SXSW Thursday, March 18th: First day grazing

SXSW Thursday, March 18th

Getting a first solid look at the South By Southwest band schedule in the context of distance and travel time can put a travel-weary journalist in a quandry: What to zero in on during the first night in town?

As has been the course in festivals past, night #1 became a maze of short peeks that acted as an appetizer to Friday and Saturday’s entrees. But no apologies are due to Thursday night’s bands because even though the mindset is chaotic, the appreciation (where worthy) is sincere.

Things for this writer kicked off at Austin Music Hall, where a glimpse of the end of Jack Ingram’s set showed some solid southern rock chops, not unlike some of the better days of the Georgia Satellites in their prime. Cake followed, and began a set of quirky rock gems (though it’s unclear at first glance whether it’s frontman John McCrae or the mere presence of trumpet solos in modern rock songs that ultimately brings the quirk). I left the show early to try and catch Kelly Willis several blocks away.

Willis–an under-appreciated singer-songwriter from Austin that MCA tried and failed to market as a country star in the days before country-tinged “Americana” music or AAA radio existed–was, as always, the model of dignity and grace on stage, doing a very brief set of familiar material. A particular pleasure in Willis’ case is the quality of her singing, strong in phrasing and diction with the perfect lilt of honky-tonk heartbreak. Willis is currently on hiatus from recording and extensive touring since she and husband Bruce Robison (a fellow singer-songwriter) became parents in 2003, so even the short set was a rare treat.

The B-52’s turned in a high-wattage performance at Stubb’s BBQ in front of a large and wildly appreciative crowd. Though generally relegated to novelty-act status (and karaoke fodder for the college classes of the 90’s) , the band managed to turn a significant radius around their open-air stage into a raging block party. People on the sidewalk outside the club were dancing. Clearly the novelty hasn’t worn off.

The “wow” performance of the night, however, was turned in by Van Hunt, in town to promote his debut album. Hunt has crafted a set of adult R&B, pop and soul songs and a sound that tips many a hat to soul and R&B forebears (Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Terence Trent D’Arby) but doesn’t use them as a crutch in creating his own voice. A very satisfying first listen, put across convincingly by a charismatic, playful performance. Worth noting: Hunt’s set was handicapped by a missing band member. Midway through his set, he noted that he couldn’t do a particular song because “we lost a guitar in Houston.” When asked about it, a tour staffer responded, “Yeah, one of our guitars didn’t make it back from the airport…and a guitar player, too.”