2012 will go down as the first year that the annual XSXSW event put on by Hillgrass Bluebilly Records went from a regular “showcase” in the traditional South by Southwest form, to a two-day full-blown premier whistle stop on the independent roots railroad’s yearly cycle. With help from Saving Country Music, Muddy Roots, and many other gracious entities like Austin’s Moose Lodge, Cracker Swamp Productions, KVRX 91.7, KOOK 93.5, and most importantly, the artists that played and the fans that came from as far away as Ireland and Australia to attend, XSXSW 5 became a healthy, sustainable alternative to the madness that SXSW brings to central Texas every March.
One potential XSXSW miscalculation was starting the days so early in an attempt to cater to as many bands that wanted to play the event as possible. The day crowds were light, but lively and loyal nonetheless, and people who didn’t show up until the sun went down missed some of the best performances on the weekend. After 7PM on both days, the crowds swelled, in-person and online through SCM LIVE, which saw traffic crest four figures for the online event.
XSXSW 5 was kicked off on Friday afternoon by Patrick’s Beard & the Rusty Razors showcasing excellent Americana-roots songs that inspire lots of good foot stomping from band and crowd alike. This local Austin, TX band was followed by the fella that made the longest trek to the event, Farmer Barrett, who shared his short, but impressive catalog of songs from down under without dropping his Aussie accent, giving the music a very unique and fun feel to the ear.
Next up on the main stage was Chili Cold Blood, who began with their country music side project, The Moonhangers. Chili Cold Blood has been on the cutting edge of bringing the edgy, heavy-metal vibe to roots music for years, but what really was impressive was the authenticity and vibe they brought with The Moonhangers that revived the gonzo, 70’s hippie meets redneck Commander Cody-style funky rocky country that put Austin, TX on the music map 40 years ago. And they did it with superb, spot-on musicianship and tight, professional arrangements.
This created a tall order for Pearls Mahone & The One-Eyed Jacks to follow, and they pulled it off flawlessly, in their first of two XSXSW performances on the weekend. But Pearls didn’t bring any One-Eyed Jacks down with her from Chicago, she brought 5 aces, and when she slammed them down on the table, there were no peeps about cheating, you just sat back and admired the talent.
Run-On Sentence from Portland, OR was one of the wild cards for the event, and they paid of in spades with a rousing performance on the main stage, featuring original songwriter Dustin Hamman and his vocal acrobatics that included voice trumpet, yodeling, and straight-up moans and shrills that stirred the soul, as drummer Dan Galucki attacked the skins and sent any and all flesh in ear shot moving. And speaking of moving, Lone Wolf OMB made the trip from the cracker swamp of Florida, and made his first of two performances early evening on Friday ahead of his upcoming release, A Walk in My Pause.
Collaboration was a big theme on the weekend, and some of the most memorable collaborations took place when CR Humphrey of Old Gray Mule took the main stage. Possessed by Paul James, who was the headliner Friday night joined him on fiddle, and about half was through the Old Gray Mule set, it began to dawn on everyone that none other that CW Ayon was the man on drums. A dance party ensued as Old Gary Mule evoked the steamy, smelly rhythms of North Mississippi Hill Country Blues.
Captain Mudhole kept the the blues vibe going on the second stage with some great songs, followed by the wild, rocking sound of the Owsley Brothers, whose guitarist looked so similar to Dale Jr., I asked him to autograph my die-cast. Then Rachel Brooke, who took the stage flanked by Tony Bones and Antoine Dukes of Viva Le Vox, put on the best live performance I have seen or heard from her heretofore. I was a little unsure of the Rachel/Viva mashup before hearing it, with Rachel’s sound being so simple and sweet, and Viva being so artistic and vibrant. But Tony and Antoine’s excellent style and sense of tone allowed Rachel’s compositions to bloom.
And then it was on to Husky Burnette, who doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the most dynamic, high-energy performers out there in the Deep Blues world. Along with his drummer Tony, they positively melted faces. The man’s guitar is made out of a suitcase for crying out loud! Then comes James Leg of the legendary Black Diamond Heavies, with hair whipping and sweat dripping in a show of sheer blues key-driven madness. How that man isn’t right up there with the Black Keys as far as fans and earning power is beyond me. At some point a toddler showed up to XSXSW, and during both the James Leg and Possessed by Paul James shows, created some of XSXSW’s most memorable moments, as she danced and clapped to the music.
To try and explain a live Possessed by Paul James set is always a futile effort, but I will say PPJ delivered Friday night, like he always does, and crowned a beautiful night of roots and blues magic. But it didn’t end there. Soda Gardocki took a solo set on the second stage, and legitimized the whole XSXSW effort with his legendary presence. I don’t think people appreciate just what a unique and influential artist Soda Gardocki is. How many 12-string banjo players do you know? That unique instrument necessitated Soda developing a unique style that gives the music such an unusual, dark hue to compliment amazing songwriting and an engaging stage presence. When you’re watching Soda live, you feel like you’re in a group of friends, hanging out on the porch, shooting the shit, even if you’re amongst complete strangers, and that you probably own him money.
