Day 2 of South By Southwest 2011 was also St. Patrick’s Day, which made everything all the more crowded, as well as a sea of green. I started the day at the 24 Diner, which is sort of a crossroads in Austin during the conference. Nearly everybody ends up there at some point, since the place never closes and the food is good. It’s also in the same building with Waterloo Records, the city’s best record store. To eat there during SXSW requires getting up early, because eventually the parking lot will be closed for Waterloo Records’ performance stages. On this particular grey morning, which seemed to be threatening rain, they were setting up the stage while I enjoyed my breakfast.
The problem during South By Southwest is not finding something to do; rather, it is deciding which of the hundreds of options you want to do. On this particular day, a Treme day party at The Ghost Room caught my eye, primarily because of the great New Orleans musicians who were scheduled to play, including the Dirty Dozen Brass Band. I really was not all that familiar with Treme, the television series. I didn’t have HBO at home; if I had known that the series was made by the same folks who had done The Wire I likely would have been more aware and more interested. As it was, I found a huge crowd out in the street in front of the venue, snapping photos of some of the actors in the series. Inside, a group I wasn’t familiar with was on stage, but the music was good. Unfortunately, a call from the home office of the music distributor I worked for took up thirty minutes as I sat out on the deck, and I missed some performers I had wanted to see. All the same, it was enjoyable, and as we left, we were given DVDs that had the first episode of the series on them.
Elsewhere downtown, St. Patrick’s Day was in full swing. Not the least pleasure of Austin during SXSW is the warm, almost-summer weather, while Memphis and points east and north are still shivering in winter cold. Rooftop bars were full, and many venues had lines of people waiting to get in. Not far from the CNN Grill was a parking lot that had been repurposed into the Pepsi Max Lot. Here people were enjoying table tennis, Mexican street corn, and, of course, cups of Pepsi Max. After spending some time there, I decided that I would leave downtown for dinner and head out to Lake Austin.
Lake Austin, the city’s primary water reservoir is located west of downtown. It has a couple of restaurants on it, included Abel’s on the Lake and Chuy’s Hula Hut. Chuy’s, despite the Hula Hut name, is primarily a Mexican restaurant, so I chose Abel’s and had a delicious hamburger there, although the lake view was blocked by heavy shades that had been pulled down across the windows. Out on the deck, however, it was a different story. There I was able to photograph some beautiful views of the lake, boats and restaurant decks, including the quaint Hula Hut next door, complete with its tiki statues and palms. Next door, Mozart’s Coffee Roasters made a good place for an after-dinner coffee.
Back downtown, I briefly ran into the Texas reggae/singer/rapper Papa Reu, who was chilling outside his van at the Four Seasons Hotel, before I headed over to a club near Sixth Street called Fuze, where a Texas rap showcase was taking place.
My first day of South By Southwest each year tends to follow a pattern. I usually start the day with a visit to The Omelettry, a quaint breakfast place on Burnet Road justifiably famous for its omelettes and biscuits. Breakfast is generally my favorite meal of the day anyway, and it is especially important during SXSW, which requires so much walking each day. From there, I usually head down to the Austin Convention Center for conference registration, which is generally easy for me, as I am usually a mentor or a speaker.
Since registration puts me at the Convention Center, I usual head straight into the trade show, which is always a lot of fun, especially on the hybrid day when the tech side of the conference is concluding and the music side of it is just beginning. There are all kinds of tech companies showing off new devices, new services or new technologies, as well as all kinds of music companies and music commissions. On this particular year, the Memphis Music Foundation had a special booth, where I ran into some folks I knew.
Out and about in downtown, there were crowds, but not as many as there would be later in the week; all the same, the city had the streets blocked off in anticipation. Once the music week gets under way in earnest, there is an endless array of day parties, live shows, free food, free drink and street performers. It becomes practically sensory overload, a musical equivalent of Mardi Gras with a million people descending on Texas’ capital.
Having eaten at Saltgrass the night before, I grabbed my first Austin dinner at Texas Land and Cattle Company. Both restaurants have great steaks, but they are somewhat different. Texas Land and Cattle is especially known for their smoked sirloin, which is sliced a lot like roast beef; it is coated with black pepper, and has a spicy kick. Also, because it is slow-cooked, it tends to be more tender than sirloin usually is.
For after-dinner dessert and coffee, I headed to another one of my favorite Austin hang-outs, a dessert bar called Dolce Vita on Duval near 42nd in a neighborhood called Hyde Park. In Italian, “Dolce Vita” means “sweet life,” and the name is quite appropriate for this charming cafe, which features espressos, gelatos, sweet pastries and occasionally a DJ late at night. Although there is no end to Austin coffee options, Dolce Vita is always one of my favorites.
After dinner, I decided to head down to Sixth Street to see what was going on. Although there were large crowds, there was nothing musical to really grab my attention. Instead, I was attracted by a local restaurant that had been converted into the CNN Grill at SXSW. The place was full of diners, but I soon learned that it was invitation only, and I could never learn how one obtained an invitation. Thoroughly tired, I went back to my hotel room to get some rest.
