South By Southwest: It Could Only Happen Here

The great advantage of any music conference or festival is the presence of so many musicians in one place, for this concentration raises the possibility of musical combinations you'll never see when the same musicians tour through your local clubs. This year's South by Southwest music conference was a perfect example.

Where else could you see America's two best songwriters of the moment, Jon Dee Graham and James McMurtry, singing a duet on "Laredo," Graham's scary, rock-n-roll tale of a drug binge in a squalid border motel? Where else could you hear rockabilly veteran Rosie Flores singing a duet on Johnny Cash's "Big River" with the Mekons' Jon Langford, backed by Langford's new band the Waco Brothers? Where else could you walk in on new indie-rocker Sally Crewe and find the legendary Tommy Keene playing bass in her trio?

Where else could you hear Lucinda Williams' former producer Gurf Morlix and Alejandro Escovedo's cellist Brian Standifer backing up Austin keyboardist Bukka Allen on the songs from the latter's new solo album? Where else could you hear the Mississippi singer/guitarist Barbara Lynn and Boston harmonica whiz Eli "Paperboy" Reed collaborating on Lynn's "You'll Lose a Good Thing," a song that was a No. 1 R&B hit in 1962, well before Reed was born. Where else could you hear Texas's Roy Head singing his 1965 No. 2 pop hit, "Treat Her Right," backed by Louisiana's Paul "Lil' Buck" Sinegal, who played guitar for everyone from Clifton Chenier to Slim Harpo?

Where else could you see a Doug Sahm tribute that could pull together Sahm's old band-mates in the Texas Tornadoes (Augie Meyers, Flaco Jimenez and Louie Ortega), his old band-mates in the Sir Douglas Quintet (Meyers and Speedy Sparks), and his two sons (Shawn and Shandon Sahm)? Where else could you see a Chris Gaffney tribute hosted by Gaffney's best friend and longtime musical partner, the teary-eyed Dave Alvin, accompanied by Maryland guitarist Bill Kirchen, Asleep at the Wheel's former steel guitarist Cyndi Cashdollar, and Joe Ely's former accordionist Ponty Bone?

In fact, the week's musical highlight wouldn't have been possible without the concentration of musicians at the conference. For the first time in 11 years, the full-sized Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra reconvened. Throughout the '90s, the 13-to-15-piece orchestra had closed every SXSW with a stunning Sunday night show at La Zona Rosa, but an ugly incident between a bouncer and a fan after the 1998 show caused Escovedo to cancel the event.

But this year he decided to make a DVD of the orchestra performing for free in the parking lot of Jo's Coffee on South Congress. The singer-guitarist was joined by a lead guitarist, bassist, cellist, violinist, keyboardist, four horn players, three percussionists, and two female gospel singers. Escovedo could never afford to take this group on the road, but for an annual show in his hometown he can pull it together. And it was worth all the effort.

His recent radio hit, "Always a Friend," began as it usually did, with the guitars of Escovedo and David Polkingham banging out the catchy, Stonesy riff against the sustained lines of the cello and fiddle. But on this evening, when the four horns kicked in, the song was jolted into a whole new energy level--and when the gospel singers started wailing, forget about it. You could see people in the crowd leaning backward as the wall of sound hit them. It was rare proof that a rock'n'roll band doesn't have to lose its agility and vitality as it takes on more numbers.