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This week's episode finds the magical Flask, borne by its intrepid guardian, Johnny Z, stalking the crowded streets of carnivalesque Austin, Texas. Filled with that potent elixir called Jameson, the vessel has been drawn here by the legendary gathering South by Southwest. Annually for the past 18 years, over one crazed weekend in March, more than 8,000 willing slaves to the music industry -- musicians, publicists, promoters, managers, agents, and that most wretched of parasites, journalists -- come together here in a weird and dangerous ritual of self-congratulation. Fourteen hundred bands play in more than 50 venues, but the Pewter Flask seeks those champions of rock 'n' roll it knows best: the ones from its origins of Fort Lauderdale and Broward County.

It is Thursday, March 17. An inky darkness settles over Austin, and the tattooed and mussed-coifed throng of music-mad Sou'westers emerges. Johnny Z finds himself at the front door of Elysium, a smoky, low-ceilinged music hall of dubious repute, believing perhaps that a subtropical band will appear. A hundred impatient show-goers queue around the block. Driven to dumb confidence by the Flask's anointment of liquid courage, Johnny maladroitly cuts the line of seething rabble and spirits inside the club. The doorman is not pleased and the patrons clamor for justice, but to no avail. He's already lost among the crowd.

Inside, first Brooklyn's Ratatat, then Sri Lankan export M.I.A. rattle the crowd. It is a spectacle of sweaty bodies and irregular music, but the Flask calls out from Johnny's pocket. "There's nothing from Lauderdale here," it intones. "Away, away!"

Out, into the inscrutable night. Johnny Z stumbles merrily down Sixth Street, downtown Austin's main thoroughfare and a teeming galaxy where every saloon, gin joint, and eatery hosts musical acts this weekend. The Heatseekers are close, the Flask tells him. He enters the rather ingloriously named Chuggin Monkey precisely as the Floridian foursome begins its set.

Florida to Texas is a long distance, yet the band's reputation has apparently preceded it. There is a crowd here, neither large nor small, respectable in enthusiasm but not in demeanor. Forty or so carousing souses bump and jostle as lead singer/guitarist Owen MacLean flicks his hair back from his forehead, flinging sweat onto the front row. He trades vocal duties with second guitarist Chris Maggio, a spasmodic spark plug of a man immersed irretrievably in a dervish-like, punk-rock trance. Drummer Chuck Loose and bassist Terra Sullivan remain somewhat nonplussed, letting their animated colleagues do the thrashing. Dominic Sirianni of Broward's the Remnants is on hand to pick up the debris.

The Heatseekers play short, fast, and loud, their effort perfectly suited to the standard 40-minute Sou'wester set and the scrofulous confines of the Chugging Monkey.

Deluded by the Flask's awesome powers, Johnny Z is not so well-aligned. As the high-volume, high-impact set finishes, Johnny orders two cups of ice from the barkeep and decants some of the potion. Apparently, pouring your own drinks at a bar in Austin is illegal, though, and upon noticing Johnny's errant cocktails, the barman informs him of this. Johnny is, in a word, belligerent. The glasswipe is not amused. A goon is called in; Johnny is thrown out. The pair of celebratory Jamesons remains untouched on the bar. From the gutter outside, "Rock 'n' roll, baby!" is all Johnny can say. Heatseekers, those two are for you.

Two nights later, the last big hurrah at South by Southwest begins as night falls on Austin. The city is revved-up tonight, fever-pitched for the finale, as is our hero Johnny. There's a problem, however, in the form of the running gag known as Vanilla Ice.

There he is on the bill, Robbie Van Winkle, too cold, too cold. One a.m. on Saturday is a prime slot, and no less than seven other, more worthy bands perform at various establishments at the same time. Refilled and reinvigorated, the Flask issues its command, but Johnny Z hesitates.

A private bacchanal is set for an underground location outside of town; it's sponsored by the hard-reveling nation of Vice magazine. Free libations will be served. Celebrated bands Bloc Party and the Go! Team will play. Glimpses of scandalous, half-naked women are possible. Magazine flacks, minor celebrities, label chiefs, the beautiful people that matter -- simply everyone -- is going.

Nobody, however, is going to Vanilla Ice.

The Flask has its duty, and though Johnny longs to help fulfill it, it is not to be. Duty is not the intent of SXSW; rather, a wonderfully reckless impetuousness takes precedence. Johnny Z makes fast friends at Emo's outdoor stage while enjoying the rustic gurgle of Canadian MC Buck 65. These glad fellows are only too happy to finish the Jameson for Johnny, freeing him of the burden of the Flask and its wicked contents.

Vanilla Ice will have to wait for another day. The Flask is empty, and the night is full of possibilities.

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Jonathan Zwickel

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