Sight Seeing

SXSW was a real eyeful -- and earful.

Being blind is no laughing matter -- which means that jokes about being blind aren't funny. Still, as I waited at DIA last week for a flight to Austin and South by Southwest, I couldn't help but snort at one overheard comment. After handing him his boarding pass, a woman at the Frontier ticket counter told Henry Butler, "You have a great seat, sir. It's next to the window." I'm assuming she was trying to be funny, because Butler -- a musician who moved to Boulder from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina -- is obviously blind. So she had to be joking. Right?

Exiting the plane in Austin, I ran into my buddy Iron Mike. A voracious music fan, Mike was the guy who held his bachelor party at SXSW a few years back. Still geeked over meeting Butler a couple of hours earlier, I asked Mike if he'd noticed who was on our flight. "No," he answered. "Who?" "Henry Butler," I exclaimed, fully expecting Mike to have the same slack-jawed reaction I'd had to meeting the legendary jazz figure. "I'm done with jazz," Iron Mike clucked emphatically. "Five years ago, I got over the blues. Now I'm over jazz." The scary part: My man was serious. I can hardly wait to hear what other styles he's planning to take out next year.

All told, quite a nice start to SXSW.

From the airport, I beat feet to the hotel, where I dropped off my bags, then headed over to the convention center to pick up my credentials. On the way there, I couldn't help but notice how many friggin' people were already in town for the fest. Every year, it seems to get bigger and bigger. Used to be folks didn't start trickling into town until Thursday. This year, Wednesday was already on and poppin'. In fact, the cops had already blocked off the streets because of the increased foot traffic -- something that typically hasn't happened until Friday night in years past.

Still, more people means more exposure, right? Well, maybe, except that the quantity of bands seems to have increased in direct proportion to the number of attendees, which ultimately means more competition for attention. For an act to stand out from the pack these days, it has to take drastic measures, and aside from, say, lighting yourself on fire Buddhist-monk style in the middle of Sixth Street or burning an effigy of Stevie Ray on the set of Austin City Limits, what can an unknown band do to get noticed?

Why, hook folks up with free barbecue and beer, of course.

That's the tactic employed by damn near every publicist and record label at SXSW. In an effort to entice industry people to the day parties where they showcase their acts, they pour on the brisket and brews. And it works. Hell, that's how I discovered St. Louis's Leo, a band responsible for my favorite song of the moment, "Broken Record." But a lot of Denver's homegrown acts managed to turn heads without the benefit of either beer or beef. I busted Matt Fecher's chops for being the only guy in Austin with the stones to throw a day party without free drinks -- but the lineup at his Dirty Knees Makeout Party at the Chuggin' Monkey Saturday was so strong, there was no need for added value. If Machine Gun Blues, Laylights and Born in the Flood didn't bring the fire, that would've been shocking. Laylights' set sucked people in off the street as they walked by, while the Flood attracted a group of onlookers several people deep outside the bar's open windows. But it was MGB that made perhaps the biggest impact. As frontman Aaron Collinswhipped out his inner Iggy Popand flung himself into the audience, everyone was mesmerized. During this display, three different people came up to me and demanded, Who is this? Here in Denver, we all know that it's not an MGB show unless Collins is bleeding or naked.

Elsewhere, Drag the River rocked the living daylights out of the Flamingo Cantina at the Larimer Lounge barbecue -- without pedal-steel guitarist Casey Prestwood, who recently parted ways with the group. Although Spacey Casey's pedal-playing will be missed, Drag sounded even more badass recast as a straight-up rock band. I also caught capable sets at Darwin's by the Trampolines and Coles Whalen, as well as the Photo Atlas's performance at the Pure Volume after-party, which was twice as combustible as last year's shindig, thanks to the same amount of sweaty bodies and frenetic activity crammed into a tiny indoor space. The chaotic scene was just a notch below a melee.

As electrifying as the Photo Atlas was, that show was tame as a church nursery compared to Turbonegro's incendiary set at Emos. After waiting in line for what seemed like hours, I finally got in just as the Norwegian act was playing "All My Friends Are Dead." With my pulse racing, I muscled my way to the front of the stage in time to hear "City of Satan" -- a move I quickly regretted. One minute I was singing along and pounding my fist, and the next thing I knew, I was caught in an undertow of sweaty, crazed Turbonegro fans. I ended up losing my glasses when some dude foisted himself on top of the people behind me and launched himself in my direction, landing squarely on my head. My immediate reaction was to fall to my knees and try to locate my specs -- bad move, since I was almost trampled by the maniacal throng. But then adrenaline kicked in, and I was able to throw people off me and part the crowd like Moses. I managed to emerge completely disoriented and blind as a bat (without my glasses, I'm about legally blind). Squinting, I made my way out of Emos, only to get lost amid a sea of people on Sixth Street -- the last night of SXSW is like the busiest night of Mardi Gras -- trying feebly to navigate my way back to my hotel, helpless, like that chick from Adventures in Babysitting.

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