For me, Saturday, March 18, was unofficially Garth Brooks Day at South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The great country singer hadn’t performed in the Texas capital in decades, so this SXSW felt special, especially considering it was open to non-festival attendees and Austin residents.
Even though Lady Bird Lake hosted music the entire day with performances by artists such as Nicole Atkins, Holly Macve, and Sunny Sweeney, most of the crowd seemed to migrate en masse to park grounds closer to 8 p.m. when Garth Brooks was scheduled to start.
Longtime Austin resident Sweeney was a hoot, as she she sang and talked about playing the local bar circuit for many years and being in this current dream as Brooks’ opening act. Sweeney’s song “Backhanded Compliment” was equal parts sass and horror, as she gently serenaded the crowd with crap she and her female bandmate have heard over the years.
But Brooks was the main attraction, performing 19 songs over two hours, including an extended encore that was mostly him and his guitar. His back-and-forth banter with the crowd was just like what I previously heard and read about during stops on his recent world tour.
And as a lifelong Brooks fan, I enjoyed every second of it.
From “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House” to his acoustic version of “If Tomorrow Never Comes” to absolute favorite “Callin’ Baton Rouge,” Brooks brought charm and the hits to Austin. Fortunately, the crowd collectively sang along only when Brooks invited it; otherwise, we were treated to a mostly unadulterated Brooks musical experience. As he best put it, he “was here for one reason and one reason only—to have fun and raise some hell!”
For a couple of the bigger hits, Brooks and his band performed the rare third sets of “The Thunder Rolls” and “Friends in Low Places” that only diehard fans know since these long versions were only available to listen to for the longest time on his Double Live album. But a surprisingly large number of people sang along to those third sets much to Brooks’ pleasant surprise.
He apologetically cited the city’s strict curfew law a few times for the “short” concert but provided the requisite encore with two covers: Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” and Terry Stafford’s “Amarillo by Morning” (best popularized by George Strait’s 1983 version), and an extended play of his first hit song, “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old).” I was bummed at the zero tunes from his Chris Gaines album, but Brooks needed no apology. It was a great show. He even promised to return to Austin real soon.
- “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House”
- “The River”
- “Two Piña Coladas”
- “Papa Loved Mama”
- “Ain’t Goin’ Down (‘Til the Sun Comes Up)”
- “Unanswered Prayers”
- “If Tomorrow Never Comes”
- “That Summer”
- “The Thunder Rolls (Long version)”
- “Callin’ Baton Rouge”
- “Friends in Low Places (Long version)”
- “The Dance”
- “Piano Man” (Billy Joel) – Encore
- “Amarillo by Morning” (Terry Stafford) – Encore
- “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” – Encore
- “Longneck Bottle” – Encore
- “Standing Outside the Fire” – Encore
Other Saturday Events
I didn’t spend my entire Saturday waiting for Brooks to perform. As the last full festival day, I spent it as leisurely as I could.
I attended a panel on saving small venues, many of which have been under increasing pressure from the two big live music companies (they remained unnamed by the panelists). Historically, small venues were almost exclusively independent businesses that fostered local talent and provided practice and development spaces for music acts. But with smaller margins, the bigger players are slowly getting into smaller venues (defined as less than 2,000 seats) because of shrinking margins and artist contract obligations. The panels spoke about having to increasingly become building owners in addition to being venue promoters in order to better compete.
I also managed to see performances by a few additional acts throughout the day, including a punk rock quartet from Chile called Slowkiss. The Santiago band (representing Magaly Fields as the two lone Chilean music acts) had quite the unique energy, filling the intimate convention center exhibit hall stage with a rich sound (“Forever Together” and “The Cliff”) that consistently attracted exhibit attendees to the stage.
Welsh singer-songwriter Casi put on a great afternoon show at the British Music Embassy. Her soaring vocals were on full display with newest single “The Beast” and “River” (although only after a last-second nix of “Lion”). It was nice to hear Casi’s complete songs rather than the usual vocal showcases that feature mostly ballads when singers try to wow their audiences. Casi seemed more grounded and more interested in entertaining the almost capacity-filled bar.
Having missed The Accidentals for the previous two festivals, I wasn’t going to miss the Northern Michigan indie-folk trio this time around. Fortunately, the SXSW Second Stage at the Van Zandt Hotel hosted them right before Brooks’ performance, so I able to watch the recently signed Sony Masterworks band in all its enchanting whimsy. I wasn’t disappointed, as the trio broke out crowd favorites like “The Sound a Watch Makes When Enveloped in Cotton” and “Stitches and Seams.”
Starting originally as a duo, Katie Larson and Savannah Buist were self-professed shy musicians who played paper-rock-scissors for the privilege of not having to talk to the audience. With drummer Michael Dause and hundreds of performances in their band’s short career, the three have grown and were much more chatty and open than I would have guessed from their previous published interviews. The result was a much more lively performance filled with guest appearances by other Michigan musicians, including a rendition of “Parking Lot” with Rick Chyme—a great pre-Brooks end to SXSW.