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SXSW: The joy of mixing and matching

Posted by James Reed  March 16, 2012 03:40 AM

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(Chilean singer-actress Celine Reymond brought her band to SXSW on Thursday.)

It's halfway done, but South by Southwest seems to be building speed. Bruce Springsteen's keynote address yesterday certainly fired up the 2,500 attendees who packed the conference ballroom where he spoke. NPR streamed it live, and you can listen to it here. It's worth hearing.

And one look along 6th Street, the music festival's epicenter, and the eye didn't know where to land yesterday. Freestyle rap battles raged on one corner; a block up a brass band was ringed by a circle of new fans; and beyond that was a crush of disparate sounds and crowds spilling out of every venue that can afford a sound system. The streets were so clogged, it felt like walking straight into a snowstorm.

Last night was a little more low-key, but not exactly by design. I ended up seeing fewer performances because I waited in longer lines. After 45 minutes with fingers firmly crossed, I got shut out of one of the shows I wanted to see the most: The Jesus & Mary Chain. No making love on the edge of a knife for me. I was one of many. Before that, I waited in vain to see Big K.R.I.T., the Southern rapper on the cusp of stardom.

As usual, it was an evening of opposites. From Chile, Kali Mutsa held a small crowd rapt with its heady mash-up of hip-hop, Roma gypsy melodies, traditional Latin rhythms, and lead singer Celine Reymond's theatrics. That made sense given her other job as a telenovela actress. The more I watched her perform -- chanting one moment, hiccuping the next -- the more I wondered if she was actually just a new Tracey Ullman character.

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A short walk away, the Americana Music Association was holding its annual showcase that tipped its cowboy hat to "real-deal country music." Chuck Mead made my Texas dreams come true with covers of tunes by Hank Williams and Tammy Wynette. Up next was Jonny Corndawg (above), which is fronted by a guy who looks and sounds like an old-school honky-tonk singer, but his songs are anything but; it's safe to say Merle Haggard never named an album "Down on the Bikini Line."

Winding down the night, it felt good to get off the beaten (and battered) path known as 6th Street. I moved over to St. David's Bethell Hall, an episcopal church where Austin's own jazz songbird Kat Edmonson was holding court in a chapel. Her elegant phrasing and repertoire reminded me occasionally of the late Blossom Dearie. On my way out, I dropped by Patrick Watson's intimate performance (below) in an adjacent sanctuary. I'm glad I did. His big-hearted songs roared to life with a communal intensity usually reserved for old tent rivals.

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I was tempted to check out other venues, but the prospect of more than four hours of sleep tonight won. Besides, tomorrow is another full day. I'm going to explore the action on South Congress, including Oklahoma folk-blues troubadour John Fullbright at a restaurant called Lucy's Fried Chicken (tunes *and* lunch), and some of the free daytime shows outside the Hotel San Jose. You'll hear more about that on Twitter: @GlobeJamesReed.

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Sarah Rodman is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

James Reed is a staff music critic for the Boston Globe.

Jonathan Perry is the Globe's Scene & Heard columnist, covering local music.

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