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March 13, 2012

SXSW Day 1: March Madness

Editor's note: Seven Days music editor Dan Bolles is in Austin, Texas, this week attending the annual South By Southwest Music Festival.

I'm sitting on a second-floor patio at the Austin Convention Center, overlooking throngs of lanyard-clad hipsters milling about on the street below. Most look confused. I can identify. But there's a palpable excitement in the air, too. That warm, welcoming Texas air. (It's about 80 degrees today. I believe I'm already sunburned.)

I arrive in Austin last night tired and irritable, and about an hour and a half late due to a lengthy delay in Hotlanta. But within minutes of touching down, I find myself in a ramshackle cantina call Polvos, gorging on the best Tex Mex I've had in years and swilling ice-cold Lone Star beers. My moods improves quickly, and drastically.

I make my way into in downtoan Austin and meet an old friend, Mike, at quiet bar removed from the bustling crowds a block away. Mike tells me he's been in town for 36 hours. He hasn't slept. He's a little tipsy. But he's jazzed for an afterparty with some bands on his label. Mike works for a subsidiary of a big-deal record company as a digital marketing something or other. He's says we're on the VIP list.

We're whisked past the line at what appears to have been a restaurant in a former life, but has been commandeered and transformed into a rock club solely for SXSW. I'm told this is not unusual and that entire buildings are often repurposed as rock-and-roll playpens during the conference every March. We discover there is free beer. I'm told this is also not unusual. My liver cringes.

ZZ WardA young woman named ZZ Ward takes the stage, vaguely reminding me of Spike from (the original) "Degrassi Junior High." I find her name unfortunate as it makes me long for M. Ward. And ZZ Top. Instead, I get paint-by-numbers teen-girl pop-rock. The kind of stuff Miley Cyrus might record as a B-side. This makes sense. Ward is on Hollywood Records, which is owned by Disney. Ward drops an F-bomb. I scan the room for mouse ears.

The next act is a Somali hip-hop artist, K'naan. I'm told his mother shipped him and his sister to the States before things got really bad in Somalia, though not before he witnessed two childhood friends gunned down in the street. He also is apparently NPR's go-to guy for all things related to Somali pirates. His music is moving, his flow urgent and impassioned, yet eerily calming. It's poppy, and ready-made for radio. But there's no mistaking the power in his words.

The next band plays the best set I'll likely see all week. This makes me sad, since I've barely been in town for five hours. They're called Dead Sara and are fronted by a woman who may be the second coming of Bikini Kill's Kathleen Hanna. Or GG Allin. Over a bruising maelstrom of metal-tinged punk, she wails and howls, contorting her body in gruesome fashion. She shreds on guitar. At one point, she leaps about 10 feet into the air, launching herself from atop the drum set over a distorted guitar sustain. At the precise moment she lands, her band explodes behind her, sending this rock-and-roll banshee into a conniption. Drenched in sweat, strands of hair matted to her twisted face, she seems the raw embodiment of rock and sex. It's frightening. And irresistible. I wonder if I'm in love.

I think I like Austin. 


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