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AUSTIN, Texas — You probably don't realize it, but South by Southwest feels the ups and downs of the national economy, just like everyone else.
In years past, giveaways were a huge part of SXSW. Go to a party, get free booze, food, prizes and all kinds of other stuff.
Then the economy went sour.
No more free vodka.
Until this year. While things were kind of sparse in 2011, free goodies are making a comeback in 2012.
Various unofficial SXSW showcases are put on by magazines, blogs and other companies and are usually teamed up with some kind of corporate sponsor. The magazine wants to show you some cool music, and the sponsor wants you to hear about its brand. So they give you free beer, vodka, pop, energy drinks, food and plenty more beer and vodka.
Most people are at the shows for the music. But if you went to see Neon Trees on Thursday night (their showcase was sponsored by the Nike online video site Vevo), you could drink free Corona beer, Patron tequila, Red Bull and Deep Eddy Vodka.
Some other thoughts and observations from Austin:
» Speaking of Neon Trees, they played a fantastic set at the previously mentioned showcase.
Even better than seeing the band was seeing Omahan Neal Duffy as the band's sound engineer. Duffy actually started his gig with the band at last year's SXSW, and he continues to go on tour with the group whenever they go out.
» There was an informal Nebraska meetup Thursday at Uncorked, a wine bar here. While Eli Mardock and his band performed songs from his coming album, I ran into several folks from HearNebraska.org, a nonprofit website promoting Nebraska music. A few minutes into the set, the entire lineup of Omaha band Icky Blossoms walked into the bar.
None of this was planned, but I was impressed by how many Nebraskans made the trip to support others from their home state. We produce good music.
» You gotta love the food down here.
Omaha hasn't quite embraced the food truck revolution, but if the fare that Austin offers is any indication of what's to come, Omaha should get to it.
So far, I've eaten food from a variety of trucks and walk-up windows, and I've yet to be disappointed. I'm a big fan of Hoek's Death Metal Pizza, which not only has a great name but also plays death metal all day long inside the parlor. Their pizza has great flavor with a thin but chewy crust. There's just enough toppings and just enough crust. It's just about perfect.
The best thing I've eaten so far came from Grub House. The food truck served a variety of tacos. I ordered steak fajita tacos. They didn't at all taste like traditional fajitas, but the tacos were made with warm, fresh tortillas and tender steak. They were topped so high with lettuce, tomato and cheese that they spilled all over. Anyway, they were fantastic. The spicy red salsa they came with didn't hurt, either.
» So, you want to know about music? OK.
On Thursday, I caught a set from indie dance band Icky Blossoms before I went to catch their Saddle Creek brethren in the folk-rock duo Big Harp. Both are newer bands but looked to garner a lot of new fans at SXSW. Later, I caught a set from M. Ward that was much better than his sleep-inducing set I witnessed on Tuesday.
After Ward, I saw indie rock kings the Shins, who perform at Stir Cove this year. If you haven't bought your tickets to that show yet, do so soon. They're fantastic to see live.
I ended the night with Kaiser Chiefs, a British rock band that I'm sad to say hasn't performed in Omaha, at least not in a while. Someone in town should get on that. They're one of the best bands I've ever seen. They're somewhere between the blues rock of Kings of Leon and the crazy riot-rock of Muse. I'd pay good money to see them again.
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