Since I moved to Texas 12 years ago, I have driven up to Austin several times for South by Southwest, or SXSW, as it is commonly known. It’s always a great time for music, music, music and even some good food. But I’ve never seen anything like the party that the town is throwing for this year’s event, which runs through Sunday.
There are gatherings everywhere that are open to the public. Some need advance registration, others are exclusive, a few charge admission. But even if you can’t get into the party you want, walk around the block and you’ll likely find a party you can get into.
I registered for a party that HBO was throwing at the Ghost Room on West 4th Street to honor the show “Treme.” It didn’t really matter. The guy at the door was letting in anyone who wanted to taste the fun. Though it was St. Patrick’s Day and most everyone was dressed in some splash of green, the theme of the party was New Orleans to match the show, which is set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The menu, provided by Evangeline Cafe on Brodie Lane, included red beans and rice, boudin, and the house specialty, Crawfish Evangeline, an irresistible blend of crawfish, cream and cheese tossed with pasta. Perhaps my favorite was half of a stuffed pistoulette, a fried French roll stuffed with a cheesy crawfish filling. I’d gladly go back to Evangeline Cafe — and pay my own money — to have a whole pistoulette of my own.
I had just about finished with the generous plate of free food when I met up with a friend, Deb Orazi, who edits the online Austin Music Journal. We stayed on the crowded patio while I finished my Pearl beer (not free) and she ate. Henry Butler played keyboards just inside the door and Dancing Man 504 gave the gathering an authentic New Orleans feel. And as we sat in the balmy March weather, the cloudy morning gave way to glorious sun.
From there it was on to meet another friend who was waiting on San Jacinto. It took us a few minutes to recognize the place because CNN had taken over Max’s Wine Dive and set up its own party center. Admission was by invitation only, so we couldn’t even get to the door. But the Pepsi Max party across the street was open to all. Unfortunately, the party wouldn’t begin for another few hours. Still, the hostess at the entrance did give us icy cold bottles of Pepsi Max, which held us as we headed off on a fairly lengthy trek to Rachael Ray’s Feedback party on the other side of I-35.
This was another get-together for which we had registered in advance, and we were glad we did. If your name wasn’t on the list for this shindig, you did not get to dig your shins or party otherwise. The party was supposed to go on until 2 a.m., so the Greenhouse setting was not overcrowded by mid-afternoon. That meant no lines for free beer, fruit drinks and Kind Bars. Ray wasn’t scheduled to make an appearance until the evening, but we didn’t mind, as long as we had the delicious cake balls from the Holy Cacao, a local dessert trailer that is developing a big following. Smaller than a cupcake, a cake ball is a delicious bite of cake dipped in frosting and served on a stick. The three versions served were made to match the Kind Bars that had been served earlier: apple cinnamon and pecan, peanut butter and strawberry, and cranberry and almond.
By the time we had returned to the Pepsi Max party, the free kielbasa sausage tacos were all gone. So was the roasted corn. That left us with mini-tacos stuffed with a spicy pulled pork that was a little on the watery side.
The music was calling us, so we headed off to the nearby Cedar Door, where we caught several fun acts including Hank and Cupcakes, a two-person band with plenty of energy and a touch of anger. A little Dead Kennedys, a little B-52s, a lot of style and a lot of fun.
There were several only-in-Austin moments that made the day even more fun. So many cellphones were in use at every site that neither friend was able to get reception on a regular basis. But word reached us that the legendary Wanda Jackson was performing that night on South Congress. By that point, it had been a long, hot day for me. I was glad to drop them off at the outdoor venue where I had heard several bands play off SXSW performances in the past.
I drove a little further down Congress and had to stop when I saw Fran beckoning me in for a burger. Fran’s Hamburgers is an old-fashioned burger joint that looks great and, as I soon found out, tastes even better. A juicy patty on a jalapeño sourdough bun and some exceptionally crunchy onion rings tied me over during the long ride home.
SXSW is not like San Antonio’s fiesta, though both draw thousands upon thousands. The vibe is obviously different. In Austin, the emphasis is on the music. Fiesta is just about having fun.
That’s why both are great. Keep Austin weird, if this year’s SXSW is any indication. But, boy, at the end of the day, was I ever glad to be back in lame San Antonio.
P.S. I did catch sight of Rachael Ray at Saturday’s party, held at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q on Red River.