South by Southwest is different from the other of the most famous American music festivals like Coachella, Bonnaroo, Lollapalooza, or the single greatest (in my humble opinion), Jazzfest, in that the music doesn’t take place at a single huge gathering location but instead at individual sites throughout the city of Austin – identified as “the live music capital of the world.” And performances aren’t just limited to the more than 2501 music venues that dot the Texas state capital: during the roughly 10 days that make up the event colloquially known as “South By” and visually as the letters “SxSW,” you can expect to hear live music pretty much everyplace you go – on the street, in backyards, on rooftops, at a brewery, in a local government office, or in a dilapidated firetrap surely not sanctioned for public occupation by any bona fide buildings department (all places I actually saw bands play during my memorable 4-day festival visit back in 2015).
Having made it through one particularly long night of music and accompanying merriment – towards the end of which one of my two fellow attendees, Hoosh, had fallen dead asleep in front of thrashing, hard rock duo The London Souls, the absolute loudest show of the entire trip – and feeling like something less than a million bucks, I was looking to ease into the following day with some burritos and bloodies at a local joint favored by my friend Cek, the Austin local of our trio. So around midday he brought us to Maria’s Taco Xpress, a fairly unremarkable looking but well regarded little eatery that turned out to be quite well attended by lots of other similarly inclined revelers. Parking was scarce, so I hopped out to get us situated while my buddies circled the tiny lot, and as I was about to enter I literally walked into a departing Bill Murray. You’ll just have to take my word on this because I failed to get a picture, and Hoosh and Cek, who arrived only a minute or so later but moments after Murray had just been picked up and rolled away in his black SUV, didn’t believe me either.
We were well into our rejuvenating session with beef, beans, rice and a little “hair of the dog” when I rose from our corner table to retrieve another round of libations, and on the way to the bar was struck by another familiar-looking face I couldn’t immediately place. Awkwardly staring at the Ray Bans-wearing, bandanna-necked, hip cowboy-looking dude, I began to work out in my head that he was a musician, someone I’d long seen in my music collection but never before in person. “Are you, um…Are you Escovedo?” I inquired unsurely, only able to articulate the last name of renowned alt-country, cowpunk, roots rocker Alejandro Escovedo. “Yes, I am Escovedo,” he declared, with a somewhat puzzled expression. Left without what seemed like any suitable follow-up, and remembering our very nondescript surroundings, I muttered, “I’m a big fan. Uh…what are you doing here?” Escovedo drew his head back a bit, cocked it to one side, and with a mix of defiance and bewilderment yelped, “It’s my party!”
Little did we know that there was a stage out back on a patio, and that we’d stumbled into yet another South by Southwest sideshow, this one organized and headlined by local legend Alejandro Escovedo, a preeminent member of the entire expansive Austin music scene. In fact, I later learned that Escovedo was kind of the granddaddy of the South By festival – in the manner that Professor Longhair had long been established with Jazzfest in New Orleans (a status now passed on to Trombone Shorty) – and that for nearly 20 years, he’d personally curated a daylong Saturday event at Taco Xpress, as well as annually served as the unofficial SxSW closer with a Sunday night show at the Continental Club, one of Austin’s most revered music establishments. Music aficionado though I may fancy myself, our finding one of the best-loved events in town was pure serendipity, driven not by any connoisseur’s knowledge but only a philistine desire for cheap Mexican food and a hangover chaser.
The following Fall, in a Facebook entry marked “The end of an era,” Escovedo announced that he would be stepping away from the Maria’s tradition (in addition to that at the Continental Club). His emotional post, in part, read as follows: “This year marks my last in hosting and curating the Saturday party at Maria’s Taco Xpress and the Sunday show at The Continental. This was a hard decision to make. I have had an amazing time putting these shows together and I am very proud of all the artists who have played over the years. We started Maria’s in 1997 when it was still a trailer, a space in between the two buildings which eventually became the Taco Xpress, and the stage was on the ground on a blanket.” Take that at face value if you choose. A pretty amazing run come to a well-considered end. Sure. But I believed I could also read between the lines. “And when some bleary-eyed, middle-aged schnook doesn’t even know he’s at my own goddamn show,” he may well have been insinuating, “maybe it’s time to say I’ve had enough of this shit.”
Though shifting to self-imposed SxSW standard-bearer emeritus, Escovedo remains very much an active performer. I saw him play a tremendous concert at New York’s City Winery a couple years after my Austin faux pas, and actually met up with him at the front of the small club following his show. I complimented him on his excellent set and we amiably chatted briefly, then he inched closer, glowered menacingly toward me and said, “Hey asshole, what are you doing here?” (just kidding, he couldn’t have been nicer and didn’t know who the hell I was).
So then, here’s an Escovedo favorite of mine, ‘Bottom of the World,’ captured live, appropriately enough, from the show Austin City Limits, the second-longest still-running entertainment program in television history – 44 years and counting.2 The tune, which strikes me as very Dylan-esque in structure but run lightly through a Springsteen effects phaser, was performed in 2016, and markedly opens with the woebegone line, “Austin’s changed, it’s true / Show me what hasn’t.” I feel it’s important to note, however, that the song was first released on Big Station, an Escovedo album out in 2012, meaning at least we know it wasn’t written with me in mind.
1at least before the pandemic
2Saturday Night Live preceded it by three months (but Austin City Limits has had more episodes)