One thing nobody seems to warn you about South By Southwest is that you can't really trust the schedules too much. Band lineups you'll study online a week or two before the festival don't always correspond with the lineups in the pocket guide handed out to registrants as SXSW starts, which don't always correspond with the lineups posted on club's doors on the days the shows happen. And at lots of clubs, bands get crossed out and set times shuffled all night. That said, if you're persistent, you still might catch some of the acts you came for, or be surprised by some that didn't. Here were some off-the-beaten track highlights of SXSW 2011.
Easy Action, The Ale House, Wednesday night. The 6th Street dive is so hidden that you need to go around a back alley to get there, which probably explains why fewer than 20 people (many of them in T-shirts of loud rock bands whose names start with M: Motörhead, Melvins, Municipal Waste) were watching when this Michigan four-piece took the stage. The guitarist had too much hair to see his eyes; the bassist didn't have any, except for a furry mustache; the drummer wore a Detroit Lions shirt; and they laid down a wicked throb that moved its black metal and spurting noise more toward blues-based rusty-bodyshop rock'n'roll, including one Bo Diddley beat stomp, as the set progressed. The singer, John Brannon, wearing black from his work boots up to his hair, had helped invent hardcore in the early Eighties in Negative Approach then pigfuck in the Laughing Hyenas, and he looked as scary and disgusted on stage as he did decades ago, still scrunching up his face like somebody had just beat it in and he wanted revenge, still letting his eyes roll back in his head, still winding up his Iggy-on-Funhouse wail and letting it unravel as he shrieked about hands 'round your throat. Deadly cover of Cheap Trick's "Elo Kiddies," too.
Brent Amaker and the Rodeo, Velveeta Room, Wednesday night. Texas troubadour Ray Wylie Hubbard must've been knocked out of the lineup at some point, but it was still fun to walk in on these black-clad Seattlites turning a Kraftwerk calculator-pop number into a speed-hoedown; their originals, too, thankfully came off more old-school cowpunk than snoozy alt-country. Later, Amaker revealed that the band's real name might technically have several rhyming swear words before the "Rodeo."
Weedeater, Scoot Inn, Thursday afternoon. North Carolina redneck stoner sludge, played outside in front of lots of people with skateboards, on a shack-like bar's outside patio several blocks east of I-35 and just a couple blocks east on 4th Street past the Austin Metal & Tire Co: "We Recycle All Metals," the big red sign in front says. And Weedeater were recycling a few themselves, from their slow-burning downtuned riffs to their Antiseen T-shirts and camouflaged hunting caps to their growled, barely decipherable cover of Lynyrd Skynyrd's potential N.R.A. anthem "Gimme Back My Bullets."
Mutiny On the Bounty, Prague, Thursday night. The schedule-listed metal bands from Croatia and Pakistan didn't show up, for some reason, but these electronic-sample-augmented, intermittently instrumental, Luxembourg math rockers filled in pretty well, despite taking forever to do a sound check as St. Patrick's Day drunks grew impatient in the booths. They're on their way up, apparently – "We just played Weees-kon-sin, and now we are here!" As their time shifts demonstrated a commendable grasp of trigonometry, their drummer occasionally shouted slogans while everybody else jumped all over the place. And Prague's behind-the-Iron-Curtain underground-tavern feel added more weirdness factor.
Les Butcherettes, Flamingo Cantina, Thursday night. Neither "all girls," nor "garage rock" as past notices have suggested – apparently both their lineup and sound have shifted a bit since 2007 – this Guadalajara trio was still pretty striking, mainly thanks to guitaring-and-keyboarding frontwoman Terri Gender Bender, whose pink flowery dress and bright red lips proved a startling contrast to her imposing demeanor, alternately crazy- and glassy-eyed stare, and her husky P.J. Harvey rasp. Her drummer and bassist, meanwhile, locked in with Terri's instruments for a forced rumble-and-push post-punk funk.
Big Freedia, Beauty Bar, Thursday night. Probably this writer's favorite SXSW set: Towering transvestite New Orleans bounce-rapper Big Freedia, resplendent in red leather above white T-shirt and spangly bracelets and below sparkling Christmas-tree-ornament earrings and long ponytail extensions, channeling Little Richard on a stage that could've been in small-town church basement, with late sainted bounce-rapper Magnolia Shorty's picture on the DJ table. Male and female dancers – the latter looking like she just stepped out of a La Grange cathouse, with huge painted-on eyelashes – helped Big Freedia roll rump-cheeks in the crowd's direction. The raps were ebullient chants, really: "Spicey! He really like me! His old lady! She wanna fight me!" "I got that gin in my system! Somebody gonna be my victim!" Before it was over, much of the audience had taken Big Freedia up on an offer to join him/her up there on stage.
Terri Clark, Momo's, Saturday night. Country belter who peaked chartwise in the Nineties sits on a stool, strums Johnny Cash and Warren Zevon (via Linda Ronstadt) songs, says she used to get called on to imitate male singers a lot because of her husky voice but didn't want to take testosterone shots, does some tunes to let single ladies know there's nothing wrong with them, makes fun of her own Canadian accent, and says she left her cowboy hat in the car, but don't worry – "I am still Patty Loveless." Funny.
Bubble Puppy, Austin Music Hall, Saturday night. In 1969, this San Antonio unit had a brief moment in the sun – their burbling garage-on-the-verge-of-psych nugget "Hot Smoke & Sassafrass" reached No. 14 on Billboard's pop chart. They later moved to California and evolved into an ominous proto-metal band called Demian. Forty years ago, they broke up; there was a brief reunion in the mid Eighties, but nobody much noticed. Still, there they were on Austin Music Hall's stage Saturday night as part of an Austin Music Awards event – five men (three guitars, bass, drums) probably all in their sixties, one with a mullet and one with a British Invasion moptop and the most balding one brandishing the most demonic voice, having the time of their lives and letting stoner-rock whippersnappers know how it's done. (One hint: bands back then had to be able to sing). A huge sound, and kind of gorgeous, too – showed how psychedelia presaged not just metal, but the Western country-rock of, say, the Marshall Tucker Band.