The boy who missed it all

Christian Kiefer reports from South by Southwest

Photo By Don Ennis

Last week, SN&R music critic Christian Kiefer and a band of Sacramento musicians (Simon Ennis, Matthew Gerken, Garin Casaleggio and SN&R contributor Jason Roberts) flew to Austin, Texas, to play a South by Southwest (SXSW) showcase with U.K. folksinger Sharron Kraus. It was the first time Kiefer and Kraus had seen each other since recording their collaborative album, The Black Dove, two years ago. It was also Kiefer’s first visit to the landmark music festival. His adventures are recorded here, and at greater length at

3/15/06—Sacramento International Airport
Sitting at a table vastly too small for five beers and three menus, waiting for the boarding call. The goal is to get into Austin, grab a taxi and get to the convention center in time to get our wristbands before it closes at midnight and hence usher in an evening of show-hopping. It’s a 50-minute window, assuming that we get to Austin at the professed time.

3/15/06—Phoenix, Ariz.
Our plane is still sitting at the airport a half-hour after our intended departure time. Our plans to race to the convention center to get our wristbands are being dashed by degrees.

3/16/06—Austin, Texas
Our hosts, Grub Dog Mitchell and Mo Stoycoff, expatriated Sacramento musician and poet (respectively), have really rolled out the red carpet for us: snacks on the table, extra bedding and clean towels. All of this waylays my fears of huddling in some decayed corner of the floor while oversized Texas cockroaches plumb my eardrums for crusty treats. … Needless to say, we missed everything the first night of SXSW.

Grub asked me to sit in with him and his band, the Modestos, in the early afternoon at a taco place. The trick, of course, is getting to the venue. We have no car, and taxis are difficult to come by. It’s a day of text-messaging various band members to find out where they have disappeared to. I am a mother hen trying to gather my flock of crazies.

It’s worth it to see Grub play, though. His new band is something like his old band—the Amazing Sweethearts—in sound, although it’s a much more mellow (and less drunk) version. I sit in on banjo on one tune and am suitably drowned out by the band. Same old Mr. Dog.

I’ve been running all day and never really got anywhere. Every band is just finishing its set. We all walked across the bridge to see Spoon, got terribly lost and turned around, and finally found the (huge) concert that had been happening all the while right under our noses, only to have the singer say, “Thank you and goodnight.”

3/17/06—Austin, Texas
SXSW is big. Too big, frankly. Had I bought a wristband, I think I’d be pretty disappointed. There are just too many people, too many bands and too much stuff happening. The SXSW fantasies of seeing some great band like the Beastie Boys in an intimate venue are pretty much dashed unless you want to spend hours of your evening standing in line. Frankly, you’d be better off just waiting to see them play a full set in your hometown.

Sharron and I headed over to a church a block off the main SXSW drag to catch a set by Tony Conrad. Conrad is the godfather of much of the experimental/avant-garde/minimalist music happening today, and he very rarely plays live.

Of course, I missed it entirely, but this one wasn’t my fault, as the schedule was printed an hour wrong. Something good was happening in the church, though—a trio of guitar noise and experimentation, the central figure of which was Thurston Moore. A nice surprise, as Thurston didn’t appear on the schedule, and I remain a big fan, particularly of his solo noise excursions and improvisations.

The group afterward—Arnold Dreyblatt Ensemble—was interesting enough to warrant Sharron and I deciding not to speed-walk back into town to catch A Hawk and a Hacksaw. A string section plus a drummer, Dreyblatt and crew performed repetitive, rhythmic drones that challenged my patience and yet seemed interesting enough to keep me in my seat. Fascinating.

The agenda today is to practice the Black Dove set. It will be the first time we’ve been able to run through all the material with Sharron and the first time I’ve played anything with Sharron since we first recorded the record two years ago. Sharron seems nervous about it, and I guess rightly so.

3/17/06—The show
Billy Faier is here to play, too, and it’s something of an honor to meet him. When Steve Yerkey shows up for a visit, he mentions to Billy in jest, “Are you the Billy Faier that Ramblin’ Jack Elliott wrote that song about?” He quotes a few lines from “912 Greens.” Faier is indeed that Billy Faier. Pretty cool.

By the time we hit the stage, I’m suitably nervous. This is material we don’t know particularly well, and, although we were able to run through it with Sharron, it’s still a dicey situation.

It takes about halfway through the set before we really reach our stride. In the end, it feels like the material came across suitably enough that the audience could understand what it was we were doing. In any case, I just played SXSW. So, to whatever else, I’d just like to add: Fuck yes.

Jackie Greene showcased for Verve Forecast down the street from us on the same night we played. Garin and I poked our heads into the packed-out room. Could see Jackie on the stage playing “Hollywood” from his new record. The audience seemed to be digging it mightily. Apparently, soon after we vacated, Charlie Sexton came up and played some with Jackie.

Two nights ago, I played the SXSW festival. It seems like a weird dream now. Already.

And the music. Between my hosts, my bandmates and I, we saw countless shows (and missed thousands of others): Echo and the Bunnymen, the Starlight Mints, Richard Hawley, the Black Heart Procession, Thurston Moore, Mates of State, Sean Smith, Brad Barr, Kris Kristofferson, Blackalicious … and 12 or 30 or 40 other bands, the names of which we didn’t even catch. Amazing. Tired and amazing. And beautiful.