On the fourth day of South by Southwest, I drove down from the hotel to a place called Cafe Java in a North Austin industrial park, listening to a CD of early works of the American composer Marc Bliztstein which I had bought at Waterloo Records the day before. Although I am usually a fan of Bliztstein, I cannot say I enjoyed these highly-dissonant early pieces where the young composer was trying to shock the world. Cafe Java had a decent and inexpensive breakfast, and afterwards, I drove down toward East Austin, to a conference event which had caught my attention in the daily schedule.
Unlike Memphis, New Orleans made a big splash at this year’s festival. DJ Jubilee, Anders Osborne, The Stooges Brass Band, Partners-N-Crime and K. Gates all performed a couple days ago at the Only in Louisiana day party in Brush Square Park. But today’s event seemed even more exciting—a bounce music photo exhibit called “Where They At” which had started in New York and was now being shown at the Birdland Gallery in East Austin.
I expected an exhibit of bounce-related photographs and flyers, and that was there, of course, but I had not expected there to be a DJ, or for bounce artists to be performing. I noticed that a female friend of mine, Ms. Tee, was prominently featured in the exhibit; I wasn’t sure she was in Austin at all, but I decided to call her and tell her to come over to the exhibit because people were asking about her. As it turned out, she was in Austin, and I agreed to come and pick her up from her hotel and take her to the gallery.
DJ Jubilee was performing when we got back to the gallery, and I don’t know if Ms. tee had originally been scheduled to perform, but they allowed her to, and she was of course a hit with the crowd. My fun afternoon could have taken a turn for the worse, however, after I bought a brownie from a sales table. I noticed that it cost $5, but I didn’t think much of it; everything is expensive in Austin during the festival. But after I sat down and started eating it, a boy sitting next to me said, “You know those are special brownies, right? That’s why they’re $5.” I grew alarmed, and said, “What do you mean, special brownies?” He looked at me like the greenhorn I was at that moment and said, “They’ve got weed in them.” I was devastated. Not that I had any moral qualms about eating something like that, but I didn’t know, and I had to speak on a panel or mentoring session in an hour back at the Convention Center. And I had my car, and was going to have to drive it over there. I started praying that the brownie wouldn’t have any noticeable effect, and, to my surprise, it didn’t.
I managed to get through my mentoring session fine, and then headed out for dinner. But violent rainstorms came down, followed by absolute bitter cold. New Orleans artists were supposed to be closing out SXSW with a New Orleans Block Party, but the weather would not co-operate, and it was moved into a night club near the Convention Center called Submerged. Magnolia Shorty was performing, and it would have seemed to be the kind of event I couldn’t help but enjoy, but the temperature had dropped into the upper 30s. I had brought no clothing of that type, as Austin is usually bright, sunny and in the 70s during South by Southwest, so I shivered. The rain had ended, but the northern winds were cutting like a knife, so I made my way back to the car and headed back to my warm hotel room.
My third SXSW day began at Magnolia Cafe for breakfast, and then I spent the bulk of the day going around to the various record stores, including End of an Ear and Friends of Sound. Then I headed down to see Bobby Bernard at Sundance Records in San Marcos; his brother Gary is our buyer at Select-O-Hits in Memphis, and Sundance is a great outlet for a lot of our rap product. I had a trunk full of posters and promotional discs for him.
When I got back to Austin, I met one of my homeboys for dinner at Pappadeaux’s, which is one of my favorite restaurants whenever I was in Texas. I ran by Antone’s Record Shop too, but had very little time to browse there, as they were about to close, so I ended my day with a homemade dessert at Dolce Vita.
Al and Vince and I all went to Jim’s Restaurant for breakfast, and then Al had to go downtown for an interview. Vince and I ended up going back out to Backspin Records again, and then to a coffee bar on the eastside called Hot Mama’s. Leaving there, we got caught up in a tremendous traffic jam outside a warehouse that was selling jeans and shoes in conjunction with the South By Southwest week. Live bands were playing there, and there was a line out the door and around the building. Vince went with me to Texas Land and Cattle Company for dinner, and then we rode out to a dessert and coffee cafe called Dolce Vita, and even they had a live DJ playing out on the patio. I wanted to go to the Continental Club in South Austin to catch the Bo-Keys, Classie Ballou and Barbara Lynn, so I dropped Vince back off at his hotel, and headed down there. I had to pay for parking, and it was quite a long distance from the venue, but the weather was nice, and there were crowds everywhere, so I didn’t mind the walk. Across from the Continental Club was an old art-deco hotel called the Hotel San Jose, with a courtyard where a stage had been set up, and about a thousand people or so were out there listening to bands. The Continental Club was also packed to the rafters, but I managed to find a seat. Classie Ballou is a blues legend from Lake Charles, and he performed a number of swamp pop and blues hits, and later Barbara Lynn came on stage, performing a number of her best-known songs. The concert was sponsored by the Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau and the Ponderosa Stomp, and was being broadcast by New Orleans’ WWOZ radio, and at one point the MC silenced the crowd and announced the tragic news that Eddie Bo had passed away. I caught the Bo-Keys first set, but afterwards, it became so hot and stuffy in the little, over-crowded club that I left. The coffee bar across the street next door to the hotel had already closed, so I walked back to the car and drove back to the hotel.