South by Southwest (SXSW) is the daddy of all music festivals, four days of musical immersion held each March in Austin, Texas. This year, two Iowa City acts returned for their second dip: The Diplomats of Solid Sound and Caleb Engstrom.

With over 1,400 acts packed into 80 venues (including a church and an old Safeway supermarket), SXSW is well known for being as grueling as it is intoxicating.

“I feel supercharged,” Engstrom said upon his March 23 return. “I think I came away reminded of something really important, validation. Along with that, I think I might have forgotten that there is a really great community of artists/musicians that I belong to.”

Engstrom appeared at the Cabana Halle 6 with his new band, We are We. The 24-year-old, whose fragile-voiced melodies have distinguished him in indie circles, confirmed he is officially making the transition from solo artist to band. For one thing, the additional hands, Nate Henricks and Drew Ingersol, allow him more freedom on stage. “I think working as a group takes some pressure off of me,” he said, “being able to create more sound live.” He also gains a songwriter in Henricks.

Before leaving for Texas, Engstrom said he was hoping to hand out as many copies of the band’s upcoming CD as he could burn. While bands have been known to “get discovered” at SXSW by having the “right person” come to their shows, Engstrom didn’t have any unrealistic expectations.

“I don’t think I’ll be getting any ‘deals’ from this trip,” he said. “Just some sun, free drinks, great songs and smiles. I wouldn’t say that SXSW is just another gig, but it is almost a vacation for me. I work a full-time job (plus a part-time job) so it will be nice to not have to wake up early and get to spend some time with friends in a warm place surrounded by great live music.”

SXSW street sceneAlthough they didn’t end up being approached by any “industry people,” Engstrom said the SXSW show went “really well.” We are We opened the label showcase, “so the crowd wasn’t overwhelming, but present.” While they only played one show in Austin, on the drive down they stopped in to Oklahoma City for a gig with Ra Ra Riot and Maps and Atlases.

Exemplifying the downside of the SXSW experience, for both band and fan, Caleb said, “Friday night, I waited by myself for almost an hour, at 3 in the morning, trying to catch a taxi. I finally got home around 4 a.m. to our friend’s apartment and couldn’t find a blanket or pillow. I fell asleep on the living room floor.”

Diplomats of Solid Sound

Before heading down for his band’s sophomore SXSW appearance, Diplomats of Solid Sound guitarist Doug Roberson said, “We are going to SXSW mainly for the potential exposure and the fact that most of our newer band members have never experienced the full-on SXSW party. I am actually hopeful about the trip. We have a lot more going on for us now than last time we went in 2005.”

Last time down, the Diplomats had just released their third full-length instrumental CD, Destination…Get Down on Estrus Records, and they played a jazz showcase at Austin’s Elephant Room.

“At the time, we could be considered somewhat of a soul-jazz act,” Roberson said, “but we weren’t a great fit with the rest of the acts playing that night. Four years later we have added two female vocalists and our set is mainly vocal tunes in a soul and funk fashion. It’s a lot more user-friendly for the average music fan, and with two front women and two sax players, we just have more energy coming off the stage.”

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Upon his return to Iowa City, Roberson was happy with the band’s two performances in addition to its official showcase at Opal Divine’s Freehouse with a slate of international groups.

“We were first on and as it drew close to 8 p.m. not many people were there and I started to have my doubts,” Roberson explained. “But sure enough, as it got to be 8 p.m., all of a sudden the tent was filled with people and we played the best set we have in quite a while.”

They even managed to make an industry connection: “An agent from United Talent checked us out and wants to have some meetings. So that looks promising.”

“As much as I hate the term ‘networking,’ that is how you approach the SXSW opportunity,” Roberson explained. “Contact many different like-minded labels, acts, music biz peeps, etc., and see if they are participating in SXSW. Then the opportunities tend to multiply as you can play more shows while you are in Austin, thus increasing your exposure and the potential to meet industry folks.”

Another highlight was the day party they played for Hammondbeat Records at The Victory Grill. “Great vibe from this place,” Roberson said. “It’s an old black-owned venue that has been in existence since 1945. Loads of great R-n-B, soul and funk artists have played there over the years. It was a good turnout with lots of people from Iowa City and people who used to live in Iowa City.”

Roberson said he especially enjoyed the international bands sharing their showcase. The Diplomats lent their singers and horn section to an Italian group called Paolo. Then there was the Japanese band Futomomo Satisfaction, led by three singer/trombonists clad only in bikinis. “Insane, but a lot of really fun dance music,” Roberson said. “It was nutty, but you had to be there to believe it.”

Kind of like SXSW in general, really.

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