Music Cities

Texas has its own brand of March Madness

In March, the most loved and feared four-letter word in Texas is SXSW. What started as a way to drum up some business for Austin's bars and taverns while the University of Texas student population was elsewhere on spring break has become the worldwide music business' springtime playpen of choice, with bands and badges and barbecue as far as the eye can see.

Deals still do get done at SXSW, but the festival's balance of power has shifted from the music-biz insiders comparing notes at the Four Seasons bar to average music fans, who flock to Austin from all over to take advantage of the growing number of day parties and pirate showcases that require no credentials at all besides a plastic cup for the free beer. But whether you're an Armani-clad label exec chasing the next Lil' Wayne or an up-and-coming indie-rock band still sleeping in your van, the most foolproof strategy for getting your money's worth out of SXSW is the same: Just show up.

With so many hungry performers passing through, it was inevitable that SXSW would spread to other parts of Texas. Up north, Denton is pinning its hopes of branding itself as a first-class music city on the second-year North by 35 festival, which came together at the last minute but made national music news when Oklahoma's The Flaming Lips signed on as headliners.

Allen Hill says that gigs like this one — on the sidewalk in front of Rue's Antiques on South Congress — are rare instances in which Austin lives up to its self-proclaimed title as Live Music Capital of the World.
Courtesy of Allen Hill Entertainment
Allen Hill says that gigs like this one — on the sidewalk in front of Rue's Antiques on South Congress — are rare instances in which Austin lives up to its self-proclaimed title as Live Music Capital of the World.

Meanwhile, in Houston, Super Happy Fun Land is in its sixth year of hosting SXSW Overflow Fest, a two-week event now almost 100 performers strong that offers a place to play — plus food, lodging and maybe even an audience — to artists headed to or from Austin. Although it's still somewhat under the radar in its own hometown, it's both an affordable alternative for Houstonians who choose to stay put and a reminder of SXSWs long ago, when unknown artists were just grateful for the opportunity to unpack their gear and plug in their amps.

So Houston, Denton or Austin, no matter where you wind up over the next two weeks, chances are you'll be hearing that four-letter word quite a bit. That's why in Texas, March Madness has nothing whatsoever to do with basketball. — Chris Gray, Music Editor

At South By Southwest, the best plan
is to have no plan at all

by John Nova Lomax

It all started a generation ago with a bright idea. In 1987, two Austin Chronicle employees, former band manager and nightclub owner Roland Swenson and his friend Louis Jay Meyers, approached their bosses — editor Louis Black and publisher Nick Barbaro — with the idea of having a music festival in Austin.

In part, they wanted to do something about an old dilemma. Every year, while the University of Texas kids were down at Padre for spring break, the Lone Star State's top party town was faced with a week of empty barstools. What to do? Eventually, after weeks of meetings, the foursome came up with the idea of South By Southwest. Little could they imagine it then — and maybe some of them might regret this — but one day, South By would eventually become a spring break destination in its own right.

Today, for music lovers, SXSW is something like MLB's Opening Day, Mardi Gras, Fashion Week and the Super Bowl all rolled into one. (And it's not just for music lovers [March 17-21] anymore: These days, the Film [March 12-20] and Interactive [March 12-16] festivals are almost as prominent for cinephiles and geeks.) For the better part of a week, hipsters old and young descend upon the Capital City, and for that one week it does in fact live up to its self-proclaimed designation as The Live Music Capital of the World. And if you throw in the Film and Interactive portions of the schmoozathon, it's safe to say that for much of March, Austin is the creative nexus of Planet Earth, version 2.0.

According to its own literature, SXSW's original goal was "to create an event that would act as a tool for creative people and the companies they work with to develop their careers, to bring together people from a wide area to meet and share ideas." It's safe to say that goal has been accomplished, in ways both large and small. Back in 2007, Twitter was more or less unleashed on an unsuspecting world at SXSW Interactive. Three short years later, we are all sick of hearing that geeky mumbo-jumbo about how Twitter will revolutionize society, 140 characters at a time.

On a more micro level, there are absolute multitudes of people like Allen Hill. His group, the Allen Oldies Band, is a slightly surreal if self-explanatory cover band. Led by the insanely energetic, redheaded Hill, they don tuxes and perform hits from the pre-LSD, pre-self-indulgence era of rock and roll, music from the days when it was all about getting people to dance rather than marvel slack-jawed at the virtuosity of the players or profundity of the lyricists. It's a simple message, and Hill delivers it with unvarnished sincerity and expends about as much energy in doing so as the entire Army Air Corps unleashed in the European Theater of World War II.

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