plugged into what Oberhofer was doing. It was captivating stuff, full of energy, and made for a great start to the festival. From there, it was over to gourmet hot dog joint Frank, for a taste of RTB2's sledgehammer blues-rock.
I say this with all due admiration and respect: Ryan Thomas Becker is one of DFW's most fascinatingly peculiar frontmen. Something just overcomes the singer-songwriter when he removes his glasses and steps to the mic -- from his foot spasms to his contorted facial expressions, the music claws its way up and out of him, backed by the thick, murderous beats of drummer Grady Don Sandlin. The crowd was woefully thin (chalk it up to an-early-for-SXSW start time of 9 p.m.), but RTB2 didn't shy away from delivering a set heavy on insistent tunes rendered with a firm hand. My next stop was a hike over to the other side of town, and a new-this-year venue called 1100 Warehouse, for a glimpse of some Big D hip-hop in the form of A.Dd+.
Although I hadn't set out with the explicit intent of making my first night at SXSW almost all locals, I was glad I did, as nearly all of the homegrown talent I saw here brought its A game. A.Dd+ (rap duo Paris Pershun and Slim Gravy) was in town as part of a showcase for influential rap magazine XXL, and they did not disappoint. Slim Gravy, in particular, freestyled several verses that were breathtaking in speed as much as vocabulary; A.Dd+ is a big part of the Dallas hip-hop vanguard, and this showcase demonstrated precisely why -- if you can get a half-full warehouse to follow your every move, you're doing something right. From here, it was finally time to dive into the hurly-burly of Sixth Street, and a set from Fort Worth's own, Calhoun. I arrived at Treasure Island (perhaps the most psychotically out-of-place bar in Austin -- which is saying something) in time to see Austin's Black Books wrapping up its set.
Pleasantly spacey pop-rock, with a tinge of folk (which, I realize, could be the M.O. for nearly any Austin rock band), but I was glad to have unintentionally heard some. After Black Books packed up its portable disco ball, it was time for Calhoun to cram into the corner stage and let loose. Tim Locke and his bandmates were in an odd position -- the stage was literally by the door -- so that made for some testy times, as oblivious festgoers bumped into the band again and again through its set. Still, Calhoun's winning fusion of heart-on-sleeve lyrics and irresistible pop melodies smoothed over any bumps -- plus now I can say I've seen Calhoun in what's likely to be the weirdest bar they'll ever play.
I ducked out of Calhoun's set and crossed the street to Buffalo Billiards, for a quick dose of Ishi. John Mudd and Becky Middleton were harmonizing beautifully, lending real weight to Ishi's carefully calibrated dance-pop. The crowd, clustered in close to the stage, was eating it up, crazy headdress and all. I'd hoped to make it into Frank Turner's midnight showcase at Latitude 30, but the ten-deep crowd on the sidewalk, a good 10 minutes before showtime, convinced me to head back to the hotel for a breather, before my final show of the night: Burning Hotels at Valhalla.
Perseverance is an often overlooked trait in musical circles -- it can mean the difference between serious musicians and hobbyists. The Fort Worth foursome overcame an indifferent/incompetent soundman at Valhalla to deliver one of the most potent performances I've seen from the group. That "screw you" energy was pulsing beneath even the most sedate tracks, and the unexpected encore -- the crowd was literally calling for one -- was as punk as anything I've seen in a while. (The soundman, for whatever reasons, refused to turn the microphones or lights back on, leaving Chance Morgan and his bandmates bashing out a furious, instrumental version of Stuck in the Middle.) It was a thrilling cap to an extraordinarily lengthy day, and set the stage for the next four, wall-to-wall days of live music.