Friday night in Austin, Texas, on the third night of the annual South by Southwest Music Festival, I was at the Parish, a large, two-story club on 6th Street, waiting between bands at a showcase for the North Carolina-based indie rock label Merge, when the stranger in front of me peered at my festival badge and exclaimed, "Hey! You're from Memphis."
It wasn't much of a coincidence. The next act on the bill, Apex Manor, may have been a rock band from Pasadena, but it was one with local roots in the form of bandleader Ross Flournoy, a Memphis native whose family still lives in the city. And the couple that happened to be standing in front of me in the crowded club were former Memphians who had relocated to Austin but were out to support their old hometown.
"It's just too bad there's no Memphis showcase this year," one of them said, shaking his head. And on that point, I had to disagree.
Last week, more than 2,000 rock bands, singer-songwriters, DJs, rappers, and other music makers from across the globe descended on Austin to perform showcase concerts, theoretically, for music-industry "insiders" — i.e., anybody who ends up with a festival badge. And, at this point, the official portion of the festival is dwarfed by its unofficial components: There are many more shows happening outside the festival schedule than on it. At least as many bands — everything from Kanye West to unknown street buskers — hit town to perform without having festival showcases. And visiting fans and locals purchasing wristbands, paying single-show covers, or just indulging in the mammoth number of free day parties outnumber conference registrants by many thousands.
This year was crazier than ever, with thousands of civilians pouring into the mix and turning the 6th Street main drag into a roiling ocean of colorful, unkempt humanity by Friday night and making entry to many smaller clubs hard to come by.
While a Memphis showcase — and there have been such events in the recent past — would have been a convenient hideout for homesick ex-pats, I've never been sure if it serves Memphis musicians well. Local artists are perhaps better off mixing it up with other bands — and other bands' fans — than being grouped into showcases that tend to attract familiar faces.
That's what happened this year with, by my count, roughly 20 Memphis-based or Memphis-rooted acts in the middle of the mess, playing either officially or unofficially.
Getting the Band Back Together
If Memphis music had a headliner in Austin this year, it was probably the North Mississippi Allstars, who had two official showcases — at Stubb's and Momo's — in addition to off-the-grid day party and radio performances. The band — Luther and Cody Dickinson with bassist Chris Chew — hit the festival in the middle of their Keys to the Kingdom tour, in support of the February-released album that is the band's first since 2008's Hernando. It's also the first since the August 2009 passing of their father, revered musician/producer Jim Dickinson, and the first since the October 2009 birth of Luther's daughter.
The brothers have still toured on and off during this long gap between albums, mostly as a duo and most recently as openers for Robert Plant's Band of Joy tour, a gig they'll pick up again next month. Sitting in a car on 8th Street an hour before the band's early-evening show at Stubb's, hiding out from the noise inside and the heat outside, Luther points out that the new album's "Ain't No Grave" was written on the Allstars' tour bus.
But, mostly, the brothers Dickinson have been taking separate paths the past couple of years.
"In order to have longevity in this business, you have to switch it up," Luther says. "You can't just keep doing the same thing. We're always planning and scheming."
For older brother Luther, that's meant signing up to play guitar with the Black Crowes and pairing with Alvin Youngblood Hart and Jimbo Mathus in the South Memphis String Band. For younger brother Cody, that's meant leading a new band, Hill Country Revue, and developing his one-man-band Cody Dickinson Project.
The brothers already had planned to reunite for a new album before their father passed, but the loss of the elder Dickinson defines the album.
In the immediate aftermath of the loss, Luther had convened old family friends and Dickinson collaborators Sid Selvidge and Jimmy Crosthwait, among others, for a recorded wake, which became the Grammy-nominated Onward & Upward.
"Dad didn't want a [public] funeral, but he loved a recording session," Luther says. "We were so close to Sid and Jimmy and talked with them through everything. We had a deep sense of wanting to get together with these guys. I had already been playing acoustic gospel music for myself and in the hospital. That [music] is my entry into spirituality. So we just took turns playing. Mom had to leave. It was too much. But it was also joyful. There was laughter. Like a jazz funeral. I saw it with Otha Turner."
