Texas Ranger

Don’t mess with Texas.

That message leers from every other T-shirt in every other store window in the biggest state in the Confederacy. The playful dictum may be tongue-in-cheek, but those drawlin’, brawlin’ sonsabitches mean every cotton-pickin’ syllable.

Texas frightens me. I can’t condone any locale where citizens may regularly mosey, usually either to an NRA meeting or to fetch some sarsaparilla from the local saloon. And I’ve long suspected that state law requires “The South Will Rise Again” mud flaps are required on all Texas vehicles.

Hey, Mexico, you can have Texas back. Hell, I’ll even throw in Oklahoma. All I want in return is a couple cases of Dos Equis. Oh … and Austin. We get to keep Austin.

That’s because for a few days in March, the Texas state capital turns into the planet’s biggest ass-kicking roadhouse at the South by Southwest music festival. Hundreds of bands. Thousands of fans. A battalion of journalists. It’s a music lover’s wet dream — or warped nightmare. OK, there are fifty bands that you would kill to see. But they’re playing in fifty different venues. All at the same time. Now … go!!

If you think Vanilla Ice and Ron Jeremy flipping burgers on the WB is odd, the real surreal life occurs at South by Southwest. You will sit behind underground hip-hop star El-P on the airplane. You will bump into Joe Perry from Aerosmith in the hotel lobby. You will sip margaritas next to former MTV cueball Matt Pinfield.

It’s a hipster fest for which I was woefully unprepared. To paraphrase Almost Famous, I’ve met me. And trust me, I’m not cool. My stock of vintage band T-shirts is inadequate. I don’t wear ties with surplus military jackets. Christ, I’m lucky if I have matching socks.

But that’s OK. This is an event for everymen like me to hype guys like them. And they are everywhere. You can easily stumble down Sixth Street — a wider, more refined Bourbon Street that smells of puke, piss and pizza instead of New Orleans’ rarefied odor of booze, bile and red beans — and vomit on the shoes of at least four Next Best Things.

None of which were from Kansas City this year.

By and large, the KC acts were relegated to third-tier venues on the fringes of the action. South by Southwest is a showcase, though. You don’t have to offer a virgin sacrifice, set your bass player on fire, smash your guitar or fling cups full of your own urine at the audience during your Austin performance. But it certainly helps. And most of the KC performers were too … typical.

Rex Hobart and the Misery Boys put in a solid set behind Opal Divine’s Freehouse. But I was less interested in the band’s endearing twang-a-lang and more preoccupied with the third-degree burns a particularly caustic slice of pizza had left on the roof of my mouth.

Likewise, I found myself debating the War of Northern Aggression with a Southern belle while the Belles put on a quiet set at a quiet bar on a quiet corner of Sixth Street. The group looked a little haggard after their recent European tour.

“I lost my voice about a week ago,” singer Chris Tolle told the crowd. “I think I lost my mind the week before.”

The Populist (formerly the People) was the rare native son with a plum lineup spot. The band celebrated its name change and recent Astralwerks deal by finishing off a packed crowd who had come to the Exodus to see buzz bands such as the Sleepy Jackson, Earlimart, the Thrills and the Walkmen.

But it was the Black Rabbits that hopped away with regional honors — even if nobody was watching. OK, that’s not true. Exactly 35 people saw the group thrash in its rabbit masks and white Good Humor suits. Of course, those 35 people included the band, three security guards, two bartenders, two sound guys, the band videographer, a merch girl, a guy reading a magazine, somebody passed out behind a flower bed and a sushi chef on a smoke break.

But the Rabbits didn’t seem to mind. They rocked like the house was packed. And at least for that moment, size didn’t matter in Texas.

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