Time Marches On, SXSW and the Mixed Blessings of Spring

Cliches about the entrance of lions and departures of lambs notwithstanding, the month of March is a somber one for many of us. For sure, the anticipation of winter’s  chill giving way to the freshness of spring’s blossom and all sorts of lush greenery culminates mid-month with the cheery promise that we can all be Irish on St. Patrick’s Day. Well, not really. Not all of us. I’m not a big fan of corned beef and cabbage and green beer is really just food coloring. I do sometimes break out my kelly green Phillies cap to commemorate the arrival of April and Opening Day. Admittedly some small, foolish part of me wishes it were already Eagles football season. On rare occasion I fancy a shot of Jameson’s, or somewhat more often, an Irish coffee for dessert.

This year in particular saw most of us on the East Coast chafing under a blustery greyish shroud of an unexpectedly prolonged winter chill. Fortunately, “March Madness” has become a uniquely American traditional sports diversion for a great many of us, even for those who don’t really possess any sort of fondness for spectator sports that involve a round object passing through a net. Heck, my alma mater hasn’t even been part of the men’s tourney for nearly two decades so I’m usually lukewarm about the whole thing due to my stronger preferences for baseball, football and soccer. And yet I was able to read the proverbial “tea leaves” and discern enough statistical truths from bracket seedings, strength of schedules and the ultimate failure of the Kansas University Jayhawks to come out the victor in our “office bracket pool” for the second time in three years! (I shared the winnings with the co-winner two years ago).

musical note

A few years ago, before becoming immersed in the nuances of college basketball bracketology I developed a fascination for the South by Southwest Festival, held every March in Austin, Texas. I’ve travelled to Texas twice within the same aforementioned time period and really enjoyed my time there although I have not yet made it to Austin. The long running PBS music program Austin City Limits has always featured a amazing array of talented perfomers such as Delbert McClinton, Lyle Lovett, and one of my all time favorites, the phenomenal, late great Stevie Ray Vaughan. The SXSW Festival has grown and expanded throughout the years, to the point of becoming a major event that showcases up and coming musical and filmmaking talent, seemingly without any sort of pretense of ever aspring to be some sort of new millennium Woodstock.

What intrigued me most about SXSW March is the yearly promise of free music downloads. Lots of free music downloads. I’m pretty traditional in my musical listening habits, preferring to load my CD collection of primarily rock, blues, jazz and some classical onto iTunes/iPod. However, each year during the month of March, easily searchable web sites presented the option of free downloads of as much as 1,000 or more free (and legal) tracks of new music. For sure, it’s a mixed bag. Most years the tracks only included song and artist(s) names without any sort of tagging by genre or inclusion of album art, etc. A listener would have to hunt very hard through thousands of tracks for any musical gems or be very dialed in to the new music press, periodicals, critical reviews, etc. to pick up on any promising “name” new artists. In fact, this year, the iTunes music store has featured tracks for purchase relating to SXSW. A by-product of my fascination with the Austin “Ides of March” musicfest was learning how to use Bit Torrent technology to acquire the massive downloads to get it all, not to mention having to figure out how to store and back up all of it while confronting dwindling available hard drive space.

During this, the year of SXSW 2011, I’ve taken a a more streamlined approach. I happened upon a site that featured just 200 or so tracks, seemingly hand-picked from this year’s festival. After loading what I had found at the spinner.com web site, I spent an evening just pointing and clicking randomly at various tracks to discover anything appealing. I used the iTunes five- star rating feature to bookmark anything I fancied. A vast portion of it all is dissonant, grungy non-descriptive sounds and a lot of techno instrumental stuff. From a festival standpoint, I guess “you had to be there”, but free music is free music so who’s to complain?

Happily, however, I have come to enjoy the lovely sounding voices of two women from SXSW: April Smith and the Great Picture Show, and Caitlin Rose. April Smith, who happens to be from Toms River, NJ (according to her bio) has a kind of kooky, songbird type of feel to her voice with band instrumentals that sometimes veer into a bluesy, almost Dixieland kind of musical sentiment.

Caitlin Rose’s country-traditional voice conveys a vulnerable yet powerfully emotional dimension that suggests the human effort involved in maintaining strength and dignity while confronting melancholy and heartbreak. Her cover of the Rolling Stones darkly humourous Dead Flowers is particularly interesting. I recommend searching out the efforts of these women on YouTube or their Facebook pages to see what you may like (their Facebook info links include music players of recent tracks). Perhaps tunes such as these will help us bid adieu to bluish grey March moods and help us greet the promise of April and spring holidays with a greater lightness of being, more postive thinking, and heightened warmth of feeling.

“Follow the bouncing ball!” as the old-time movie house saying goes.

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