As everyone who’s followed the Austin, Texas industry festival can attest, South by Southwest has changed a lot over the years. But some of its attractions remain in place: the beer, the BBQ, the Texas sunshine… and Dash Rip Rock, who played the very first SXSW and has returned nearly every year since (leader Bill Davis admits they’ve skipped just a couple). This year they’ll be back with a suitable 30th anniversary buzz—SXSW is honoring them in its program book as “the first SXSW buzz band”—and will play four different venues, including a Saturday finale at the Continental Club, the roots-rock hotspot where they made their debut in 1986.
“The first time we played, we weren’t even aware there was any kind of conference going on,” Davis recalls. “We just knew we’d be playing a Tail Gators gig, and we were looking forward to opening for them. Then our manager Kelly Keller told us, ‘This is some kind of industry thing, there may be some record labels there.’ At the time it was more low-key, the way they wanted it to be—they’d have a softball game and a barbecue, promote ten bands and do it in three clubs.”
Dash has lived out a good part of its history with SXSW. They’ve shared bills and made friends with a long string of beloved bands—the LeRoi Brothers, the dB’s, Drivin’ N Cryin’, the True Believers. They’ve played fabled clubs that aren’t there anymore, like La Zona Rosa (owned for a time by Marcia Ball and her husband) and Liberty Lunch. And they’ve done plenty of business as well—even having a notable near-miss when an Island Records A&R man promised to sign them, only to pass away just afterward. “We just kept going back because we kept getting stuff out if it. We’ve got booking agents from there, labels, publicists. One year we met up with a European promoter who wanted to take us on tour. And it was always a good place to catch up with the bands we’d become friends with. Everybody was always on the road, but all roads lead to Austin in March.”
This year Davis and the current Dash lineup, drummer Kyle Melancon and bassist Patrick Johnson, are coming in with a well-received album, Wrongheaded, which Davis released on his own Drag Snake label. His newly-formed second band, the Convergers, are about to release an EP of his less rowdy alt-country material. “So that’s what will be different for me this year, it’s the first time I’m coming in as a label head. And it will be interesting to see it from that angle: When you’re an artist you can play your show, get drunk and leave. But I’m enjoying the opportunity to do a little business, and what better way to do it than over Tex-Mex and barbecue?”
Not every one of Dash’s trips has been quite so businesslike. Davis recalls an ’80s show at a brewpub, the Scholz Beer Garden, where the lineup was a roll-call of cowpunk hellraisers: Dash, Mojo Nixon, the Beat Farmers, Jason & the Scorchers and the Long Ryders. All of whom were delighted to find that their dressing room doubled as a beer cooler. “The show started around six, so we were there all night; everyone started going in to the dressing room and taking out cases of beer. The club tried to complain, but the manager of SXSW wouldn’t have it. He just said, ‘You put those bands into a cooler and then complain that your beer is gone?’”
While Davis admits that things aren’t exactly what they used to be, he’s not one of those who feel the festival’s lost its soul. “There used to be some great, secret late-night gigs; I remember [Austin journalist] Michael Corcoran taking me to some conjunto bar in South Austin where members of Los Lobos would be playing. That doesn’t happen so much anymore. And I’m sure there are things done in the suites of the Hyatt that I’ll never have any idea about. But the major labels still send their staff down, and Rolling Stone still sends their staff down. People still treat it as valid place to do business.
“It’s gotten mega-big, the same way Jazz Fest has. So I’ve gotten to see people like Iggy and Devo play there, but maybe it’s less about the young bands. There are so many pop-up venues and things that are put in place before the conference that it’s tough for anybody to get any work done. But obviously, work still gets done, and there’s still A&R people there looking for talent. I hear it’s going more toward EDM and hip-hop this year, where it used to be all about roots-rock and rock ’n’ roll. But I still feel it’s useful and constructive, there’s always the chance that somebody’s going to walk into your showcase. That’s the promise of it, and if you don’t buy a lottery ticket you’re not going to win.”