[EDITOR’S NOTE: The Reader is teaming up with Hear Nebraska to cover SXSW this year. HN editor-in-chief Andrew Norman’s stories will run right here at TheReader.com. And you can find more Hear Nebraska coverage reviews, photos and videos at hearnebraska.org.]

Things don’t always work as you plan at SXSW. The festival has a lot of moving parts, and they’re not always in sync. (www.genusinnovation.com) Bands play short sets that are at all times competing with dozens of others. So a venue that’s running behind can easily throw off your schedule. But it’s not always the venue, band or the sound guy’s fault.

Thursday night was one of misses and barely catches for me. We started the day at a day party in a big warehouse in east Austin. I couldn’t tell you the bands that were playing inside, because I spent the entire show sitting on the grass drinking a big beer in the sun. While back home, Nebraskans are still bracing for that inevitable March snowstorm, it’s full-on spring here. And I soaked it up for as long as I could.

Eventually, we made our way back to Sixth Street where we stumbled upon a street musician singing blues songs and beating the forks, cans, Zippo and other metal objects on his “percussion suitcase” with chop sticks. The brother of a former member of Squirrel Nut Zippers, Mike Gray‘s based in Asheville, N.C., where he plays in the Firecracker Jazz Band. He takes his one-man show on the road to busk at festivals like SXSW. With a large crowd gathered around and a suitcase full of dollars on the ground in front of him, he looked liked he was doing pretty well. Check out one of his songs in the video I shot below.

Mike Gray’s Percussion Suitcase | HN Live from Hear Nebraska on Vimeo.

Driving bass and drums caught my attention as I was crossing the intersection of Sixth and Trinity. Loud enough to be heard over every other band playing around that corner of the block, it sounded worth exploring, so I walked into the Aquarium where American Pinup —a four-piece punk band fronted by a pretty young woman in a yellow dress — was playing to about a dozen afternoon drinkers. This band from Westchester County, N.Y., was a nice surprise. Backed by a dancing bass line, pounding drums and sharp punk guitar riffs, frontwoman Lauren West sings like Gwen Stefani (the awesome Stefani, before No Doubt blew up) playing in a Hellcat Records band. It reminded me of The Distillers — catchy, hooky pop-punk-rock.

After dinner, I headed to Uncorked for the Paper Garden Records/My Old Kentucky Blog showcase to see Eli Mardock‘s new band, featuring his wife Carrie on keys, Joey Manthey (The Guapatones) on guitar, Ian Aeillo (The Golden Age) on bass, and for the first time, Ian Francis (The Machete Archive) on drums. This show at a wine bar a little off the beaten path quickly turned into a meetup for Nebraskans at SXSW, including all of Icky Blossoms (with new bassist Saber Blazek, who with Francis makes up two-thirds of Machete), Justin Lamoureux and Ben Arunski from Midwest Dilemma (who were headed to play a show that night in San Antonio), Neal Duffy (in Austin doing sound for Neon Trees, but handling sound for Eli for this show) as well as a handful of Nebraska journalists. It was fun seeing so many familiar faces so far from home. And the band seemed to appreciate the support as well. I’d never seen the former Eagle Seagull frontman with his new band, and I only recognized a couple of the songs. But I liked what I heard. I’m excited to hear the songs recorded.

After Mardock’s set, we raced to The Parish to catch the band I was most excited to see this year, Two Gallants. The Saddle Creek band from San Francisco reunited recently after a couple-year hiatus, and is preparing to put out a new record. There’s no word yet on whether the Omaha label will put it out again. I hope they do. We made it inside the venue just in time to see the duo play two new songs that I didn’t recognize but loved. For the closer, “Broken Eyes,” mustachioed drummer Tyson Vogel stepped away from his set to share the mic and sing harmonies with guitarist Adam Stephens. It was a wonderful moment. I just wish I would have seen more of the set.

After catching a little 2Gs, we hustled down southeast to try and see Yacht playing at Lustre Pearl in SXSW’s residential venue area (which I wrote about yesterday). Even wielding badges, we were stuck behind a line that clearly was not moving, so we ditched out to walk about 15 city blocks to see Lansing’s Cheap Girls at TenOak. Again, we caught just a few songs — including favorites “Something That I Need” and “Ruby” — from one of my favorite bands at SXSW. Supporting a new record produced by Against Me!’s Tom Gabel, the three-piece plays Replacements-style rock ‘n’ roll. There are no gimmicks or forced aesthetics. It’s simply great songwriting led by frontman Ian Graham’s strong, distinct voice.

Cheap Girls play two shows in Nebraska next week, including a Slow Burn Productions show Wednesday at Slowdown, and a HN Presents concert Thursday at The Bourbon. You should catch them at one or both.

Andrew Norman is Hear Nebraska’s editor-in-chief. His calves are burning. Email him at andrewn@hearnebraska.org.

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