In the early days of SXSW the convention hit Austin like a flash
flood. One day the town would be enjoying a relaxing spring day, the
next it would be overrun with frenzied record industry moguls on the
make. It was similar to what still happens in New Orleans when the
population of the city suddenly doubles on the first day of the Jazz
and Heritage Festival. But Austin has grown tremendously since SXSW
began and since the festival expanded to include the film and now
interactive portions everything is already humming by the time the
music festival starts.
As the years go by the crowds appear to be more and more
impersonal. One of the striking things about visiting Austin was
always how friendly most people you met were, but as the crowds of
attendees have grown most of them have begun to treat each other like
commuters on the New York subway system. But not all of them. There
is some kind of magic at work in Austin that allows you to meet
people, and make lifelong friends, in the unlikliest of
circumstances. With the festival as crowded as it is you might not
see close friends at any point, yet somehow I always seem to meet new
people who I end up standing next to at event after event. This
year's version of the unlikely new friend is Dave Arcari, a dark
haired, Bunyanesque figure with an impenetrable Glaswegian accent. I
had a hard time understanding Arcari, whose ready smile and
two-drinks-at-a-time conviviality made nonverbal communication easy
enough, but his merry partner Margaret proved an able conversational
go-between. Margaret provided me with an album, Come With Me... which
proved Arcari to be an excellent National steel finger picking and
slide guitarist playing unaccompanied blues in a style heavily
influenced by Skip James and Robert Johnson filtered through a post
punk sensibility. Oddly, his deep, gravel-throated singing is in a
perfectly articulated American southern idiom. Go figure.
I first ran into Arcari at the BMI kickoff party at Stubb's, always a
lot of fun if only for the chance of getting your first succulent
slabs of that tasty brisket. This year's show featured an unfortunate
performance by Kaki King, who should fire the advisor who convinced
her she should start singing, and the remarkable Mike Farris, whose
uncanny voice is nothing less than a gift from the heavens. Farris
does contemporary arrangements of gospel classics such as "Can't No
Grave Hold My Body Down." It's an old trope successfully negotiated
over the years by the likes of Joe Cocker, but Farris is something
very special -- he really inhabits this material, and is certain to
join in at the highest level of the current neo-soul movement.
From there I made my way to the Hole in the Wall for a peek at one of
my favorite SXSW events, Mike Hall's Swollen Circus. This year the
event was dedicated to the late Drew Glacken of the Silos and many
other adventures, a swell guy and sorely missed. Several of the
people who'd played at Glacken's tribute concert at Southpaw in
Brooklyn were on hand. And of course who do I run into but Dave
Arcari carrying a pint of beer in each hand and smiling broadly.
"Aargh yeergh aargh arrgh yer right, eh?" he said in greeting. I raised my glass in return.
Earlier in the day I was on line to register for my credential,
fumbling around for my ID, when I pulled out a car I had picked up
from somewhere advertising Billy Bob Thornton's backup band, the
"Hey, that's me," said the guy standing next to me at the
registration desk, pointing at the card. It was indeed Mike Butler, one of the Boxmasters, who was accompanied by bandmate J.D. Andrew. They were playing a run through of material from their upcoming album with Billy Bob that night at the Continental. By the time I got there the band was just about to go on and the place was packed. Having heard Billy Bob's earlier records I was completely unprepared for what I was about to hear. This was a no-holds-barred twangfest, five guitars rocketing along in perfect synchronicity, their cleverly arranged parts all interlocking in soaring sonic architecture. Nobody played more than an eight bar solo at a time yet every one of them was blazing away, playing fills, doubled solos and harmony parts with searing intensity. Billy Bob was the eye of the hurricane, standing in place, chain smoking and smiling as he gestured at audience members while he delivered his half sung, half spoken vocals with utter Dean Martin-like confidence. Thornton is a skilled writer with killer new material like the anthem "Shit List" and he spins terrific anecdotes between songs. "I wrote this song around the time my ex-girl friend told me to give up drinking," began one story, which ended up poorly for the girl friend when Billy Bob decided the compromise solution was to take up smoking pot.
The most surprising moments of the set, though, were awesome arrangements of British Invasion classics from the Beatles and The Who (would you believe Mott the Hoople?). The great Stephen Bruton came up on stage (as if five guitarists weren't enough) to help out on an apocalyptic version of "The Kids Are Allright," the greatest arrangement of this song I've ever heard. At the end all the guitarists were windmilling their way through the opening chords from "Baba O'Riley." Mayhem, Austin, style.
Oh yeah, right. Sitting at the edge of the balcony was Billy Bob's good buddy Billy Gibbons, who came onstage midset just to tell the crowd how much he was enjoying the show. Later that night, Gibbons, Thornton the Boxmasters and various friends closed the bar at the Four Seasons and then some, a celebration that spilled over into the lobby well after closing time. Billy Gibbons was just warming up, though, as we will see in our next chapter of the SXSW 2008 saga.