Finally. After two years out of the loop because life got in the way, I'm back in Austin, Texas, landing in the eye of the storm.
Immediately around me was an air of calm, but a glance to either side would reveal the bustle and chaos of the biggest festival in the land just hitting its peak.
I could wax poetic or romantic about it, but the bottom line is this: I finally made it back to the Promised Land. After three years wandering in the desert, I finally made it back. Once I arrived, though, I didn't take pause. This is a vacation for my spirit, but it's a working vacation.
After landing, I hit the ground running: grab a shuttle to the convention center, get registered and pick up my badge and I'm off to the races. I can look around later, the game has already started. First on my agenda is "Sax, Clogs & Rock-n-Roll" (Who picked that title?), the day party sponsored by the Oklahoma Film and Music Office, so I'm off to "The Buffalo Lounge" on 6th Street.
When I arrived, the day's opening act, John Fullbright was near the end of his set. True to his Okemah roots, his folky twang draws from Woody Guthrie and a host of country legends, yet remains in the day. Is it modern folk? Possibly. Mostly Fullbright is a nod to the past with an eye on the future and although the people wandering in were initially more focused on where the beer was and what they could snack on, he represented Oklahoma well.
Next up was Sherree Chamberlain, accompanied by a full band, fleshing out her pop-songstress material and adding to the reputation of Oklahoma's female artists. Once Ben Kilgore took the stage, the party was in full swing, but the audience was finally paying attention. Kilgore's new material isn't a far cry from his days in Hero Factor, but it's broader and more anthemic: entrancing to an intimate club, but built to ring out in a theater or arena. Touches of Bono are creeping in, but polished into a pop soundtrack.
With the audience primed, Fiawna Forte hit the stage with her band and kept everyone in the palm of her hand. She's been a local favorite and won us over at UTW long ago, but I can't help but still be amazed at how much she's grown over the past couple of years and how the band is even better every time I see them. The fact that there was a crowd congregating just outside and behind the band only attested to how string a performer she is and how well she draws everyone in.
I'd started with a sprint and not paced myself, so I cut out for some fresh air and to meet more of the Tulsa contingent, unfortunately missing Kite Flying Robot and Aubra Mae in the process. This was merely an appetizer, however, for the official Oklahoma showcase that was to ensue in the evening. It was time to look around, take it in and breathe, and I did just that: shuffling amidst the growing crowd in the street, laughing with friends and even stopping in for a late-day panel discussion on the relationship between bands and fan communities.
Ahh, the odd peace that comes with an Austin overload. Someone pass me a Red Bull and send me out for more!
The evening opened with Broncho, a perfect jump-start to make Oklahoma night grab everyone's attention. I had to chuckle to myself to see the stage manager stressing out as the band started late, not knowing that the 10-song set would be ripped through and done in under 25 minutes.
Colourmusic tore into its set next, writhing with the crowd as it took its cues directly from the Flaming Lips playbook.
We were only half way through the first day and we've already covered folk, pop, indie, punk and psychedelic rock. And outsiders think Oklahoma is only country and cowboys? Think again.
Next up was the explosion of the night. Pretty Black Chains' new CD is finished and it's an explosion of hard rock with swagger and groove: Led Zeppelin, Cult, Who, Black Rebel Motorcycle Club and Queens of the Stone Age all slammed together into a beautiful storm. The band had the room packed shoulder to shoulder and front to back with a line to get in and people on the street were still buzzing about the Oklahoma City group outside at 2am as everything concluded.
It was only 11pm, however, and we still had much ground to prove. Representing Tulsa, OK Sweetheart was next and took the crowd in the opposite direction. Erin Austin's honey-sweet vocals married with Rob Gungor's Beatlesque arrangements to draw from a completely different palette. When live strings took to the stage for three songs, it only added to the grand sweep of the songs. Even so, this was pure pop and kept the mood light and airy, keeping spirits high and the audience form wandering off.
At this point, Graham Colton was ready to take the stage, but I made a run to Lambert's to meet up with Paddy Ryan for Colour Revolt's first show (of five) for the week, since I had to miss the recent Fassler Hall show. I also cut out during the last song and hailed a cab as Ryan had 10 minutes to cut across downtown, reset his cymbals and take the stage with Aaron Hamby and a DJ to accompany Johnny Polygon at Rusty Spurs. It was a mad dash, but we made it with time to spare and Polygon quickly engaged a small audience and had them interacting with the stage before I ran back to see The Boom Bang close of the official Oklahoma showcase with an explosion of garage-rock.
As impressive as out bands were -- and trust me, they definitely represented the Sooner State well -- That wasn't the most interesting part of the day. More impressive was the camaraderie between the bands.
In the past, much has been said about a spirit of competition and "us vs. them" mentality between bands, but that was far from the case at SXSW in Austin. Everyone was arm in arm, supporting one another, regardless of genre and style differences. I even saw a healthy Oklahoma contingent of fans and band members who weren't playing show up to support the Oklahoma movement.
As much as the evening proved the value of Oklahoma's music scene to Austin and anyone who would listen, perhaps there's more to it. When everyone comes together, we can't help but thrive and move forward. Instead of the recognition at SXSW being the end prize, perhaps it's merely the springboard to something larger for everyone. If we can all remember that once we return home, maybe the tide will continue to turn and create more opportunities.
Chalk it up to a lesson learned. Or at least of promise of the potential we have for more to come. And the week is young. After all, there is more to come and much music to sift through.
Next week, I'll try to recap the rest and we'll see what our guest correspondent, Clifford Cravello, drew from the experience.
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