The only band who had the ability to close a day out so power packed with talent was the wild and crazy Restavrant. Originally scheduled to play on the main stage, they took the second stage instead to make the feel more intimate. They don’t play music for you, they crack you over the head with it like a folding chair. It is impossible not to submit to Restavarant’s music, no matter your musical stripes.
Saturday started off quiet and intimate, as Water Tower from Portland, OR unplugged, and played in the middle of the cavernous Moose Lodge hall, with the crowd huddled around them, admiring their adept musicianship and singing on some excellent takes of traditional bluegrass tunes, with their original compositions mixed in as well.
This was followed by encore performances Pearls Mahone and Rachel Brooke, and capping off the girl-power portion of XSXSW was the legend-in-making, Ruby Jane. The crowd was just beginning to fill out when she took the stage, yet when she began to play, the loudest hush of the whole weekend gripped Austin’s Moose Lodge. This wasn’t out of respect, it was out of necessity, as the mastery on display throttled you for attention. Complimented only by her guitarist Trevor LaBonte, the space allowed Ruby’s songwriting, timeless voice and soul, and world-caliber musicianship to shine. At some point, people will stop talking about how Ruby has played with Willie, Asleep At The Wheel, and countless other music legends, and artists will be bragging about how they once played with Ruby Jane.
This was followed by Lone Wolf‘s second performance, and another great collaborative moment on the weekend, as Husky Burnette joined him on stage for a couple of songs.
Hashknife Outfit, who made the trek out from Arizona played next, then morphed into the XSXSW house band of sorts for the rest of the night, with members backing Soda, who played on on the main stage next, and Tom VandenAvond who would play later. The most packed the Cracker Swamp second stage became, located in the Moose Lodge’s “Member’s Lounge” was when it was The Calamity Cubes’ turn, and calamity ensued right after Jason H. Buchanan threw down a short comedy set. In one of the few sets dogged by technical problems, they played plugged in, plugged out, whatever, it didn’t seem to matter or break their stride, and if anything made the performance more memorable.
Hellbound Glory, my goodness. The only way they can disappoint is if you expect them to let you down. They lose one of the best drummers in the business, and they just kept on going. You’ve seen their show a few times and expect it to start getting tired, and it never is. What made this set special was the amount of brand new, never-heard songs they threw out in dizzying succession. One after another were these brand new tunes, and each one was the best Hellbound Glory song you’d ever heard. And unlike where it might normally take a new song a few spins to grab you, these song stuck to your bones right away. It was mesmerizing. Leroy Virgil’s fountain is far from drying up, it is overflowing, and flooding the streets. They were joined on stage by Billy Cook, formerly of the .357 String Band.
Hellbound Glory’s set could only have been followed up by a living legend, and that is what XSXSW had at the headlining spot on Saturday Night in the form of James “Slim” Hand. Dressed to the 9’s, toting an all-star band, James and company brought class and authentic country soul. The sincerity of the man and his songs slayed the crowd and inspired a floor full of dancers. James legitimized all of the weekend’s proceedings and was in rare form. His voice was so strong and confident, displaying, even taunting you with his deliberateness and control, as his humor and sincerity endeared him to the the crowd.
Tom VandenAvond shouldered the difficult task of following James, and rose to the occasion, starting off with a short solo set, and then inviting members of Hashknife Outfit, The Calamity Cubes, and Ariana Celestine on stage. Your country roots event cannot become officially sanctioned until Tom VandenAvond sings his anthemic song “Brick by Brick”, with as many people as can fit on stage stretching for microphones, and the crowd clapping and singing along. So humble and true and such a friend to all, whenever Tom VandenAvond plays, he feels like the hub in the middle of the wheel that everything else revolves around.
The reason Sunday Valley was the last band to play XSXSW 5 was because nobody can follow Sunday Valley. Listen to me folks, and listen good. Sunday Valley is the best band right now in country music. It may take a while for the world to wake up to that fact, but it is a fact nonetheless. And just like with all the great bands, and the great artists like Sturgill Simpson that truly deserve the success, they’re too humble, too good of guys to do the devil’s work you must do to be “successful” in music. So it is up to us. The folks that stuck around for Sunday Valley’s performance, they will be like the old codgers who talk about when they saw Stevie Ray, or Jimi, or Janis before they were big. Sunday Valley is amazing on expressionless terms, and Sturgill Simpson is on of the best all-around guitar players and singers I have ever seen.
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
Words cannot express the gratitude Saving Country Music, Hillgrass Bluebilly, Muddy Roots, and all the other entities involved in one way or another have for all the artists that played, and all the patrons who came to Saving Muddy Hillgrass XSXSW5. Next year, let’s make it even better!
(photos by Rev. Nix of Cracker Swamp Productions)