AUSTIN, TEXAS – A year ago at the South by Southwest Music Conference, Lizzo watched with a wide smile and a hint of jealousy as a photographer for the fashion magazine Elle pulled aside her stylish bandmate Sophia Eris and asked her to pose. “Oh, you win!” Lizzo yelled across Austin’s fabled Sixth Street. “That’s it. I’m declaring you the winner.”
Lizzo definitely can claim top honors this year, at least in terms of what a difference one year can make. Jeremy Messersmith also took a sizable step up the gig ladder at the 28th springtime music industry mega-bash, which wound up Sunday.
Here are how their individual experiences at the festival compared, alongside accounts from two other Minnesota acts who stood out from the SXSW norm.
SXSW tally: For her sixth time at the fest and first as a solo act, the Minneapolis rapper turned in five performances in three days. She went into the fest fresh off signing with Virgin Records, which will issue her 2013 album “Lizzobangers” overseas.
Travel report: She joined the Marijuana Deathsquads/Totally Gross National Product caravan, with whom she did a short Midwest tour after the fest, and stayed at the Sheraton on the north end of Red River Street, a favorite spot of Minnesota fest-goers. “It’s close to everything, but you can also relax there,” she said. “We did some soaking in the pool.”
Best gig: The all-night Totally Gross National Product showcase, where she sparked a rare-for-SXSW dance party in a large audience that included “Home Alone” actor Macaulay Culkin (who later joined his pal Har Mar Superstar on stage), plus about 50 other Minnesota musicians. “It was like a family thing, with the Cloak Ox and Har Mar playing amazing sets,” she said. Some of her actual family and friends from Houston came to see her, too, including her brother and the guy who gave the real-life Melissa Jefferson her nickname.
Other gigs: She also joined Har Mar and Bobby Bare Jr. at the South by Sapporo party (sponsored by the Japanese brewery); headlined the First Avenue/Vita.mn party (another packed, rowdy dance party), and made a guest appearance with gospel-ized Alabama roots band St. Paul & the Broken Bones, who share the same management company (“One thing led to another,” she explained of the collaboration).
Random observation: “It just keeps getting bigger and bigger every year.”
Was it worth it? “It definitely was for me,” she said, downplaying Virgin’s involvement (“too early for that”) and disagreeing that SXSW has perhaps gotten too big. “I’m sure I’ll go back next year.”
SONNY KNIGHT & THE LAKERS
SXSW tally: Eight gigs, five days, eight guys, one converted Avis Rent-a-car shuttle bus. It was the first SXSW for the entire roster of the retro soul and funk band, including 65-year-old frontman Knight. “Having fought in Vietnam, I don’t like being in a chaotic crowd,” he said, “but that’s how it was everywhere there.”
Travel report: Drove straight down and back in their mini-bus. Split their time at a four-bedroom house and two-bedroom condo a few miles north of downtown, rented via Airbnb.com. Knight’s review: “The house was really comfortable. I think that’s the way to go.”
Best gig: “Honestly, I think every gig was better than the one before,” drummer Eric Foss said, which means Saturday’s day party at the popular Home Slice Pizza Parlor. Knight picked the one before it, on the rooftop of the Blind Pig on Sixth Street, where they played to more than 1,000 people. “It was our third show that day, and by then I thought I was done,” Knight said, “but I guess I got a second wind.”
Other gigs: They also hit the Bring Your Own Choir family-friendly show in east Austin and the First Ave/Vita.mn party. We caught their official showcase at the Palm Door on Sabine, which was about half-full but full-tilt with energy from the classic sounds rarely heard at SXSW amid all the trendy music.
Random observations: Said Knight, “I thought it would be like when we play three sets in one night at the Icehouse, but it was a lot harder. By the time you pack up, get to the next place, drag the organ up the stairs and whatnot, you’re doing five times the work.” Said Foss, “I have never seen so many [messed]-up sound guys in my life.”
Was it worth it? “It’s the most time we’ve all spent together, and I think it really energized us as a band,” Knight said. Added Foss, “We met some people that could offer interesting prospects for us. But no matter what, we went into a town we never played before and played to at least 3,000 people total. You can’t replicate that anywhere else.”
THE CACTUS BLOSSOMS
SXSW tally: Harmonious country-picking brothers Page Burkum and Jack Torrey booked four shows beforehand — but on the same day (Saturday), and some on opposite ends of town. “It was just weird luck,” said Burkum. “We made it work.” They wound up landing a fifth gig Sunday with a day’s notice after Austin’s old-school country star Dale Watson called them up to play at his bar, Ginny’s Longhorn — home of the world-renowned Chicken-[poop] Bingo.
Travel report: Drove straight down and stayed at a friend’s house, arriving Wednesday. The downtime left them a day to head out to the annual Heartbreaker Banquet at Willie Nelson’s ranch, aka Luck, Texas — where Willie himself was the surprise guest.
Best gig: “Getting to play Ginny’s was just perfect,” said Burkum, noting that Watson’s band backed them through several songs. “It’s just a cool place with a great crowd, and nice people.”
Other gigs: Started out at the annual Twangfest at the Broken Spoke, Austin’s historic honky-tonk dance hall. The packed front room listened intently — all except for veteran co-owner Annetta White, who was busy calling out the names of people who’d ordered a chicken-fried steak. Their official SXSW showcase was at the far less authentic, yahoo Sixth Street bar Rowdy’s Saloon, which houses a mechanical bull. “I don’t think it’s a good fit for anyone to play music there,” Burkum said.
Was it worth it? Said Torrey, “It was worth it just to see Willie.” Added Burkum, “If we had gone just to play our official showcase, then definitely not. But I feel like we made a good connection with Austin, and we’ll hopefully get to play there more.”
SXSW tally: Seven shows in four days, plus one high-profile panel where he talked songwriting with Bob Mould, Steve Wynn (Dream Syndicate), John Britt Daniel (Spoon) and Matthew Caws (Nada Surf). Oh, those guys. A SXSW regular since 2009, Messersmith came for the first time with support from new label Glassnote Records. “Easily my best SXSW yet,” he enthused.
Travel report: He and his four bandmates spent the night in Wichita, Kan., on the van ride down — “We’re getting too old to do it in one swoop,” he said — and headed for a West Coast tour afterward. They rented a house 20 minutes outside downtown for about the price of one hotel room in town, also via Airbnb.com. “Just a godsend.”
Best gig: Being sandwiched on Saturday’s lineup at the big stage outside Waterloo Records between two hotly hyped British acts, Temples and Jake Bugg. It easily could have backfired and earned him the Bugg-endorsed two-finger salute. Instead, he said, “Everyone was listening and seemed into it. I don’t know if we’ve ever played to that big a crowd who didn’t really know who I was and it went that well.”
Other gigs: The IFC cable channel booked him before the Hold Steady at its “fairgrounds,” complete with midway attractions. Prominent Austin station KGSR-FM had him on its live broadcast at 7:30 a.m. Thursday (the morning after the two car-mauling deaths). He also played official nighttime showcases for Glassnote, Paradigm Agency and Universal Music. “I didn’t really have a bad one,” he said, sounding surprised.
Random observations: “The marketing/sponsorship aspect of it is just getting ridiculous. It seemed like every time I got off stage, I’d get handed three or four business cards from people wanting to use me for something.”
Was it worth it? “Yes, but maybe only because I have the good label support now. If it had been me three or four years ago, I really don’t think so.”