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South By Southwest Festival: more country than you could shake a stick at

By Clarissa Sansone, March 2002

Whether you were a badge-wielding South by Southwest registrant, a wrist-band wearer visiting for a few days, a local whose town had been invaded, or flat broke, last weekend offered a cornucopia of country and alt.-country performances all around Austin.

Most were part of the city's annual blowout South by Southwest Music Festival, while others were free, usually afternoon performances scattered in bars, restaurants and stores throughout the city.

The festival, as usual, attracted all manner of music buff, struggling performer, slick industry executive, scribbling journalist and paunchy record nerd, who hopped from club to club on a given night, or stayed put to hear an entire showcase. In addition to gigs featuring introspective British pop, hip hop, garage bands and Japanese rock oddities, there were plenty of venues for local and visiting purveyors of country, bluegrass, folk, rockabilly, roots or any combination thereof.

The Broken Spoke, a no-frills Texas honky-tonk whose low ceilings, long dance floor and rows of checkered-tablecloth-covered plywood tables with folding chairs give it a comfortable, unassuming air, hosted a mostly-Texan lineup Wednesday night. Although the place was sparsely populated for the first few acts - a few festival-goers, regulars and skilled two-stepping older couples - it filled up gradually, but didn't reach maximum capacity.

Penny Jo Pullus opened the evening's entertainment with enthusiasm, performing lively rootsy, poppy country numbers. "We need some folks out on the dance floor," she declared after her first song, and the music certainly warranted it. Tucson's Troy Olsen came onto stage in his big hat and flowery Western shirt after Pullus' set, and performed honky-tonk songs "The Memory's Stronger than the Wine" and "Act Naturally" with an uncanny resemblance to George-Jones in his voice.

Two Tons of Steel, from San Antonio, added some rawness to the honky-tonk sound. Shimmying, near-manic frontman Kevin Geil exemplified the early rock-n-roll energy of the music, with rollicking numbers that sounded mysteriously like Buddy Holly (perhaps explaining the band's previous name, the Dead Crickets). Two Tons ended with a surprisingly successful honky-tonk version of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" that segued into "Do You Wanna Dance?"

Austin's own Libbi Bosworth, sporting the wide smile and dark wavy hair of Patsy Cline, toned it down but still kept things moving with kinetic country numbers like "South Texas Highway."

By 1a.m., when Eleven Hundred Springs began their set, the more sedate older dancers had gone home, making way for a younger, tattooed group of fans loyal to the Dallas band. Full of shit-kickin' vigor, EHS went from one song directly into the next, with Matt Hillyer singing lyrics like, "I was workin' on a beer buzz and a one-arm tan." The show at the Spoke closed with a bang.

A mere 12 hours after EHS took the stage at the Broken Spoke, Gurf Morlix stepped up to the mic at Jovita's, a Mexican restaurant with a festive atmosphere, south of downtown Austin. Morlix kicked off a showcase that was not affiliated with SXSW, but with South by South Austin - an alternative musical event with its own daily venues - and with Twangfest, the nonprofit music festival held in St. Louis in June.

Not able to catch Morlix and Kevin Gordon, Lonesome Bob played to an appreciative, packed crowd of diners, afternoon beer drinkers and moderately rambunctious kids. Bob sang his uncompromising, guitar-driven songs filled with dark humor and incisive wit. His formidable stage presence - both physically and musically - made him appear vaguely frightening, in an appealing way. "You didn't come here hopin' to hear Kenny Chesney, did you?" he asked between songs, to the audience's pleasure.

The Damnations (who recently dropped the "TX" from their name) performed next, smoothly moving through vivid lyrics and eclectic yet danceable melodies, making it all seem easy. They also performed two well-chosen covers, including Doug Sahm's "I Wanna Be Your Mama Again" (on their new album) and Bob Dylan's "If You Gotta Go, Go Now."

Later that evening, at the long, high-ceilinged coffeehouse Ruta Maya, Bukka Allen (Terry's son), seated behind a keyboard at the front of the stage, led a group of top musicians that included Rob Gjersoe and Will Sexton on guitar and Brian Standefer on cello, in a collaboration that was disappointingly less than the sum of its parts. The band constructed a thick wall of pop-rock on which Allen hung his earnest, passionately sung, yet unexciting lyrics. Allen, Gjersoe and Sandefer recently released "Screen Door Music," an album aimed to mesh with film or theater, and the music performed at Ruta Maya definitely carried a cinematic feel.

Around the corner from Ruta Maya, at a packed Antone's, The Gourds were performing a less creatively ambitious, but highly entertaining brand of music, wrapping up their set with a deft, crowd-pleasing rendition of the Stones' "Miss You," complete with fiddle and accordion. After The Gourds' set, a highly self-assured Jack Ingram swaggered onto stage with his Beat-Up Ford Band, and powered through a string of rockin' Texas country tunes and the crowd couldn't get enough. By song three the "King of the Frat Country Rockers" (as Ingram has been dubbed) had a brow dripping with sweat. Toward the end of his performance, Ingram covered "Only Daddy Who'll Walk the Line," one of the festival's many tributes to Waylon Jennings. (the late Harlan Howard was also fondly remembered during SXSW)

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