AUSTIN, Texas -- From a distance, South By Southwest looks like a seething mass (or mess) of cacophony, with thousands of bands playing and tens of thousands of people rushing around. But there are still plenty of quiet and incredibly pleasant little pockets to it. The trick, however, is that they're off the grid and you have to Know Someone.
This is my 26th (!) SXSW, so yeah, I know a few people by now. And so it was that I got to tag along to a private mid-day party Friday at a palatial house dubbed "The Castle," which was actually an old stone church. It had been converted into a fascinatingly odd dwelling that seemed equal parts salon and art gallery with fine artwork and deer antlers on the wall. Just being there was a treat, even if I never got over feeling very out-of-place. I wondered if any of the other 50 or so attendees felt the same way.
The occasion was singer-songwriter Patty Griffin showing off a few songs from her new album American Kid, and they all passed the "memory test" of being memorable enough to linger afterward. She played solo, jingle-jangle guitar plus stomping foot and deeply emotive singing. The cool thing about seeing people play unadorned and up-close like this is you really do appreciate just how good they are. Griffin has one of those voices that just pierces, every quaver translating into a shiver once it hits you. It was a pretty stunning display.
Elsewhere Friday, I saw Griffin's sometime singing partner Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell (coming to DPAC March 30 with Richard Thompson); preppy Afrobeat band Vampire Weekend; the very fine Los Angeles band Dawes (opening for Bob Dylan in Raleigh in May, word to the wise); and Divine Fits, the new local Austin supergroup led by Britt Daniel from Spoon. There was also platinum punk-pop band Green Day, playing one of the cattle-call "Big Shows" that have become a SXSW staple in recent years (Prince and Justin Timberlake are two of this year's other big names).
Green Day was fun as always, but my favorite part of it was actually before they even started playing. The pre-show selection right before that was Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody," which turned into a "Wayne's World" re-enactment with the audience howling along every word. That segued into the Ramones' "Blitzkrieg Bop," and everybody kept right on bouncing. Then the lights went down, Ennio Morricone's "The Good, The Bad and the Ugly" theme went up, the band came out and everybody went nuts. Good, stupid fun.
Nevertheless, for all the glitz of the big-name stuff and VIP parties, the heart of SXSW remains the young hopefuls who come from all over the world hoping to be heard. Friday afternoon, I wandered into another off-the-grid club called Firehouse Lounge, where a British punk band called Young Guns was expending an arena's worth of energy to play for maybe a dozen people. Most of the audience consisted of other bands and the club's bartenders, but it didn't matter.
"We traveled 5,000 miles to be here and whether we play for 10 people or 10,000, we're gonna have a good time," declared the band's frontman with absolutely winning, charming earnestness. "South By Southwest is a new thing and we are very, very happy to be here!"
Next song, the bartender nodded along in approval as the band bashed away. The music industry and the rest of the world may be falling apart, but the dream lives on. How can anyone not love this?