Cody missed the Onward & Upward session, forced to leave that morning to go back on tour.
"I was on tour throughout the illness," he says. "It was tough."
When the brothers returned to the family's Zebra Ranch recording studio the next spring, they made another album essentially about their father's passing — this one together and this one rooted in reflection more than the immediacy of grief. Self-produced by the band, with crucial help from longtime engineer Kevin Houston, it's an album about mortality and loss but one whose tone is often swaggering and suffused with humor.
"That mirrors Dad's whole example," Luther says. "He was defiant and proud and brave. He always said production in absentia was the highest form of art. And we did it the way he'd want to do it."
Musically, the album was also influenced by the heavier, more direct take on the north Mississippi sound that Cody had been crafting with Hill Country Revue.
"Cody and [guitarist Kirk] Smithhart were killing it," Luther says. "I was in the studio watching them. It inspired me to do fewer guitar solos and write tighter, shorter songs."
When the band first emerged, with 2000's Shake Hands With Shorty, their novel sound appealed to different audiences — blues purists, jam-band followers, alt-rockers, middle-aged fans reared on classic rock. But keeping those disparate pockets of fans happy hasn't been easy.
"Some people really like [Keys to the Kingdom], because it's song-oriented, but other critics have said we're not relying on our strengths," Luther says. "People have had ideas of what we're supposed to sound like based on Shake Hands With Shorty. It's fucking impossible to please all those people."
Onstage at Stubb's intimate indoor performing space (the venue is better known for its larger outdoor stage), the band was in fine form. Playing a set that seemed to come almost exclusively from Keys to the Kingdom, they were sharp — the joint-rocking "Jumpercable Blues," the spirited "New Orleans Walkin' Dead," and the intimate anthem "Hear the Hills" standing out.
Luther found a perfect balance between song form and his masterful guitar playing, his solos shortened and locked into the songs. A constantly smiling Cody was crisp behind the drum kit, and Chew added bass lines as big as he is, helping on tambourine, backup, and, at times, lead vocals. The gospel undercurrent on Keys to the Kingdom came out even more clearly onstage and added gravity and soul to the band's trademark blues-rock sound.
Earlier, out on the street, the brothers remembered their first introduction to South By Southwest — not as members of a showcasing band but as kids tagging along with their dad.
"Dad used to take us to SXSW every year," Cody says. "He was on panels."
Luther thinks he was 12 or 13 when he saw their dad playing with Mojo Nixon at the festival.
Recently, Cody has been following in the elder Dickinson's path, spending more time as a producer, stepping in to take on pre-booked projects at the family's Zebra Ranch Studio in order to keep the studio — which Cody calls the family's "fellowship hall" — running. More recently, he's been hired by the local Music + Arts Studio to work as a staff producer on an EP project by young singer Audra Brown. He's been working on Brown's demos during downtime on tour.
"My junior year [in high school], the festival occurred during semester exams," Cody says, looking out the car window to the busy SXSW street scene. "I dropped out of school and came. I'm not advocating that for anyone else. But yesterday I was sitting on the tour bus, working on [the Brown] demos, and had a realization. Here I am, 15-plus years later, producing demos on the street at SXSW, where Dad used to bring us. I'm doing my work. I've found my career."
"I think it was his master plan all along," Luther says.
"But he didn't push it on us. It's on me if I fuck this up or not," Cody says.
Luther smiles. "And Lord knows we have. And he would tell us about it."
[EDITOR'S NOTE: A portion of this interview with the North Mississippi Allstars has been misinterpreted by some to imply that Cody Dickinson was somehow absent or negligent during the time of his father's illness. While the quote in question is accurate, that implication was in no way intended nor is it true. Cody was actively involved in caring for his father during his illness. The quote in question was included in reference to the reason for Dickinson's having to miss the recording session for Onward and Upward and, in larger context, to communicate the strain of juggling work and family, something to which most any adult who has been in a similar situation would relate. We apologize for any misunderstanding.]
