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Excerpts from a SXSW diary... Wednesday, March 12, 3 p.m.: The carnage hasn't yet begun, but already the staff at Austin's La Quinta Capitol looks like they've been through hell. One weary employee, dripping with sweat, joins me in the elevator as I head up to my room. He asks me where I'm from. "Houston," I tell him.

"I'm headed to Houston tomorrow," he says with a relieved grin. "Thank God."
I, on the other hand, am sticking it out until Sunday, and things are about to get even crazier. For the 11th year in a row, Austin is going to hand itself over to the whims of the music industry, and I'll be joining the hordes of those swept up in the mind-numbing swirl of humanity and hype that is the annual South by Southwest Music Conference. My stomach churns -- is it dread?

Thursday, March 13, 5:15 p.m.: The performance and seminar portion of this year's SXSW spans five days. To some, it must feel like one extended happy hour. A certain portion of the conference attendees rarely venture far from the bar, spending their days gabbing and shaking hands at the Four Seasons lounge -- the focal point for what little dealmaking goes on at the event these days -- and their evenings darting in and out of live music showcases or making appearances at various record label functions.

I'm here in the thick of it all, waiting on an interview with a performer who hasn't shown. Standing around awkwardly, I'm soaking up smoke and tense vibes flown in straight from New York, Los Angeles and Nashville when I spot the dreadlocks of Houston honky-tonker Mary Cutrufello sprouting from a circle of fashionably dressed bodies. Cutrufello sees me. We embrace, both genuinely relieved to see a familiar face. She tells me about her scheduled appearance Saturday at the Austin Music Hall, and I brief her on some of the best music I've witnessed so far, all of which came on Wednesday.

There was the Justice Records showcase, with its atypically tight set from Horseshoe and a fiery performance by Carolyn Wonderland and the Imperial Monkeys, who were joined by surprise walk-on guest Eddy Shaver on guitar. Later that evening came a harmony-laced performance from the pop quartet Sunshine, featuring Houston native Johnny Goudie and drummer Shandon Sahm, the son of legend Doug Sahm, who was there cheering on his offspring.

A midnight set from the Los Angeles barrio-roots outfit Tito and Tarantula, however, put everything else I saw to shame. It didn't seem to matter that the band (led by Cruzados alum Tito Larriva) spent most of its 45-minute set sitting down. The heat emanating from the stage was lethal, the guitars vicious and precise. Austin favorites Loose Diamonds had the unenviable task of mopping up afterward. But I was too stunned to stick around. It was only Wednesday, and I'd just seen what I expected would be the show of the week.

Friday, March 14, 8:15 p.m.: To say the least, SXSW's nightly ritual is a bewildering sight: thousands of record label execs, A&R reps and publicity flacks, dressed to the hilt and locked on auto-schmooze, spilling out of their luxury accommodations and onto the town's narrow sidewalks, mingling in a kind of clumsy harmony with thousands of musicians, fans and media people such as myself. Last year's conference drew about 25,000 music fans and 5,500 business types, all of whom packed bars, nightclubs and other venues to see showcases featuring more than 650 artists. This year's attendance figures won't be released until later, but one thing's certain: It's a zoo out here.

This year, for the first time, conference organizers made Wednesday a showcase night -- in the past, it had been set aside for the Austin Music Awards -- extending the live music schedule from five days to six. Thanks to the extra evening of shows, Austin's entertainment strip looks to be coming apart at the seams a bit earlier this year. And quite frankly, I look to be as well. Endless logistical problems are conspiring to throw a wet blanket over my SXSW experience. Tonight, I'm making a deal with myself: I accept the fact that the schedule I laid out in advance has to be scrapped. Time to stumble along on instinct.

Sunday, March 16, 10 a.m.: Less strategy turned out to be the best strategy: 20 bands in four nights, four more than last year. The unexpected surprises I found after ditching my set schedule lessened the sting of long lines and packed nightclubs, not to mention the stale beer and barbecue served at nearly every record label function. In the end, I decided that Tito and Tarantula's Wednesday show did reign supreme, not that there weren't some other highlights, such as:

* A rough-hewn Thursday night set by newly reunited desert rock band Sand Rubies (formerly the Sidewinders), during which guitarist Rich Hopkins tore off jagged riffs and sustained distortion with an over-amped abandon reminiscent of the heaviest Neil Young.

* Friday's early-evening performance by Buffalo Tom leader Bill Janovitz, ably backed by the young trio Lincolnville. Richly textured and intense, the music had an eerily enticing Southern Gothic feel, which is odd considering that Janovitz is from Massachusetts and the members of Lincolnville are natives of Portland, Maine. A bit later on the same outdoor stage, Jesse Dayton worked the crowd like a rockabilly Elvis, his band falling in flawlessly behind his bracingly sleek performance. And just a few blocks away, former Houstonian Trish Murphy overcame a cramped venue and muddy sound with a strong set that left the music-biz contingent in the audience (most of whom had come to see Kacy Crowley, another promising Texas female singer/songwriter) noticeably aflutter.

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