SXSW 2013: Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Phosphorescent, Natalie Maines, Richard Thompson, China Rats and More: Review and Photos

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Dana Plonka
Britt Daniel of Divine Fits at SXSW
This happened: Laura Cantrell, a New York-based country singer and songwriter, shared a stage with two friends, Rosie Flores and Kristi Rose, backed by Fats Kaplin and Mark Spencer, two of the finer musicians in a town that, on this or any week, affords some stiff competition. The trio of voices filled one of the most enduring and endearing dance halls in Texas on a Saturday afternoon at SXSW 2013. And it all happened for free.

But nothing is free in this world. That's why we have the cliché. Even with all the time and resources and will power it took to make that one small moment of singing happen, it felt free -- and all the slavish, trend-mongering absurdities before, after and around it made the moment feel freer still.

And that, all ye SXSW haters, skeptics, opportunists and cynics, that is why it's worth it all.

If I'm sounding sentimental, it's because on a late Sunday afternoon I'm winding my way back home to St. Louis from Austin -- but not quite yet; there are more 75-degree breezes and friends to enjoy before heading to the airport -- but, fear not, the sentimentality won't last.

SXSW 2013 was a brutal and beautiful happening, and here's some of the reasons why.

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Dana Plonka
Phosphorescent at SXSW

Whining won't get you into heaven, or into the Phosphorescent show. NPR has been on quite a run. After last year's supremely naive post by an intern who rationalized BitTorrenting like a 12-year-old, its music blog recently ran a post by Andrea Swensson who waxed nostalgic for the good old days of six years ago when she didn't have to wait in so many lines or spend so much money in Austin in the spring. The author made a sad face that she only saw 30 bands last year. Tip: Try harder, schedule smarter and be less sad. The average sophomore could see that many bands (if quantity matters, which it doesn't) in one day, and never have to pay for the pleasure.

Example A: On Friday night, Phosphorescent, who played as many parties as any schedule could allow, knocked my tired bones through the back wall of the Red 7 Patio. The band started 20 minutes late, but so what? Its 25-minute set sounded like U2 meets the E Street Band in ways that comparison does little ultimate justice. The final, cascading sheets of rock & roll and one long, Youngian solo from Matthew Houck were exhilarating. Someone, anyone, book this band in St. Louis.

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Dana Plonka
James Hunter at SXSW

Who are the "5" Royales? "The guys I imagine started all this." That's James Hunter's terse explanation. The blue-eyed R&Ber is back after the loss of his wife to cancer and the contemplation of retirement. His SXSW set on Thursday evening at Antone's left blisters on his fingers and groove like blood on the concrete floor. When he pays tribute to the R&B legends like the "5" Royales he demands a tribute of his own.

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Dana Plonka
Ray Wylie Hubbard at SXSW

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Dana Plonka
Jim Lauderdale and Buddy Miller at SXSW

Sometimes playing it safe isn't. I've seen Ray Wylie Hubbard and Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale more times than I wish I hadn't had that seventh V&T. Even sober -- that happens sometimes at South By -- I felt the cut of Ray Wylie's mean but generous slide licks and deadly but poetic wit at Stages on Sixth (as did a good crowd of college kids, who apparently aren't all lost to the buzz) and sang along to Buddy and Jim's vigorously reworked country standards (plus one great Joe Tex cover) and originals at the Americana Music Association's event at Antone's. The sound from Buddy Miller's baroquely-customized guitars was anything but safe.

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