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Day 1

AUSTIN, Tex. – My first-ever trip to the SXSW Festival got off to a rather dubious start, logistically speaking. As a SXSW virgin, I was forced to learn a few quick lessons that seasoned veterans will certainly scoff at. First off, I arrived to find that my hotel was a lot farther away from the action than I anticipated (long, expensive cab rides will be my reality until Sunday). Once checked in, I sat down with my already dog-eared schedule and plotted out my night. The choice was an easy one for me. Despite the appeal of big names like Billy Idol and Elvis Costello or up-and-coming jazz trio The Bad Plus, I decided to plant myself at Emo's for the Sub Pop showcase featuring a terrific all-around lineup.

After taking my sweet time to get ready and venture downtown for my first foray into the madness that is 6th Street, I arrived at Emo's to find I had made mistake #2. Though it was still early in the night, the line was about 200-people deep. (My press wristband means just about zilch in a sea of attendees more important than I) As I settled into line, I realized I had also forgotten my ID way back at the hotel. I stood there anxiously, wondering if I would make it to the door, and if I would even get in once I got there.

As I waited in line, I took some time to soak in my surroundings. At the risk of sounding like a complete cheeseball, what I heard made all those troubles fade away. Music was EVERYWHERE. Not just music, but independent rock 'n roll. Indoors and outdoors. In tents. In bars. Bands playing to large adoring crowds. Others playing for seven friends. 53 venues hosted shows Wednesday night, and that's what I call goddamn magic. I hadn't realized how much of this festival takes place on patios and small outdoor makeshift stages. The result is a night sky filled with guitar riffs, screaming vocals and drum solos, all forming one discordant beautiful mess.

Yes, I did eventually get into the show -- using the time-tested swerve-around-the ID-checker-and-head-straight-for-the-stamp-dude technique -- and was even inside in time to see four acts. First up, Seattle's The A Frames, playing songs from their recently-released Sub Pop debut Black Forest. The album title appropriately evokes their sound – dark, cold, foreboding, kinda uncomfortable and nerve-wracking. They are talented musicians and lead singer Erin Sullivan has an intriguing vocal drone, but the version of punk these guys play is a bit too experimental and disconcerting for my taste (read: not very fun).

However, fun wasn't far off, as Portland's The Thermals took the stage next. I recently did a write-up on these guys in this very space so I won't go into too much detail, but suffice to say they were one of the night's revelations for much of the crowd. They played a fiercely energetic set filled with distorted pop gems, and had the packed house rockin' out and buzzing afterward. I got the feeling that this is what SXSW is all about.

My personal revelation of the night was The Album Leaf, a band that I've listened to a ton but had never seen live previously. I'm a big fan of and highly recommend their recorded work, particularly the most recent two albums, One Day I'll Be On Time and In a Safe Place, but I wasn't sure how their dreamy instrumental post-rock compositions would translate live, especially sandwiched between The Thermals and rocker-chick headliners Sleater-Kinney. The answer was: captivatingly so. Despite some technical glitches that threw off their momentum, the trio played a blissful set that rocked out in its own way, and should carry The Album Leaf's current momentum further toward the heights of instrumental torch-bearers Tortoise and Mogwai.

Sleater-Kinney was no revelation: most of the crowd showed up specifically to see them play, and they are one of the most well-known and beloved bands in the indie world. Their recent move to Sub Pop, which coincides with their up-coming full-length The Woods, is supposed to mark a shift in their sound to a more experimental and even metal-based take on their urgent and engaging punk. Though I haven't heard the new material, last night's performance didn't sound all too different from previous shows, which was very much okay. The girls did what they do best -- bring the house down with their energy and, quite simply, freaking rock. The set was vintage Sleater-Kinney, and a sure sign that SXSW can be a showcase for veterans at the top of their games as well as new bands trying to impress the industry.

More tomorrow from Austin!