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South By So Huge

Austin's little music festival is all grown up

"Is It Too Big?" ran the headline on Friday's Austin American-Statesman, the 'it' in question of course being South By Southwest. And I think I'm gonna have to answer that one in the affirmative. It's gotten to the point where the damn thing is like Mardi Gras, your birthday and Christmas all rolled into one and then stretched out for four days.

If you're involved in music in any capacity – musician, journalist, industry pro or even just a major fan – chances are that dozens if not hundreds of your friends and seldom-seen acquaintances are in town. You start to put faces to all those e-mails and phone calls.

And it's all just gotten to be too much. I took it easy on Wednesday, not so much on Thursday and Friday, and by Saturday I was totally burned out. What's more, it's finally dawned on me that I'm going to have to enter the current century and plunk down for a damn cell phone and a laptop. Launching yourself on SXSW without either of those tools – with pen and paper and the daily papers – is a bit like navigating interstellar space using a compass and a sextant. A few years ago you could still do that, but no more – today's SXSW requires you to have scores of phone numbers, showtimes and club and venue addresses on hand.

And the lines were simply horrendous. The Arctic Monkeys – that little English band you might have heard some hype about recently – took the cake. For some reason, their official gig was at La Zona Rosa, a 1,200-capacity club. And some published reports have stated that a full half of the 10,000 registered badge holders tried to get in. Supposedly badges were being sold on the black market outside the club for $1,000, and obviously even a badge offered only a 25 percent chance of getting in. Yeah, the Monkeys are a good band, but a cool grand for a one-in-four crack at getting into a 45-minute show? No thanks.

And even away from the most heavily hyped show in South By history, there were plenty of hassles. It has long been my hallowed South By tradition to attend the Mojo Nixon party on Saturday morning/afternoon at the Continental on South Congress, and it has always been a fairly hot ticket. But this year's was simply ridonkulous. By two or so in the afternoon, the club was already at capacity, and Austin's new smoking ban complicated matters exceedingly – if you stepped out for a smoke, you had to leave your drink behind and go to the back of the queue outside the club. (If the city government won't let us smoke in the bars, then by God we should be allowed to drink in the street.)

But it was there that I had one of the most memorable South By moments I've ever had. Andre Williams came walking up to David Beebe and me, and Williams was in a voluble mood. I got him to retell the story of Duke-Peacock owner Don Robey's fish-whipping of Little Richard he told me in an interview from a couple of years back ("The Black Godfather," February 24, 2005), and then he was off to the races, literally.

Allen Hill once told me that Williams had told him some tale of Robey and a racehorse. "Yes, let me tell you that story," Williams said. "Don Robey bought a horse that had been in the Kentucky Derby and renamed it and started running it in these little bitty races in Shreveport. He got it in this one little claiming stakes over there, and that horse won that shit by 20 lengths. Now, the feds find out about it and Robey got word they were looking for him. A couple of days later they come to his office and he's sitting there on a barrel and they ask him to turn over the horse. Robey says, "Well, sir, we were driving back from Louisiana and I got out to take a piss and that bitch ran off." The feds didn't believe him, but there was nothing they could do. And as soon as they left he tells me, "You know, that horse is right here under my ass." So then I look down and see he's sitting on a big ol' barrel of soap! He had that nag turned into soap!"

And then Williams expounded on the subject of drinking. His ideas on the subject are somewhat eccentric. He drinks only Bacardi straight – no ice or mixers allowed. He believes that stuff like that encourages intoxication, but that rum alone is easier to control. "I'm 70 years old and I have never been drunk," he said. "Now, I have been unstable from time to time. Make that every day. But I have never, ever been drunk."

Was any of this true? Who cares. For about 15 minutes right there on the sidewalk, Williams put on as good a performance as you could hope to see anywhere. And behind the club, Mojo Nixon, who will be coming out of retirement next month to perform a few rallies/shows for the Kinky for Governor campaign, was holding court in a similar vein: "Man cannot live on gin and cocaine alone," he said. "And God knows I tried."

And in between those two legends, in the club itself, you had Dallas Wayne singing Merle Haggard songs with Redd "No Stranger to a Tele" Volkaert on guitar. Next door at a little diner there was Central Texas Hank Williams reincarnation James Hand. And at that point both of those clubs had 13 more hours of music to go, as did about 300 other venues from Austin's North Loop all the way to South Congress and Riverside Drive.

Madness. Here are some highlights I experienced along the way.

New Orleans's Hot 8 Brass Band took it to the streets throughout the festival. In between getting dispersed by the cops, they put on quite a few funk clinics, including one on the steps of the Austin Convention Center that I watched from behind a coterie of geisha girls complete with gaudy kimonos and white face paint.

Devin the Dude is the embodiment of hip-hop. I get so sick of people pontificating about the "four elements of hip-hop" and all that jive, but Devin makes that kind of talk seem necessary. He raps, he dances, he beatboxes with his mouth, and all of it scrawls positive graffiti on your soul. His show at the Back Room – hosted by Matt "Major Player" Sonzala – was everything a rap show should be, relaxed yet precise, an organized house party.

It doesn't get much odder or more surreal than the Perry Farrell/Drive By Truckers/Go! Team triple bill Scott Faingold and I caught at the Mean Eyed Cat on Thursday afternoon. Farrell and his glam-rock backing band for the day the Living Things took their time setting up, ripped through one song and then split. Always leave 'em wanting more...The Truckers traded off songs from their three front men – Mike Cooley did "Carl Perkins' Cadillac" and had the crowd singing along, Jason Isbell did a song off the new album, and Patterson Hood closed the set with old stand-by "Lookout Mountain." And then the Go! Team came on and plastered an iron grin on all our faces for the next hour. I had no clue what their set would be like – with their recordings it's a little hard to imagine how they make that hip-hop-goes-to-cheerleading-school racket, and harder still to imagine that it will be as fun as it is, but bands don't get much more fun than the Go! Team live. All my grousing about hype bands I did in this space last week? I take it back, at least in regards to these Brighton kids.

Nicolai Dunger is the Astral Swede. He's an unassuming guy with helmet hair and a blue suit who looks more like the Swedish consul to Uzbekistan than the Van Morrison clone he is. His quiet set in the 19th-floor bar of what used to be the Austin Crowne Plaza was a gentle thrill – Dunger's soaring, supple tenor wafting heavenward over his 12-string guitar. It was one of those sets you only see at South By – Dunger doesn't seem to tour the United States much, and whenever he has, Houston has not been on the agenda, but he alone is worth the trip to Austin.

And there were other magic moments, such as meeting New Orleans titans Monk Boudreaux and Willie Tee in the lobby of my hotel as we all checked out. Boudreaux is a Big Chief – one of the founders of the Golden Eagles Mardi Gras Indian tribe, and Tee is the author of such Big Easy gems as "Always Accused," "All For One" and "I Found Out" and an absolute master of Big Easy jazz and R&B. After exchanging a few pleasantries with these guys, we all hopped in our rides and promised that we would be back next year.

So yeah, it might be too big. But it's worth it.

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