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Southern comfort Area musicians take the stage at Austin festival

AUSTIN, Texas -- In the middle of the madness at the 20th annual South by Southwest Music Festival, the only thing that feels strange about the ambush of artists and assorted industry folk is that it doesn't feel strange.

The swarm around Sixth Street may be swelled, but it's nothing unseen on this scene. An anxious line around the corner of a club. A man wearing eyeliner carrying a kick drum. A trio of slacker-fabulous women who spent way too much time trying to look like they didn't. Cops on foot, bikes and horses perched along blocked-off blocks. Perhaps what most separates this wild week from any other in Austin, aside from sheer size, are the stars in the eyes and agendas on the sleeves of this globe-spanning gang of debauchers.

Perusing the pack for artists from Buffalo yields a roster with a range of reasons for being here as diverse as their styles. Some have already played their showcase and booked town, others have booked gigs outside of the festival to make the most of the masses here, and another is here to stay.

The opening bell rang Wednesday night with the first of 1,400 showcases, including Atlanta-based heat-seeker Sean Costello and his newly cemented rhythm section of Buffalo's Aaron Trubic (bass) and Ray Hangen (drums). While Hangen has been with Costello for more than a year, Costello suddenly lost his bassist and keyboardist a few weeks before heading to Austin to find a taker for his freshly recorded new album. Hangen called on Trubic to reunite a duo that has backed countless local artists from Mr. Conrad and LeeRon Zydeco to Alison Pipitone.

Hangen and Trubic provide the fluid, flexible groove for Costello's masterful move from blues slinger to authentic soul man. Beyond his deep-chested crooning, Costello is as expressive a player as anyone who has ever picked up a guitar. Trubic had the look of a kid on Christmas morning during their knockout showcase.

"It's so easy with these two," he said afterward. "This is the gig I've always wanted."

A short jog down the street and through the mayhem, Hamburg native Peter Case was splashing abstract Americana over a dense rhythm section, one of four performances here for the Los Angeles-based troubadour. He arrived with much local fanfare despite not really having anything to push.

"I don't even have a record out," he told the packed house. "I'm just here like a pilgrim in Mecca, making my offering to the music gods."

By all accounts, Willie Nile is in town with something heavy to push, and has three other shows outside of his late-Thursday showcase to do it. Many critics and colleagues are calling his latest album, "Streets of New York," his best yet -- and let's give him a standing ovation just for the fact that he listed his hometown as Buffalo despite having lived in the Big Apple for some 30 years.

Nile is looking for the one thing that South by Southwest offers more than anything: the buzz. So many bands have broken out big on the buzz they built here (see the Bloody Hollies), the Buffalo act with perhaps the greatest chance of joining that line is cinematic rockers Odiorne, led by former Moment/Mercury Rev drummer turned frontman Jimy Chambers. The group plays three times today, including its showcase.

"What they're doing is very innovative," says Righteous Babe Director of Marketing Susan Tanner, who is here with husband and local booking institution Marty Boratin for their annual mad dash around town.

And before all is said and done, the greatest musical tie that binds Buffalo to Austin will take the spotlight. Gurf Morlix, another Hamburg native who's well-established as a leading light on Austin's sprawling scene, will be shopping his just-finished album, "Diamonds to Dust," at two shows outside of the festival, and backing tenured Texas songwriters Ray Wylie Hubbard and Sam Baker for two more. But for the ubiquitous sideman and producer that Morlix is, four gigs in a week is par for the course.

Further to the point about this week in the life of "The Live Music Capital of the World": There may be a lot more people knockin', but this town's always rockin'.

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