As we touch down at the airport in Austin at 2:35 pm Wednesday afternoon, we can hear the sensitive strumming of a singer/songwriter set up on a makeshift stage in the Austin City Limits booth in a food court.
Wednesday is typically when you check in to your hotel, pick up your badge and generally get your bearings for the SXSW blitz ahead but it feels like the festival is already in full swing.
The big official Wednesday event used to be the Austin Music Awards show and while seeing a one-off performance by Rokkervil -- Roky Erickson of Thirteenth Floor Elevators fame fronting Okkervil River -- doing You're Gonna Miss Me, Starry Eyes and a thrilling-chilling blast through I Walked With A Zombie went down a storm, many delegates decided instead to get in the long line outside La Zona Rosa to hear Van Morrison preview the bluesy songs from his forthcoming Keep It Simple album (due April 1).
As with many of Morrison's recent gigs, his heart didn't seem to be entirely in it. At one point he stopped to ask the crowd how things were going. After a smattering of applause, he snorted, "Good, I've got some other things to do this evening."
From the lukewarm audience response, most people present would've preferred hearing a few familiar classics rather than a top-to-bottom run through of the new disc but Morrison was obviously there to sell not to entertain.
Over at Antone's, a rousing set from UK buzz band These New Puritans made up for the lame electro-disco exhibit from the knob-twisters deluxe Simian Mobile Disco.
Austin-based Canuck guitar-slinger Gordie Johnson, weilding a variety of vintage Gibson SGs, led his Grady power trio through an eardrum busting onslaught at the tiny Habana Biker Bar. It's a promising indication that their forthcoming disc could be much heavier and grittier than anything Johnson has ever done.
Even better at the Habana Annex was Tuscaloosa, Alabama's ass-kicking Dexateens whose three-axe attack brought to mind the Drive-By Truckers at their lowdown raunchiest. Solid tunes and some surprisingly sweet three-part harmonies make for a killer combination. The Horseshoe's Jeff Cohen could be seen grinning from ear-to-ear through the whole set. These hairy fools will be the band to beat. It's official: beards are the new black.
Above: Dexateens member and Dexateens member's beard.