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The Sheepdogs Stay Hungry at SXSW

Photo credit : Handout
The Sheepdogs Stay Hungry at SXSW

It's a hot, muggy day in Austin, Tex., and The Sheepdogs' singer Ewan Currie is about to break his first sweat. Decked out in a white cowboy shirt and sunglasses, the mountain of a bearded man looks out at the hundred or so revellers gathered in front of him at the midday event and hoists his Gibson Firebird guitar triumphantly before letting it settle just above his waist.

It's Currie's first show of the day and he's a bit stiff from the night before. Letting out a sigh he turns to his right where a slightly intoxicated Leot Hanson handles his Gibson SG guitar as if it were another appendage. Although Currie's eyes are hidden by his shades, his body relaxes and soon his auto-cooling mechanism kicks in and, as like his former football playing days, he settles in to the wetness.

Behind Currie, drummer Sam Corbett lets his already soaked hair dangle over his eyes as he rhythmically attacks his drum skins while bassist Ryan Gullen, lean and lanky, counterbalances Currie's stature.

As the band kicks in to their set of boogie rock, the audience begins to sweat, too. In the back, their manager and Dine Alone label boss Joel Carriere watches on like a proud father. This is already the second time Carriere has seen the group in as many days but he beams as if it's their first steps.

This is the Saskatoon group's third trip to the South by Southwest festival -- the annual music, film and interactive industry gathering that sees nearly 2,000 bands descend on Austin each year in the hopes of connecting with some of the industry's biggest names. In reality, few, if any, actually get to shake the hand of an A&R scout, never mind get signed.

Three years ago, when the group first played the Texan capitol during the festival, they weren't even officially on the bill, instead playing a Salon des Refusés-style festival that ran at the same time. That year, The Sheepdogs ended their festival experience with Currie in handcuffs for being drunk and disorderly ("They eventually let me go," he says). It's safe to say that this time, the odds tend to be slightly more in their favour.

In fact, it seems a lot has gone The Sheepdogs' way lately. Over the past 12 months the band has graced the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, signed to Atlantic Records, toured with Kings of Leon and is currently putting the finishing touches on their major label debut, which was produced by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. Not bad for a band that one year ago few outside their home province of Saskatchewan had ever heard of.

"We always felt like we were on the fringes and you don't make any money," Currie recalls during a post-show Mexican meal. "This time last year both the band and us personally were heavily in debt."

"Now when we have time off we actually have time off, we don't have to do other jobs," Gullen adds with a sheepish smile. "That first year, people had to give us money just so we could eat."

With miraculous timing, the group is recognized by a young woman who comes over to say she was at the Beauty Bar show. With equally good timing she follows a compliment with, "What's the name of your band?"

It's a moment that perfectly epitomizes the state of the group, and, to some extent, the music industry. Much like Stillwater, the hirsute fictional rock group from Cameron Crowe's film Almost Famous, which also ends up on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine, The Sheepdogs are in fame purgatory; known to those in the know but still faceless to casual music fans outside Canada.

The band is hoping to change that with their next album. Tentatively due in late June or early July, the group is confident it will engage U.S. Top 40 radio in the same way both Kings of Leon and, more recently, The Black Keys have done.

"We want to bring some real rock back on the radio," Currie says. "Now it's all Nickelback and their cookie cutter knock-offs and that's why bands like The Black Keys are so important for popular music. We want to be there with them."

The dinner is followed by a midday nap and a gig out of the downtown core. Later that night, when the band returns to 6th Street -- the festival's main drag -- it appears to be a scene out of The Walking Dead.

Finding shelter in Canada House, a venue made to showcase Canadian acts, the group, accompanied by a Rolling Stone executive, are in good spirits. Shots are downed quickly before last call and soon the band is on the search for one of Austin's famous taco trucks.

After a windy tour that seems to take hours, they finally reach their destination just in time for the group and their entourage to hunker down.

As the band revel in the absurdity of the moment, Currie hands over a pair of headphones and gives me a taste of the board-mixed first single, "Feeling Good."

Crisp and poppy, the tune cracks with purposive drumming reminiscent of The Black Keys' "Howlin' for You." Coupled with a positive, harmonized chorus, it's destined to boom out of arena speakers.

"We should get the Blue Jays to use it. Somebody call Brett Lawrie!" Currie exclaims. "That's the dream man."

For upcoming Canadian tour dates and more information, visit thesheepdogs.com.