Songs on the Freeway

Do you ever have those nights when you lie down to sleep and a million images revolve in front of your eyes like confetti in a hurricane? That’s Austin. Looking through snapshots and notes, I can’t believe we packed so much into such a short space of time.

Ben and Anthony at Bird'sWe had two showcases – Belfast Rocks, in which Strait Laces, And So I Watch You From Afar, General Fiasco and Fighting With Wire pinned everyone to the back wall of Club Latitude 30 with fiery blasts of energy and attitude. And then a few days later, our more gentle Belfast Unplugged night at Bird’s Barber Shop on 6th Street.

On that night I took to the stage alongside songwriters Ben Glover, Eilidh Patterson and The Lost Brothers. Our special guests were legendary Canadian songwriter Lynn Miles and the wonderful Ron Block, best known as guitarist and banjo player with Alison Krauss and Union Station.

Various figures from the music scene networked, drank beer, applauded warmly and nibbled on chicken while we did our thing. We went on stage and came back off, then went up and came back off, each time swapping business cards and trying to find someone who would be interested in pushing us up on to the next rung of the business. And some of those present were angling to turn US into THEIR customers. It was hard to tell who was hustling who in the end.

In between, we attended panel discussions on marketing, digital distribution, publishing… Some of them were dazzling, a few were baffling. The whole world was there selling, hustling, handing out free samples, downloads, invitations… By the end of the week the streets were awash with fliers, promotional guitar picks, wristbands and badges. And everyone under the age of 30 looked like this (see left).

I’m not sure, when all is said and done, if SXSW is the place for a 40-something solo singer songwriter without the logistic support of management or a major label deal. I had a meltdown on the third day and walked across the River to the Bohemian jungle of South Congress and got lost for a few hours.

I felt a little like I was standing on the side of the freeway, holding my songs out to speeding cars. Throwing them over walls of houses where dangerous dogs barked. Slipping them under doors of hotel rooms where other people were having a party.

But we did our best - we smiled and shook hands with everyone we met. We played our hearts out when we got the chance and we gave our promotional material to anyone who asked for it. We tried to match our material with the right people. We saw some amazing performances and some total bores. I imagine it’s the same for everyone who goes to SXSW. This enormous flurry of activity. It’s hard to tell at the time if you're generating anything but heat and light. And by the time you work it out, it's too late to do anything about it.

But hey - as The Hold Steady tell us, you gotta stay positive. With the final roll of the dice, I was headed back for the hotel on the last night and I ran into a fairly high profile songwriter outside the Continental Club. He remembered me from a show we had done in Belfast last year and I talked about the possibility of working together on some songs. Without hesitation, he gave me his phone number and asked me to call him - to set up a meeting the next time I was back in Nashville. That kind of thing never happens if you don't show up in the first place. How ironic, though, that the last conversation I have at SXSW… should point me back to Tennessee.

The high points: 

  • Smokey Robinson’s keynote address
  • Poking my head into the room when Cheap Trick were being interviewed
  • Sitting 12 feet from Freedy Johnston as he sang songs from his new album
  • Meeting Derek Sivers, the founder of CD Baby and a real guru
  • Seeing Ian McLagan and the Bump Band at the Lucky Lounge