By Whitney Pastorek
March 22, 2009 at 03:08 PM EDT

Rachael Ray’s second annual day party (sponsored, everyone should know, by Rose’s Mojitos) was set to kick off at noon on Saturday, and half an hour before the doors were scheduled to open, the line stretched literally around the block. I was about to write “inexplicably stretched literally around the block,” but it’s not hard to figure out how this event has become a SXSW powerhouse. You can start with the free food and drink — this year, chilaquiles shared stomach space with those infamous mini burgers — but then go ahead and throw in a consistently excellent lineup of bands that make it hard to dislike the lifestyle maven, despite her blatantly transparent agenda. I mean, her husband does front a rock band. And if you had the ability to let your husband’s rock band open for, say, New York Dolls and The Hold Steady, would you not use it?

Indeed, John Cusimano was the luckiest guy in Austin today, as his unfortunately named band The Cringe scored a prime slot on a patio packed with fans of those two better-known groups — though jury’s still out on whether he managed to do anything particularly memorable with it. The downstairs stage, meanwhile, played host to a flock of worthy up-and-comers including Ra Ra Riot and Airborne Toxic Event, smartly cross-programmed against NYD/THS in order to give the kidz something to enjoy. “If I’m drinking coffee at a show, isn’t that way too f—ing early?” asked Thermals singer/guitarist Hutch Harris during their opening set of repetitive but bouncy rock. The answer might be found in the way I recoiled at the near-dozen members of Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros: I like enthusiastic L.A. hipsters funnying about with the 1960s as much as the next girl, but they were way too merry for that hour, even if their expansive soundcheck (“Okay, now can I hear the trumpet?”) was decent entertainment in and of itself.

Details of New York Dolls — declared by Ray to be “possibly the greatest band on the planet” — and the Hold Steady after the jump…

Even if one knows little about how David Johansen and Sylvain Sylvain basically influenced everyone ever, it’s terribly hard to dislike a rock n’ roll band whose lead singer minces about the stage in Iggy Pop jeans and a ladylike blouse, not to mention uses words like “contretemps” in his between-song banter. “We already got a record deal, so I don’t even know why we’re here,” said Johansen by way of hello and before tearing through classics like “Babylon,” “Trash,” and “Looking for a Kiss,” as well as a no-frills cover of Janis Joplin’s “Piece of My Heart.” At one point, unsatisfied with the response from the mojito-subdued crowd, Johansen hollered, “We’re in Texas. Under the hot sun. In a tent. And all you can say is ‘yeah’? Let me hear you!!” Later, he would mime slitting his wrist and holding it out for all to see while mouthing the words, Come on! The crowd went ahead and averted any further mock suicides by perking up, and Johansen rewarded them with advice on how to get through these tough times: “Love each other,” he suggested. “Help each other.” By the end of “Personality Crisis,” the room was chanting, “New! York! Dolls!” with an eager Ray leading the chant in her flowered sundress. In the set break, a man behind the photo barricade took Johansen’s message to heart, offering to hold the spot of a woman who was off to find more beer. It was a nice moment.

And then there were The Hold Steady. Regular readers of are familiar with my inability to stop myself from pogoing up and down when Craig Finn is spitting his barroom poetry, and this afternoon was no different. I was actually hesitant to see their set in the first place, since there were 4,999 other bands in town for me to experience and I need to stop being so very obsessed with this one — but then I decided that after four long days spent pounding the Texas musical pavement all professional-like, I deserved a good “Little Hoodrat Friend” spaz-out. It works like a Pavlovian charm every time, that song, and afterwards, I immediately felt better. Once the final “whoa-oa”s of “Slapped Actresses” cut off, Finn went for his usual signoff and very nearly said, “We’re the Stay Positive — hold steady, Austin” instead of the reverse. Based on the way this band fortifies my soul, I think either phrase rings just as true.

Photo Credit: Whitney Pastorek/