Fiona Apple, Tennis and Corporate Sponsorship: SXSW 2012 Days 1 and 2

Wednesday, March 14

12:15 p.m. Now this is more like it: 72 degrees, breezy and the best bloody mary in town at the Dogwood for the Guitartown Conqueroo party -- an annual, free day event specializing in songwriters, vintage rock and Americana. I chatted with Cary Baker -- owner/operator of Conqueroo publicity, and one of the last true souls left in this industry -- about the late fiddle player Amy Farris and let the tequila do its job.

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Dana Plonka
James McMurtry at Guitartown Party at SXSW 2012

12:33 Beneath his black fedora and fifteen pounds underweight, James McMurtry was looking a bit rough around the edges. He sipped bourbon and got his 12-string in tune for a set of some of the best songs -- "Down Across the Delaware," Choctaw Bingo" and "Ruby and Carlos" -- that I'd hear all week. "We Can't Make It Here" remains his biggest hit, the best portrait of class warfare since "Eton Rifles" and gave the Occupy Movement (nowhere to be seen as yet) a shout out, saying, "It's always been easy to pay the underpaid to beat up the unemployed. This shit has to stop." He sounded excellent, shaky hands and all.

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Dana Plonka
The dB's at Guitartown Party at SXSW 2012

1:30 p.m. At the Dogwood, the dB's made good on their reunion promise, with Mitch Easter sitting in on bass and Chris Stamey, Peter Holsapple and one of the most under-rated drummers in rock, Will Rigby, easing into a short set of excellent new songs (they'll have a record out in June) and old favorites like "Love Is For Lovers" and "Happenstance." Great riffs from 1984 never die.

3:15 p.m. I don't have an expense account but what the fuck: Lunch on the balcony of the Parkside restaurant on 6th Street, featuring Blue Point oysters and mushroom and garlic risotto beats heavy metal pizza. This is how the 1.5% roll, and since SXSW is a fantasy, and since I probably wouldn't get another long food break, I lingered on this upper deck oasis.

3:50 p.m. With no chance of making it into the Consequence of Sound party, I slipped into the Ground Control Touring parking lot event for a few songs by Craft Spells, Seattle-ites who have everything twee rockers need to poach fans from Acid House Kings -- everything but stage presence. Lead us not into humility, dudes. Your songs are better than that.

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Dana Plonka
Tennis at Paste Party at SXSW 2012

4:07 p.m. At the Paste and Sennheiser party, the formerly fine music magazine (have you checked the online copy lately? all low me to safe you a trip) was late into a strong lineup, with the lovely and lightweight Tennis charming a beyond-capacity house. Alaina Moore has a sweet, full pour of a voice, and there's nothing wrong with the skating rink organ and generally dreamy Fleetwood Mac-isms, but I wouldn't say the impression cut very deep.

5:30 p.m. After meeting a friend down at the Convention Center for wristband assistance, I wouldn't make it back into the Paste party, so I had to enjoy (with 50 others also shut out) Ben Kweller from the street. He sounded alive and kicking, showing off with a quick jump onto the ledge of an open window. I wouldn't miss the kid when he comes back to St. Louis at the end of March.

7:57 p.m. Finally inside Stubb's, after the longest lines I've seen outside the big outdoor venue since Metallica was in town, Fiona Apple was off to a late start. The space was filled, badge to wristband, for the singer's comeback inauguration and first appearance at SXSW. Once the sound was tweaked, she and her small band sounded fantastic, her songs full of the neat twists and turns you'd expect. The unguarded emotion and sweat poured off her. She has dance moves that put Thom Yorke to shame, and her new material, which dominated the set, was smart and catchy and surprisingly tight. The best show of a still-early week. Fiona is very much back.

9 p.m. At the renamed Emo's ("Jr." for those keeping score), Seattle sextet Hey Marseilles quickly won me over with cello, violin, bass clarinet and gypsy accordion. The band moved from a hush to a howl, all vintage Euro-jazz folk and twee pop. The band isn't the next Head and the Heart, but it deserves what breaks come its way.

9:40 p.m. Leave it to Pennywise at the space formerly known as Emo's Jr. (now called Main; I can't explain this) to make mosh pits and stage diving seem tired, or maybe it was just me. Yeah, probably just me.

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Dana Plonka
Jimmy Cliff at Main at SXSW 2012

10:33 p.m. How long does it take to set up one vocal mic, two acoustic guitars and a drum kit at SXSW? Apparently 42 minutes, which was just long enough to piss off a still post-Pennywise sweaty patio waiting on Jimmy Cliff. But when the legend finally took the stage, he strummed straight into "You Can Get It If You Really Want," "Wonderful World, Beautiful People" "I Can See Clearly Now" and a brilliantly-reworked "Vietnam," sung as "Afghanistan." His voice has diminished not at all, and he sung the soul into and out of every hit. In this trio acoustic setting he had all the sonic space he needed to wade deep, deep into the fathomless "Many Rivers to Cross." My teenage dream of seeing Cliff in person couldn't have been more fully fulfilled.

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Dana Plonka
Lee Fields at Carson Daley Showcase at SXSW 2012

11:36 p.m. Another late start, this time over at the Red 7 Patio for Lee Fields and the Expressions, with your host, Carson Daley. This is as close as I ever want to get to the by-all-accounts perfectly nice late night mogul, and far closer than anyone should get to his exceedingly toolish fan base. But there's no arguing with the choice of Fields, a pin-striped-suited soul legend who still puts everything he has into every song, with a good if somewhat drowsy big band behind him. Funky, for sure, but lacking a bit of oomph around the edges.

12:47 a.m. Another late start at the Carson fest, with buzzed-about Colombian electronic band Bomba Estereo finally taking the stage nearly an hour late. But the two songs I heard were driving, exciting, with a great live drummer and fleet bass and keyboard riffs. Super suave and very much worth the wait.

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Dana Plonka
Girl in a Coma at Studio by HGTV at SXSW 2012

1:35 a.m. My Wednesday night ended across town at the Studio by HGTV (I don't recall what the small club on west 4th Street is named when not taken over by South By and Home and Garden Television), another corporate showcase featuring last act and very much non-corporate punk pop band Girl In a Coma. The young, female trio lived up to their Joan Jett discovery notices, shredding and smoking and loud as I had hoped. They laid down the best cover of the night and a precise, thrilling end to the evening: "Walking After Midnight." I took a pedicab back to my rental.

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