Poi Dog Pondering, an exuberant neo-hippie-worldbeat band that's been a hit at college and alternative radio, was midway through its set at a free outdoor concert sponsored by the South by Southwest Music Industry Conference when a huge tour bus rolled up in the backstage area alongside the Colorado River here Thursday night.
Inside was Willie Nelson, who stepped out after Poi Dog's set to serenade the thousands of hillside revelers--a mixture of out-of-town conferees and the local alternative music fans--with a short acoustic set of his greatest hits.
In any other given city, a crowd that had come to see a quirky, hectic, left-of-center rock outfit like Poi Dog might have headed for the parking lot in droves during a surprise coda of country from Nelson, but not in Austin. And it's not just that both acts are hometown heroes.
This bustling town--home of the University of Texas and the state capital--has a coterie of music fans whose tastes transcend most musical boundaries. The only common thread perhaps is a countercultural one that runs straight from the '70s country "outlaw" movement that Willie pioneered with Waylon Jennings to the eccentric rock strains that currently dominate the club scene.
That makes Austin a wholly unique setting for visitors who come annually to the South by Southwest Conference, now in its fifth year. Much of the music industry of Los Angeles and New York migrates here each March to attend seminars during the day and club-hop into the wee hours, much as they flock to the similar New Music Seminar in New York City each summer.
But whereas you'll hear L.A. music-bizzers grumbling about making the NMS trek, they actually are heard looking forward to SXSW, as the conference is acronymically known.
A big part of the reason for that is the amount of blues, country and zydeco inhabiting the clubs during this five-day fest (which continues through Sunday) as well as a good dollop of post-punk rock and a bare modicum of mettle.
"I think regionalism is a better way of making value judgments on music than new or old," said Don McLeese, a former Chicago Sun-Times rock critic who moved here 18 months ago to write for the Austin American-Statesman--and who attended several SXSW conferences before he decided to settle here. "There's a real sense of tradition down here, as opposed to NMS, which has more of a flavor-of-the-month sort of vibe."
Whether or not Willie Nelson meant to pass on the Austin music outlaw baton by putting in an appearance at the Poi Dog concert (which also featured appearances by T-Bone Burnett, James McMurtry and Darden Smith), many see it happening in a figurative sense.
"Willie's an interesting guy," said rocker Charlie Sexton, a hometown hero in his own right. "Austin's always been like the Haight-Ashbury of Texas or something. There's a college here full of radicals in a very environmentally aware thing, the whole image with this neo-traditionalist-hippie vibe. Willie originally was right in the middle--he was a country star and all the red necks love him, but he also played for the hippies, so that was the first time you got those two groups together."
Noted McLeese, "One thing I've really noticed coming from Chicago is that there the blues fans and bands go to the blues clubs, and the hard-core punk people go to their own clubs, and so on. Down here, it really does mix up a lot more.
"There aren't the categorical boundaries of music here that there are some other places, and there's a sense of the past very much living in the present, and of these different musics kind of feeding on one another."
SXSW has turned into a mecca for bands from all over the country and even the world hoping to get discovered, as well as for recording acts wanting exposure to the myriad of concert bookers and print journalists on hand. And many groups have been signed after first developing a buzz here in years past.
This year's conference registered about 3,000 badge-holders, not counting thousands more who bought lower-priced wrist bands to see the more than 400 live acts showcased. (Last year saw about 550 bands playing, but organizers limited the number further this time after complaints of club grid-lock.) Friday's "North American debut" of Little Village was the top draw, turning away several times the 2,000 who could get into the Terrace Theatre.
But despite industry fever in looking for the next Nirvana, record company signings are down all over, and festival bookers are discouraging unsigned acts from expecting to walk away with a recording contract.
To that end, Roland Swenson, conference co-director, says bands are better off emphasizing attracting club bookers, publishing companies and regional press. "And if they get some A&R; scouts, great."
Signs of the economic times are mirrored in such seminar titles as "Signed and Dropped" and "How to Get Out of the Wrong Contract."
Still, Austin maintains the aura of a musical boom town, and would seem to live up to its slogan as "the live music capital of the world" even in the 51 non-SXSW weeks of the year.
Sexton moved back here a couple years ago after a stint living in Los Angeles, during which he enjoyed a gold album and Top 10 hit. Putting his solo career on hold for the moment, he's formed a band with two former members of Stevie Ray Vaughn's Double Trouble group. The new band is called the Arc Angels and its debut album is due shortly on Geffen Records. The band was awarded group of the year honors at Wednesday night's Austin Music Awards.
Why leave behind L.A. for the hometown?
"First I decided L.A. could do with one less of the millions of people bitching about how terrible it was to live there," said Sexton. "And I didn't have to be there, literally; it wasn't like I was an agent for a movie company or something.
"But, secondly, I can play here more in a week than I can in a year in L.A."