South By Southwest Diary: Day Two

Austin, Texas' annual South by Southwest (SXSW) is a music and media conference offering industry-related panels and presentations, as well as more than 900 acts performing in more than 50 venues over the course of four days (March 12-16). senior editor Barry A. Jeckell is in the state's capitol for the event, and will file a daily diary detailing the sites and sounds. For more information on SXSW, visit its official Web site.

As a music fan's playground, SXSW and Austin lived up to their promises yesterday (March 13), as acts tried to entice daytime audiences out of the sun-drenched streets and keep tiring nighttime revelers out until the wee hours.

This day started with a pair of diverse showcases, as bluesman Cedell Davis put forth a half-hour set prior to producer/artist Daniel Lanois' keynote address at the Austin Convention Center. The wheelchair-bound Davis defied his handicaps (brought on by polio as a child), deftly picking boogie blues numbers for a growing audience still shaking off the previous night's activities. Midway through his set, Davis was joined by R.E.M. bassist Peter Buck and guitarist Scott McCaughey for a few numbers.

Though seemingly unnoticed by much of the crowd, the pair of veteran rockers proved their blues acumen, holding steadily with Davis' classic riffs. Buck and McCaughey previously played with Davis on his 2002 Fast Horse album "Lighting Struck the Pine," and toured the U.S. on a substantial number of dates in support. McCaughey, who played a set with Buck as the Minus 5 later in the night, told that he and Buck were excited when they realized Davis would also be performing during SXSW. "We couldn't wait to rejoin him. He's the real deal," he said.

Lanois, perhaps best known for his production on some of U2's biggest albums, spiced up his remarks with a solo performance of his new album's "Transmitter" on pedal steel and another song on guitar. "Shine," his first album for Epitaph's Anti label, will be released April 22.

Austin's own Dirty Wormz were yesterday's most enjoyable surprise, delivering a devastating rap/rock set at a Nokia-sponsored gathering at well established 6th St. nightclub Antone's. Recalling the power of Ice-T's initial foray with Body Count in 1991, the unsigned group's MCs Smackola and Witch Doktor kept an early afternoon audience in rapt attention. Their masked four-piece band laid down heavy grooves as DJ Crash cut wax with skills equal to the genre's masters.

Crash and Witch Doktor told that they are planning to hit the road shortly to support their recently released independent debut, "The Infektion" (VMG Records). They hoped to catch the eyes of SXSW's fickle music industry community by staying "true to our sound. We know we've got what it takes," Crash said. "Now we have to let people know about it."

That event, which served as the formal introduction of Nokia's very cool, MP3 capable 3300 series phone, also featured a headlining set by V2 act Burning Brides, and sets by local artists Wideawake and Endochine.

Roots label New West Records presented the afternoon's most talked about affair at tiny Red River St. venue Club Deville. Established artists Delbert McClinton, Vic Chesnutt, Steven Bruton, and Randall Bramlett drew a capacity crowd. A long line of hopeful partiers gathered in the parking lot, overhearing excellent sets by Slobberbone and Tim Easton, among others, as they waited to get inside.

Back in the Convention Center, modern rock goddess Liz Phair sat for an interview with Recording Academy president Neil Portnow to discuss music, touring, family life, and the state of the music industry. Along with recorded previews of new songs, including the provocative "White Hot Cum," Phair played a short set that included past favorites "Supernova" and "Uncle Alvarez," and asserted that in the five years between releases, she has emerged as a stronger, more confident performer.

"I love performing, truly," said Phair, who was once crippled by stage fright. "I'm gonna tour, that's the raw fact. I'm gonna be out there for a long time, and I'm gonna love it." Phair's self-titled new album is due June 24 through Capitol.

Back on 6th St., upstart rocker Chris Whitley held sway, playing an ambitious solo set at Maggie Mae's for weekly magazine Time Out New York. He coaxed tortured blues out of a shining National guitar, challenging an uneasy audience. Across town at temporary venue the Warehouse (established by Levis and The Fader magazine for SXSW), post-punk trio Whirlwind Heat bashed out a frenetic set that found singer David Swanson frequently writhing on the floor. Bassist Steve Damstra and drummer Brad Holland pulsed songs from the group's forthcoming Third Man Records/V2 debut, "Do Rabbits Wonder," produced by White Stripes' Jack White.

Nighttime heated up with Philadelphia's Bigger Lovers playing at the Continental Club, a venue located outside of Austin's downtown that still drew a capacity crowd and a line outside the door. The modern rock group, in the midst of a tour in support of its Yep Roc album "Honey in the Hive," provided melodic power pop for an enraptured crowd. McCaughey, set to take the stage next with Buck in the Minus 5, told, "I really enjoy the Bigger Lovers. [Drummer/occasional contributor Pat Berkery] is a great guy and a great player. Plus, they're loaning us equipment tonight, so I have to love them even more."

One of McCaughey and Buck's many side projects, the Minus 5 drew frequent R.E.M. drummer Barrett Martin (in town to play with Buck and McCaughey in Tuatara tonight), singer/songwriter John Wesley Harding (who headlined the Texas Union Theater last night), and many normally jaded music folks to the Continental, and did not disappoint. The group's sing-song set provided the packed house with enjoyable cuts from the new album, "Down With Wilco" (Yep Roc), as well as an unexpected cover of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone."

Surprisingly, an 11 p.m. set by Fiction Plane did not pull as many people as might be expected into 6th St.'s Hard Rock Cafe. Undaunted, singer/guitarist Joe Sumner (son of Sting), plowed through an energetic set that rewarded those who made it. "We don't care," Sumner told about the half-full venue. "We'll play to one or a hundred people. It's better to have a few people who are really into it, like tonight, than to play to more people who are ambivalent." From Austin, the U.K.-based group's tour goes on to play Orlando, Fla., tomorrow. Fiction Plane's MCA debut, "Everything Will Never Be OK," was released this week.

While country fans filled the large outdoor venue Stubb's for sets by Bruce Robison and Lee Ann Womack, indie rock upstart the Mooney Suzuki was one of the hottest draws back on 6th. St. Even though the group's irreverent punk set failed to meet the standards of its album "Electric Sweat" (recently reissued by Columbia), the sweat-drenched crowd didn't seem to mind. Further down the street, Arena Rock act Pilot To Gunner presented substantially better fare for a large crowd at Buffalo Billiards, followed by a sluggish set by Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Calla.