How to have a good time at South by Southwest

It’s that time of year again here in South-Central Texas — time for the South by Southwest, or SXSW, as it’s now known, music festival.

The two weeks of SXSW — which includes film and interactive media components — are a perfect time for residents of Austin, Texas, where the festival is held, to get the hell out of town. If you are one of the Austinites who stays in town, you will notice that the streets are even more congested than usual and your neighbors are more likely than not to have some strange-looking temporary houseguests.

I live about an hour south of Austin, in San Antonio, and, although I am a huge music lover, I have always endeavored to avoid Austin during SXSW, even when my small company decided to help out a few of our favorite local bands by sponsoring a showcase for the past few years.

However, this year my new position as COO of Medina River Records is propelling me into the human traffic snarl that is SXSW.

But, wait! There’s a way out! I can make an appearance at a southtown venue where one of our acts, Rod Melancon, is performing. It should be less crowded and more accessible. Perfect. I can put in some facetime, see Rod perform, and then head back to my cozy hovel far away from the madness.

I wrote all the above before I attended the Grand Ole Austin showcase at Maria’s Taco Xpress, lovingly presented by KG Music Press, Matt Farber Productions, and Carolina Chickadee Presents. I’m back and, I have to say, I can’t wait until next year, because that was probably the best day of music I’ve had since I came to Texas in 2003.

First let me explain about Maria’s Taco Xpress as a music venue. You have to understand, Maria’s is in Austin, which claims to be the “live music capital of the world” (that’s Austin’s official motto — you can argue with the city council about it, if you like). While “Taco Xpress” implies a rather small, dive-y restaurant, maybe even a drive-through place, I know from my experience with Sam’s Burger Joint in San Antonio that venue names can be deceiving. Maria’s is, in fact, a beautiful spot to hold a one-day festival. There is plenty of good food available, ample parking, a large covered patio area with a cool stage. The bar is fairly fully stocked (alas, no Jameson) and the seats are comfortable enough.

Secondly, I should mention that I have a notoriously low tolerance for music that hurts my ears. By way of example, Terry Allen is a Texas icon and I had tickets to see him for the first time several months ago. I looked forward to it for weeks. However, on the night of the show, the opening act was so atrociously outside my music-I-can-tolerate boundary that I left before Mr. Allen took the stage. That’s how I roll.

Not having been to Maria’s before, I went up to Austin very early to beat the traffic. I grabbed a drink and plunked my butt down into a table at the front — I figured I might as well try to enjoy myself while I waited for Rod and his band to take the stage.

Sergio Webb and David Olney
Sergio Webb & David Olney

The first act (I’ll say “act”, because some were bands, some were duos, some were solo acoustic) was okay. The second was pretty good. The third — Sergio Webb and David Olney — blew me away, and that set the stage for the rest of my day.

I had long been a fan of Olney, and knew of Olney and Webb because of a superb live album (Live at Norm’s River Roadhouse 1) from a few years ago, but sitting a mere 10 feet away always makes live music better for me. The set was truly magical. With only 25 minutes to perform, the duo worked their way through their best songs and left me wanting more.

After that, I found myself sitting and enjoying each act, even when the music was not to my taste (i.e. traditional country).

By the time Rod Melancon and his band took the stage, I was ready for greatness, and I got it.

Oh, oh, oh, wait, let me back up. Did I mention that I only had 3 hours of sleep the night before? Loving the day as I was, I was running out of gas around 3:30. I asked the woman sitting at my table — I had a steady flow of strangers-as-table-guests that day (what am I, approachable now?) — if she knew of a coffee shop around. She was in from L.A., so, no, she didn’t, and I didn’t, so I grabbed a cup of Maria’s coffee. A large cup. It was slightly old, but not terrible, and it did the trick!

Anyway, Rod was on stage with his band. He’d picked up one of my favorite Austin guitar players, Eric Hisaw, for this gig. Rod plays good old rock-n-roll, and Hisaw does that beautifully. As I said, the set went great. Here’s a video I shot with my phone.

As Rod’s set ended, that was my cue to go ahead and leave, but I found myself hanging around. How could I leave, really, when Blackie and the Rodeo Kings were due up in an hour or so and Charlie Faye would play just a bit after that?

I won’t bore with you any longer with all the details, but, suffice to say, I’m happy I stayed to the end of the Grand Ole Austin showcase. It showed me that SXSW can be really cool, but good music is only part of the equation. The music has to be presented in a decent place with a reasonable crowd that actually allows you to hear what’s happening on stage. The Grand Ole Austin showcase at Maria’s Taco Xpress filled that bill nicely!

– Steve Circeo


Alan Fox on KEPC – It’s What’s for Listening

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 5-8AM Mountain Time, Alan Fox spins tunes and provides witty banter on KEPC (89.7FM) in the second most beautiful place in the world – Colorado Springs, CO. If you aren’t lucky enough to be in that area, you can still hear Al the way I do at:

Large selection of well-curated tunes and so worth the listen.

And, in case you were wondering, the most beautiful place in the world is…Security-Widefield, CO. THIS IS NOT UP FOR DISCUSSION. It is a fact. An immutable law. Like gravity or the foulness of canned peas: a universal truth that all know from birth.