SXSW Dispatches with April Reese

- March 15, 2012

"Keep Austin Weird"

Austin is known for two things: Its music scene and its eccentricity. The city's motto, "Keep Austin Weird," shows up on everything from coffee mugs to bumper stickers to t-shirts for sale at the airport. Yesterday, the first full day of the South By Southwest music festival, the city was definitely living up to its wacky reputation. While hopping from venue to venue, trying to cram as much music-grokking into one night as possible, I witnessed a girl hula-hooping atop a bus painted in psychedelic colors, a bike cab driver cruising around in a nude bodysuit (a competitive advantage, perhaps?), and a guy walking down 6th Street, the epicenter of the city's music scene, wearing a humongous red cowboy hat and bonafide chaps, eating a slice of pizza.

First up on my magical mystery tour of "Southby," as it's often called, was the Fiona Apple show at Stubb's Bar. Ripping through new material and old favorites, including a whiplash-inducing rendition of "Criminal," she was in top form, proving that the piano can rock just as hard as a guitar. Next, on the same stage, it was Sharon Van Etten, who over the course of a half an hour spun a slinky web of mournful pop-rock, with most of the selections coming from her new album, "Tramp."

We slipped out of Van Etten's show a little early to catch roots reggae legend Jimmy Cliff a few blocks away at the Main, a dive bar with graffiti on the walls. With his clear, shimmering voice and message of love and hope amid the madness of war and poverty, Cliff made the sun come out at night -- a nice counterpoint to the darker tones of the earlier shows. When he launched into "I Can See Clearly Now", the whole place erupted into a kind of communal bliss, singing along loudly, and singing well -- a bonus of having so many musicians in the audience at SxSW shows. The guy behind me was even singing harmony.

Rounding out the night, we headed up the hill to the Central Presbyterian Church to catch M. Ward's thoughtful, introspective heart music. Enthralling the crowd, reverent in their pews, Ward opened then show with a brave, beautiful set showcasing his luminous, rich voice, resonating through the church. In that setting, "What do You Do With the Pieces of a Broken Heart" sounded like a prayer. Later, he brought out a bass player and a drummer to add some more texture to some of the grittier tunes, including a new song called "Crawl After You," about a friend who recently found out she was adopted.

And that was just the first night. I wonder what musical magic today will bring? Right now, it's off to the Convention Center to see Bruce Springsteen deliver the keynote address. Stay tuned to 98.1 Radio Free Santa Fe for interviews and updates ...