Once the roaring apex of a music-marathon long weekend, the final Saturday at South by Southwest has changed dramatically from the early years. Now it’s the fading denouement for a near-fortnight of tech, film, politics, media, style, gaming, social issues… and, oh yeah, there’s music in there somewhere.
No matter. If out-of-town SXSW attendees are increasingly arriving and leaving early, Saturday still leaves a lot of options for the locals. A final free show at Auditorium Shores was built like a home-team showcase, with Roky Erickson, Shinyribs, A Giant Dog, Night Drive and Bidi Bidi Banda. But we opted for a half-dozen of the countless smaller gigs around town, some directly related to SXSW and others that weren’t. Watch the video above to follow along on our day-to-night tour, but here’s a little more about each stop.
2 p.m.: John Doe Folk Trio at Lucy’s Fried Chicken. Wait, the guy from X? Yes, the Los Angeles punk pioneer now calls Austin home, and he’s even started a new band to mark the occasion. It’s a damn good one, too, with Willie Nelson’s bassist Kevin Smith playing an acoustic upright, and veteran indie-rock drummer Cully Symington on a bare-bones kit. Lucy’s was packed to hear Doe’s still-soaring voice adapt songs from the X catalog to pared-down arrangements, with newer tunes and surprises as well (such as a Spanish-language tune he learned from the late Harry Dean Stanton). Welcome, Mr. Doe, the Live Music Capital is lucky to have you.
5:30 p.m.: Ed Miller & Rich Brotherton at Opal Divine’s South. Speaking of people (and places) we’re lucky to have, this duo has been helping local institution Opal Divine’s celebrate St. Patrick’s Day for nearly three decades now. Opal’s recently closed its Penn Field location, but they’ve opened a new South Austin spot in the bar of the Best Western Plus at I-35 and Oltorf. Following the grand-parade entrance of the Silver Thistle Pipe & Drum Corps, Miller — host of Sun Radio’s terrific “Across the Pond” show focusing on music from the British Isles — teamed up with Robert Earl Keen guitarist Brotherton for a lovely set of traditional folk tunes that went down just right with a pint of Guinness.
8 p.m.: Jaimee Harris at Driskill Victorian Room. Back on the official SXSW grid for evening showcases, we began with one of Austin’s most promising young singer-songwriters, who’s finally on the cusp of releasing a debut album that may well turn heads far beyond the region. Backed by five talented players who’ve locked in tightly to her songs thanks to valuable woodshedding at One-2-One Bar, Harris came across like a tour de force — sometimes full-throttle, other times pin-drop hushed, always engaging and leading with her innate sense of a strong melody. Honoring a recently departed young Austin musician with a sign on her guitar and speaking out in support of local organizations HAAM and the SIMS Foundation, Harris eloquently addressed the serious stuff by with a cover of Peter Case’s late-’80s classic “Put Down the Gun.”
9 p.m.: Little Mazarn at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room. Trawling the two blocks down Sixth Street for this one was an arduous ordeal of dodging barricades and masses of partiers, but the reward was an upstairs hideaway where Lindsey Verrill and Jeff Johnston were playing some of the most fascinating music I heard all week. Thumping bass vibrations drifted up from the cacophony below, a surreal juxtaposition to the duo’s otherworldly blend of banjo, bowed saw, droning keyboards and Verrill’s vocals. The space was perfect, a small open room lined with the most comfortable chairs at any SXSW venue. Little Mazarn’s set was a perfect bookend to Monday’s Max Richter “Sleep” show at Bass Concert Hall: How grand it would have been just to line the whole room with Beautyrests and let these two play for eight hours straight as we drifted in and out of consciousness/reverie.
10 p.m.: Monte Warden & the Dangerous Few at Elephant Room. We almost didn’t want to leave that Gibson Room escapist fantasy, but a few blocks away, country mainstay Warden and his new pop-jazz ensemble were making their Elephant Room debut. Fixtures at the Continental Gallery for a couple of years now, they’ve honed their chops with a fine set of songs that Warden boasted makes them “the world’s only all-original-material cocktail music band!” The crowd gave them a boisterous stamp of approval at the end of their 40-minute set. Now it’s just a matter of how and when these songs will appear in recorded form.
11 p.m.: Knife in the Water at Lamberts. The recent resurgence of this atmospheric indie band, which last year released its first new record in 14 years, has been a nice surprise. A five-piece ensemble that supplements a guitar-bass-drums core with female backing vocals and steel guitar, Knife in the Water gradually pulls you in. Their set started unassumingly, amid chatter in the upstairs room above the venue’s barbecue restaurant. But the more they played, the more entrancing their songs became. It’s good to have them back in action.
A Postscript: Our Saturday finale didn’t fit the local theme (except that he has a memoir due out on University of Texas Press next month) but we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the gorgeous acoustic chamber-folk performance North Carolina’s Chris Stamey presented at the Driskill Victorian Room at midnight. Known largely as a producer and arranger — he was the music director for Alejandro Escovedo’s annual ACL Live show this past January — Stamey has written many splendid songs across a 40-year career that intertwined with the heyday of New York’s legendary CBGB club in the 1970s. (Stamey took part in a Friday SXSW panel about the CBGB scene alongside the Talking Heads’ Tina Weymouth and Chris Frantz, Television’s Richard Lloyd and others.)
Neatly sidestepping technical problems with his acoustic guitar, Stamey and his locally recruited cello/violin accompaniment wove magical spells with songs such as “Something Came Over Me,” “Lovesick Blues” and “27 Years in a Single Day.” Like Little Mazarn’s set earlier, it was a sweet moment of enchantment, right there in the heart of the cacophony.