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SXSW Tuesday: Music at UT, Ray Benson's party, and a Swollen Circus

Peter Blackstock
Singer and guitarist Ray Benson looks toward Dale Watson during a performance at his birthday party at GSD&M on during SXSW on Tuesday, March 12, 2019. [BRONTE WITTPENN/AMERICAN-STATESMAN]

Tuesday morning's escape to the land of cheese aside, the first long day of South by Southwest Music felt very much like that — a long and eventful day and night, with events happening everywhere on the periphery of the downtown official showcases. That included, for the first time in many years, music on the University of Texas campus, where students were everywhere in a rare SXSW that didn't coincide with UT's spring break.

UT Union venue Cactus Cafe took advantage of the opportunity by presenting a first-rate afternoon lineup of Americana talent. Cactus manager Matt Munoz said the place was packed early when Austin juggernaut Shinyribs played at noon; local acts Carrie Rodriguez and Carson McHone followed before Louisiana's Ben Dickey took the stage in midafternoon.

The place stayed crowded, but not overly jammed, the rest of the way. We arrived in time for a splendid solo piano set by Austin's Robert Ellis, with Chris Shiflett of the Foo Fighters closing things out around 5 p.m. playing a solo acoustic set of original country material. It was a good reminder that the Cactus is one of Austin's best-sounding venues, one that really could use more SXSW action every year.

Ellis packed up his portable grand piano and headed downtown for a feature slot at Ray Benson's annual birthday bash, a Health Alliance for Austin Musicians fundraiser that this year teamed up with BMI's Howdy Texas party. Held in the spacious back lawn of ad agency GSD&M, the event drew a big crowd of sponsors, VIPs and industry figures for three hours of music anchored by Benson's 49-years-running band Asleep at the Wheel.

Robert Earl Keen, Katie Pruitt, Waylon Payne, Dale Watson, Ed Roland and Randy Houser were among some of the other musicians who helped wish a happy 68th to Benson, whose actual birthday is this weekend. BMI's participation in the event came on the heels of the performance rights organization's announcement earlier Tuesday that its new Austin office will open soon on South Congress Avenue.

To close the night, we headed down South Congress way for the annual Swollen Circus bash at C-Boy's. A SXSW tradition since the 1990s, the party is organized by Walter Salas Humara of the Silos and Texas Monthly senior editor Michael Hall, whose 1980s Austin band the Wild Seeds often regroups for the occasion.

This one was more special than usual, though. Singer Kris McKay, who began in the Wild Seeds before becoming a major-label recording artist on her own in the early 1990s, performed in Austin for the first time in decades, joined by guitarist Rich Brotherton, a member of her touring band back then.

When we left just past midnight, the Swollen Circus action was still going strong, as the first long day of SXSW Music overflowed into the second. Par for the course in mid-March Austin madness, with most of the week's action still to come.