The Critical Mass

Live from SXSW No. 1: Human trafficking, right beneath the bomb-sniffing dog nose of Homeland Security

With one salmonella outbreak in the chicken enchiladas, a huge piece of the popular music industry could be wiped out. The South by Southwest Music Festival begins Wednesday in Austin, Texas, with an estimated 1,800 acts officially playing, and hundreds more unofficially as far as I can tell. The hotels are packed with label execs, producers, ad men, radio DJs, writers, music software designers, TV reporters, publicists, poster artists, guitar geeks, roadies looking to sell TV pilots about being on the road with the Allman Brothers Band  and guys who can tell you every B side ever released by Roky Erickson and the 13th Floor Elevators.

To get there, they must elude a gauntlet of $10  airport beers at faux-sports bars; Someone’s got to pay for the special diets of those bomb-sniffing dogs. Haven’t the nation’s airports been on Orange Alert since 2004?

And either Gregg Allman was flying first class on my plane, or some guy who knows he really looks a lot like Gregg Allman was flying first class on my plane.

Austin is a pocket of liberal civility in the midst of a Republican state whose governor likes to talk about seceding from the United States. It’s drizzling on Tuesday, and the grackles are taking shelter in the trees, and complaining loudly about it. At Curra’s Grill, the Mexican coffee smells elegantly of vanilla. The breakfasts are Huevos Curra’s, two eggs over easy on carne guisada (that’s beef chunks in a gravy sauce). And, since it’s noon, the cocktails are Tito’s Mexican Martini: Tito’s Texas homemade vodka, Cointreau, lime juice, sweet and sour and olive juice. The owner, Jorge, comes over to say hello, and points out his 75-year-old mother working in the kitchen.

I don’t really know anyone who lives here. But a lot of people look familiar. I guess I just feel like I know them. The people watching is good. The musicians help with that. But the car watching is good as well. There goes a 5,000-pound chunk of 1960s iron with rocket tail fins, cruising past Guero’s Taco Bar and the mango margaritas. This is South Congress Avenue, home of the Continental Club and funky shopping. You can get your scuffed-up taxidermy castoffs in these stores. “Wow,” says one teenager. “Is that a turtle?” “It was,” says his pal, who’d evidently been paying attention during biology class.

The public transportation is extremely useful. “Anybody know where Elysium is?” a guy in a black leather jacket shouts to no one in particular on the bus, looking for the downtown rock club.

Four rows in front of him, another guy in another black leather jacket says, without turning around, “705 Red River.”

“Is there be a cover charge?”

“On a Tuesday, usually not, although you never know with it being South by Southwest week.”

“When are they open?”

“Monday and Tuesday, 6 till 2, Wednesday through Saturday 4 till 2.”

This guy was better than a guide book. “Who’s playing?” I asked, kinda deadpan. People on the bus started laughing.

At the South Congress Cafe, the bartender asks if I want another Shiner Bock. “I don’t know, I’m taking a bus back to the hotel,” I say…. “Waitaminute, I’m not driving the damn thing. Sure.” I’m in full wiseass mode.  Behind her, I spot a sign: WARNING: OBTAINING FORCED LABOR OR SERVICES IS A CRIME UNDER TEXAS LAW. CALL THE NATIONAL HUMAN TRAFFICKING HOTLINE 1-888-373-7888. YOU MAY REMAIN ANONYMOUS.

I don’t think they’re talking about Jorge’s mother. Slavery, still an issue in 21st-Century America? Wednesday, the music starts at 11 a.m. with David Olney.

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