For Mario Escovedo and his band, the Dragons, the South-by-Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Tex. has become an annual pilgrimage.
"To tell you the truth," Escovedo explained just hours after he and the band flew in on day three of the four-day event, "I'm not sure how many years in a row this makes it for us-seven, eight... All I know is, we've been coming here every year pretty much ever since we've been a band."
SXSW was started 17 years ago by three music promoters in Austin, ostensibly as a showcase of local bands in what is officially marketed as "The Live Music Capital of the World." Since then, the yearly festival has grown into the largest event of its kind in the country-and it's still the hippest. In addition to the 1,000-plus bands booked for "official" showcases, literally hundreds more descended upon the town over the course of the week.
They played at the airport. They played on street corners. They played on the top of their own tour vans parked outside the Austin Convention Center, and at record label parties that dotted the area around Sixth Street, the equivalent of San Diego's Gaslamp District.
"Oh, it's all about exposure, of course," Escovedo said at a private party-authentic Mexican food and free Dos Equis or Lone Star beer provided by hosts at The Continental Club. "Many of the bands that play this week barely even get paid-some not at all."
Bigger acts (Willie Nelson, Lucinda Williams, Sugar Hill Gang) may have had every expense-from air travel to hotel rooms-paid for by their record companies. Others, like The Dragons, were paid only by the clubs in which they played. Still others paid their own way completely.
"With The Dragons, we want to push them in a way that they've never been pushed, or, in a way we could never have pushed them before The Hives happened," said Michael J. LaVella, owner of Gearhead Records, the offshoot of the magazine of the same name which recently introduced Swedish hits The Hives to the world of rock. They now look to do the same for their latest San Diego signees.
"Now, we can introduce [The Dragons] to new audiences with press and touring promotion that just wasn't possible before. So shows like this take on a bigger buzz with our newfound higher profile."
The show LaVella was talking about was The Dragons' headlining spot on Friday night at Beerland, a hard-rock hole in the wall (but a hole in the wall that, by midnight, had a line of at least 100 waiting to get in). Some of the long line could be attributed to post-Great White fire marshal jitters, as were many of the long lines in Austin this year. It was also due to rumors that Hives' frontman Pelle Almqvist and his girlfriend-from one of SXSW's biggest buzz bands, the all-female Sahara Hot Nights-were supposed to show up and sing at least one song with The Dragons.
"I feel alright/ when I'm loaded!" screamed the capacity crowd along with Escovedo later that evening during a smashing set by the quartet that, only partly anti-climactically, did not include The Hives or the Hot Nights. Almqvist and his gal pal were reportedly turned away before the set by the fire marshal and did not make good on promises to return. Still, Escovedo was ecstatic about the evening."That's one of the best crowds we've ever had here," Escovedo said when he called at about 4 a.m. to invite me over to the hotel where they were staying. "Robby [Dodds] from Convoy [another San Diego band headlining a showcase at SXSW] is over here now and we're supposed to work on some material together. Why don't you get over here and tape it for your article?"