It didn't take long for Aftermath to remember you don't have to look very hard at all for music at SXSW; in fact, we were barely even awake when it happened. After arriving in Austin late, late Thursday night, we went down to the lobby of our hotel for coffee Friday morning and stumbled across John Hiatt, gruff of voice and keen of wit as ever, playing a few selections from his new The Open Road LP on the KUT Second Play stage. We repeated the scenario Saturday morning, this time lingering long enough to catch ex-Bad Liver Danny Barnes pick out a few roots-encrusted tunes on his banjo. Consumed with directing traffic among the five talented (and apparently tireless) writers Rocks Off had on the ground at SXSW, Aftermath didn't have much of a chance to make out an agenda for our own abbreviated time at the festival this year. It turns out we didn't need to. Besides, we learned a long time ago that pinning all your hopes on one specific performer at one specific spot at one specific time is not the way to go about getting the most out of SXSW. There's just too much that could go wrong - you could be frozen in line waiting to get in, sound problems could torpedo the set before it even gets off the ground, or the artist might be running late or might not even show up at all. (According to our writers, all these things happened at some point over the long weekend, as they do every year.)
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So instead, bearing in mind that every square inch of Austin real estate is consumed by music during SXSW, mostly we just drifted through downtown and let the music come to us. It did, whether it was a face-melting hardcore band onstage while we were grabbing a snack at the Jackalope, contemplative female singer-songwriter Michele Vreeland at the Driskill Hotel in the upstairs lounge sponsored by Justin Timberlake's new 901 Silver tequila line, or some bluesy, female-fronted hard rockers who took up more floor space than the customers at the Blu Lounge. Friday night, after lingering outside Stubb's to catch a little more of Muse than we were able to Thursday at Toyota Center, Aftermath didn't even set foot inside another SXSW venue, happily wandering along the 6th St./Red River corridor soaking up the sights and sounds of the SXSW street scene in full swing. Picture a Moroccan bazaar teeming with bars and bands instead of merchants and you're almost there. Our no-plan plan also made the few appointments we did make that much more enjoyable. Friday afternoon at La Zona Rosa, Superchunk was taut and gritty as the North Carolinians resurrected their slapdash indie-punk, crystallizing on early-'90s anthem "Slack Motherfucker" and having the unfortunate (if unintended) effect of casting the group that preceded them, New York's The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, as a pale imitation.
Saturday was roots day, as Aftermath ventured south for our very first visit to Mojo Nixon's annual "Mojo's Mayhem" all-day party at the Continental Club. We lingered long enough for Irish troubadour The Mighty Stef's Guinness-stout Celtic- and blues-tinged rock, San Diegan Steve Poltz's whimsical, iPhone-assisted narratives on baseball and his recent automobile mishap and The Stone River Boys' country-soul, with ex-Houstonian and Hollister Mike Barfield handling the honky-tonk end and former Hacienda Brother Dave Gonzalez taking over for the songs that shimmered with vintage R&B. And just like Aftermath hoped, we managed to close out SXSW this year by saving the best for last. After a stunning surprise prelude by Mother Falcon - a collection of young Austin string instrumentalists whose set sounded like the lost score from an unreleased David Lynch film - Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears headlined the Austin Music Awards, where they took Best Blues Band and finished among the Top 3 in several other categories, with a raucous, high-energy trip through the annals of Texas R&B past, present and future (as in next Friday at Walter's... be there). Welcoming vocalist Johnny Hernandez of Little Joe y la Familia and longtime East Austin guitarist Blues Boy Hubbard into the fold, Lewis and company twinkled Ivory Joe Hunter's ballad "Since I Met You Baby" and tore through Bobby "Blue" Bland's "Further On Up the Road" before applying the lessons of their ancestors to their own soul-shouters "I'm Drunk" and "Sugarfoot." As the Honeybears concluded their sweaty revue, Aftermath stopped grooving in place long enough to pat ourselves on the back (only a little) for surviving the most spontaneous, and most enjoyable, SXSW we'd been to in years, and coming out on the other side with a smile.