Plenty of Syracusans made the scene at the annual music festival held in Austin, Texas
This year marked my 10th trip to the South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW), the Austin festival’s 25th edition, held this year from March 11 to 20. Syracuse was represented well in Texas. For the past several years a contingent of more than 20 Syracuse University students led by Bandier Program for Music and the Entertainment Industries assistant professor Ulf Osterle has made the trip to volunteer for SXSW duty. Syracuse natives Penny Jo Pullus and Jon Notarthomas are both working musicians on the Austin scene, and this year at least five bands from our region made the westward trek.
With so much Syracuse talent on hand it seemed it was my duty to put together an unofficial SXSW party. So the back yard of my home away from home in Austin played host to South By Sweet Sunday, March 20, featuring music from the ’Cuse— Pullus, Just Joe, Professional Victims (featuring Ashley Cox and her husband Shawn Sullivan), Kim Monroe and Chris Eves—and my neighbor in Texas, Jezebel Jones and her Wicked Ways (from Minnesota), and Austin native Mandy Rowden.
Rowden heads an organization called Girl Guitar, which teaches women how to play instruments and fosters their artistic endeavors, be it songwriting, playing gigs or just sitting around the fire strumming a guitar. I thought it very interesting that Rowden, who teaches and plays her own music, sits in with notable Austin musicians and has received praise and countless accolades for her Girl Guitar classes. She also makes the majority of her living in the Live Music Capital of the World in an all-female band called Cover Girl, playing 1980s covers.
This year we decided to fly into San Antonio and drive north to Austin. Airfare was way cheaper and leaving the Austin-Bergstrom airport last year post-SXSW resembled an evacuation scene from one of those Armageddon movies. Being one of a thousand people trying to get out of Austin at the same time is not the way to end a trip on a high note.
When we arrived in Austin we met up with Syracuse New Times Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) head honcho and Music Industry Conference founder Liz Nowak and grabbed our wristbands for the festival. In years past I have never had trouble getting into a show due to overcrowding; this year we ran into that issue repeatedly.
I think SXSW needs to cap their wristband sales. Festival organizers claim that they have a limited number of wristbands and that you can buy one in advance only if you are an Austin local or a badge holder. This year we saw wristbands being sold for $165 by SXSW reps at most venues in the evening—I call bullshit on that one—so we missed a couple shows that we really wanted to see due to the clubs being full hours in advance. Likewise, those who shelled out the $750 for a badge this year could not have been very happy.
Our first night was spent with friends: We had dinner with DMR himself, Bandier Program chair David Rezak and his wife Linda, plus Pullus, Cox, Sullivan, Just Joe and former Red Creek Inn owner Jeffrey Springut. The Creek was a Rochester institution, much like the Lost Horizon is in Syracuse. Springut now runs Rochester Events, which produces several summer concerts and events in the Flower City including the Highland Park Concert Series.
SXSW highlights from this year included sets by San Francisco band The Stone Foxes, who blew our minds with their 1970s-inspired sound. The Foxes chugged like a train as drummer Shannon Koehler stepped out front to blow some harp and work the crowd into a frenzy, many joining him as he got down low for “Mr. Hangman,” a ripping blues rock number off their sophomore release Bears and Bulls (independent).
We were tipped off to another killer show by Cox and Sullivan’s Professional Victims, who were front and center to watch U.K. band A Silent Film, as they played their official showcase on March 19 at the Rusty Spur. If you like Coldplay, Muse or Radiohead, check out A Silent Film. The band made fast friends with the Pro Victims; a good thing, too, as they were in need of housing when they played the Westcott Theater on March 23.
South By San Jose is an amazing free series held during SXSW, even though it’s not officially a part of the conference. The San Jose Hotel and Jo’s Coffee Shop are staples in the Austin neighborhood known as South Congress. Owner Liz Lambert is known as the First Lady of Austin; her creative business savvy and love for the arts have produced many a good time and wonderful things. This year’s free lineup in her parking lot included sets by: The North Mississippi Allstars, Wanda Jackson, The Civil Wars, Belle Brigade, The Black Angels, Dennis Coffey and Black Joe Lewis and the Honey Bears, to name a few.
Lambert’s latest venture is called El Cosmico, a vintage trailer community in nearby Marfa, Texas, that features lodging and music festivals. On April 24, El Cosmico will be a featured stop on the Railroad Revival Tour. Mumford & Sons, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show will embark on a tour unlike any before. They will travel exclusively in vintage railcars across the American Southwest playing concerts at six outdoor locations along the way.
A regular stop on March 20, and something I look forward to all year is the Sunday night with Dale Watson, James Intveld and Chicken Shit Bingo at Ginny’s Little Longhorn Saloon. I love the crowd at Ginny’s: You got your real-deal cowboys and cowgirls, lots of hepcat dudes with greased-back hair and cuffed jeans, the ladies sporting full-sleeve tattoos and pinup-girl looks, and you’ll see some serious “rug-cutting” in the bar and parking lot. But the stars of the afternoon are two chickens that people bet on to “do their business” on your lucky $2 number.
We got a special treat on our trip this year.
Hamell on Trial played a March 19 party host ed by his longtime friend Alejandro Escovedo at Maria’s Taco Express. Hamell took the stage and warned the crowd that he has a bit of potty mouth and that his host asked him not to swear due to the mixed audience. “So, you have my fucking word,” he said before tearing into his acoustic assault music while the crowd cheered him on and roared with laughter to gems like “I Hate Your Kid.”
After a Hamell on Trial set you feel like you just stepped off a quadruple loop backwards roller coaster with a 200-foot free-fall drop—the man is an entertainer, folks. We got a chance to chat a bit and take notice of all the hipster types that have invaded Austin over the years, to which Hamell asked, “Hey, how many hipsters does it take to screw in a light bulb?” Before I could say anything he replied, “Never mind, it’s too obscure of a number; I’m sure you’ve never heard of it!” Absent from our Sunday festivities were Stone Soul Foundation, the Auburn band that had left Austin a day before. We did catch their set at local rock spot Headhunters and stayed in touch throughout the week. The boys from Auburn ran into some trouble—or, more aptly, trouble ran into them—as they were heading back home on Interstate 35, which stretches from Laredo, Texas, to Duluth, Minn., when they were hit from behind at a high rate of speed. All walked away but most of their gear and trailer were damaged beyond repair.
My first trip on I-35 was years ago when I drove to San Antonio to see ex-Los Blancos axeman (and Grammy winner) Jose Alvarez. I must have appeared a bit tense after my hourlong, white-knuckle drive because he promptly hugged me and said with his awesome accent, “That’s no I-90, man.” The stretch of I-35 that runs from (almost) Mexico through Texas is a four-, sometimes five-lane super-shitstorm clusterfuck of potential death and dismemberment which should be avoided (if possible) at all costs. Just sayin’.
All in all a spectacular time was had, friends were made, business was done, beers were downed and one of us even left with a new tattoo.
Stacey Waterman is the owner of the DMR Agency. DMR works in Upstate and Central New York, consulting and coodinating production and logistics for major concerts, events and festivals.
See more photos at www.syracusenewtimes.com.
Pro Victims: Husband and wife Shawn Sullivan and Ashley Cox show some appreciation.
Hangin’ at SXSW: (left to right) Joe Altier (Just Joe), Penny Jo Pullus and Ed Hamell (Hamell on Trial).