AUSTIN, Texas -- Last year, after Bruce Springsteen gave a South By Southwest keynote speech for the ages, I remember pitying whoever had the unenviable task of following that. But it turned out I needn't have worried. For 2013, the SXSW braintrust put the keynote into the capable hands of Dave Grohl.
The Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters main man is a decent songwriter, an incredible drummer and by most accounts a thoroughly decent chap. And like Springsteen, he's also a music fan who has never forgotten what it's like to be outside looking in -- and to want something so bad it drives you almost insane. Grohl got the brass ring with Nirvana, and it is to his immense credit that he understands and appreciates just what a charmed career he has had.
After some preliminary music by Black Violin (a pretty amazing young group combining jumped-up rock and flowing beats with violin and cello -- wow), Grohl ambled out to greet the crowd, donning reading glasses as he fretted that he hoped he "still looked like a rock star." That set the tone for an entertaining and self-effacing spiel in which Grohl traced his career from his early Road-to-Damascus experience via the 1973 Edgar Winter instrumental hit "Frankenstein" -- which Grohl performed a capella, Bobby McFerrin-style, quite capably. He also told some tales about his old punk-rock days, evoking the joy of the do-it-yourself life: "There was no right and there was no wrong because it was all mine."
That was an inspiring thought to carry outside into the beautiful Austin sunshine. Thursday was the kind of bucolic spring day that suckers people into moving here, which they regret once the scorching heat of August kicks in. But Thursday was perfect weather for finding a good spot to sit outdoors and listen to music.
Emphasis there on "sit," as in don't move around unless you have to. South By Southwest has become almost unmanageably huge nowadays, drawing throngs of people numbering in the tens of thousands, many of them credential-less kids on spring break. It's just about impossible to scurry around and see everything you'd want to -- or anything at all, sometimes. Pretty much the entire city was gridlocked Wednesday night, and I had a frustrating evening in which I spent a lot more time standing in lines that weren't moving than actually seeing bands.
Thursday had to be better, and it was. Following Grohl's keynote, I staked out a comfortable outdoor spot at the Threadgill's beer garden and took in some old favorites including John Hiatt, a cat who has truly turned into the cool old blues troubadour he always wanted to be; Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale, two fine journeyman enjoying late-career surges (among Miller's recent production credits is the Grammy-nominated "Leaving Eden" by Triangle stringband Carolina Chocolate Drops); and Richard Thompson, who never ceases to astonish. Thompson played magical guitar that somehow evoked everything from bagpipes on a misty morn' to divebombing Stukas.
Later on indoors, I caught another old favorite, Austin's own True Believers. SXSW has gotten so huge that every available space gets turned into a music venue, including some that shouldn't. The Believers played in a bike shop owned by Lance Armstrong, an odd and acoustically atrocious venue made even odder by all the pictures of the disgraced bike-racing icon on the walls. Nevertheless, the Believers just flat blew the roof off the joint with a blast of '80s glam-punk that has aged supremely well. It was the first time I'd seen them since...1994. I am delighted to report that they've not lost a step.
Another post-sundown highlight was Hiss Golden Messenger, working handle of Chapel Hill's M.C. Taylor, who played solo acoustic in a downtown Austin church and joked that he just doesn't play anything more uptempo than an amble. But his lyrical sentiments are just lacerating ("Heaven is the cruelest of 'em all" being just one"), sung in a plainspoken and quiet voice over exquisite acoustic guitar. It's difficult to describe what it is that makes him so affecting. He just is. There's a new album coming and it's great. More later.
This weekend will bring lots more March madness, including some possible opportunities to see a few big-name party-crashers who were announced at the last minute: Prince, Green Day and Justin Timberlake. The marketing goes on. But there's more magic in SXSW's smaller moments, like Hiss Golden Messenger playing for a few dozen attentive folks in a church.