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March 14, 2000: Swollen Circus Hole in the Wall

For the past five years, Michael Hall and Walter Salas-Humara have staged their "Swollen Circus" at the Hole in the Wall on the Tuesday before SXSW. The concept is simple: a dozen or so of their musical friends get 15 minutes apiece to perform "three concise pop tunes." This means a long evening of non-stop music, with performances ranging from absurd to outstanding. It's also a good chance for early-arriving South by Southwesters to get a head start on the big party. International conference attendees, especially, are usually make up a good portion of the audience; at one point on Tuesday, you had to wonder what country you were in, because of a myriad of other languages rising up from the din. In fact, word of the evening's special nature has spread far and wide, to the point where this year the Dragbound landmark's crew claimed they had never had more people in the club. This, of course, is related to the renovations in the bar's back room, where SXSW has set up another stage. This year's free for all was a good mix of old and new talent, with a heavy accent on local groups and a decided leaning to pop's rootsy side. Opener/former Silos member Tom Freund set the night's tone with a lonesome wail and dark, spiritual subject matter. Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams, nearly unrecognizable in a new haircut, hushed the boisterous crowd with a set of stark and mournful new tunes. Hall's new Austin band, the Brooders, were a surprising treat, with a ferocious guitar attack and Hall's vein-poppingly intense frontsmanship. Gurf Morlix showcased a few songs from his upcoming release, Toad of Titicaca ; the bracing, riff-heavy selections surely spurred interest in the longtime guitarist/sideman /producer's solo debut. Albuquerque's Hazeldine, three women with enchanting harmonies, revealed their moody side on a couple of folk-based tunes. With a couple of quirky, hook-laden new songs, Salas-Humara and the Silos displayed why they remain one of the premier rock & roots bands in America. Jon Dee Graham and Jo Carol Pierce added to the night's eclectic nature with standout performances notable for the local artists' nearly matchless ability to sketch everyday life in simple yet striking ways. Another rousing success, the Swollen Circus has undoubtedly outgrown the Hole in the Wall, yet without all the sweat, smoke, and claustrophobia, it wouldn't be the same.

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