The Rest of the Story
If the Allstars were the busiest and most well known Memphis act in Austin, other locals dotted the SXSW landscape. Memphis garage/punk institution Goner Records was holding an unofficial showcase at familiar haunt Beerland on Friday night, with locals Harlan T. Bobo and the Limes on the bill. Experimental rockers Cloudland Canyon were part of a showcase for Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records Friday at the club Emo's Jr. Hard-rocking SXSW vets River City Tanlines, led by Alicja Trout, were part of a Dirtnap Records showcase at Easy Tiger on Saturday.
Folk-rockers Star & Micey played a spirited set at the Hilton Garden Inn on the festival's Wednesday opening night and stuck around to play in the exhibit hall and busk on the streets. Rap-rock-soul fusionists Free Sol weren't on the official showcase list, but they were in town for a high-profile day show on Saturday. And other local artists hitting town for shows off the SXSW grid were said to include young indie bands Bake Sale and Modern Convenience and songwriter Bryan Hartley, as well as rapper Jason Da Hater and producer Infinito, who showed up at fellow Memphis rapper Skewby's day show on Friday and then, apparently, played later that night at the Victory Grill.
Among the musicians were plenty of non-performing Memphis reps, from festival regulars like the Folk Alliance's Louis Meyers (a former Austinite who helped found SXSW) and Ardent's Jody Stephens to reps from the Memphis Music Foundation and the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Making very strong showings at concurrent Thursday-night showcases were former $5 Cover roommates Valerie June and Amy LaVere. Happily, these showcases were close enough to each other that we were able to catch the first few songs from June and the last few from LaVere. Both were, like the Allstars, in fierce form. And both played to strong crowds.
Two years ago, with $5 Cover being feted, June was a tagalong, left off the series' showcase initially but added at the last minute, performing with a borrowed guitar.
This year, June hit Austin on an upswing, fresh off appearances at the International Blues Challenge and the International Folk Alliance Conference and in pre-production on an album project with venerable producer Craig Street (who helmed Norah Jones' Come Away With Me), which she hopes to record this summer.
We had approached June's showcase with some trepidation. She was playing on the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn — a cozy space with a fabulous view but not somewhere that draws casual curiosity seekers or overflow from other clubs. You have to want to be there, and, for June, plenty of people did. Her showcase was full, with most attendees wearing festival badges and the crowd hushed as June worked her way through a mix of originals and vintage folk-blues covers.
We ran into June at a rock showcase at Buffalo Billiards the next night. With a day off between gigs — she was scheduled to play a Folk Alliance event at Threadgill's on Saturday — June was enjoying the fest and conducting a little business, having been approached by a significant booking agent after her showcase the night before.
Around the corner at Swan Dive on Thursday, LaVere was leading a newish three-piece band — including guitarist Dave Cousar, who got a rousing happy birthday reception from a group of locals outside the club afterward — through a set featuring material from her forthcoming album, Stranger Me, due July 19th on Archer Records. Playing a showcase for management firm Thirty Tigers, LaVere had an almost uncomfortably crowded room at her disposal. Her performance was intense, but as soon as she was done, she brightened:
"I'm just so happy," LaVere announced to the room. "We had three shows today, and we're done. Now we can go and watch music and have fun. Here's to springtime in Austin, everyone. Cheers!"
If the Allstars, June, and LaVere were all SXSW returnees, the most auspicious local debut at this year's fest belonged to young rapper Skewby, among the many hip-hop acts at this year's festival building substantial audiences through independent, Internet-driven fan outreach. Skewby stood out at a day show Friday sponsored by the hip-hop site DJBooth.net, then made his official SXSW showcase debut later that night at rap club Fuze, bracketed by a couple of harder-edged, more well-known Atlanta rappers, Gorilla Zoe and Pill. Joined by DJ Crumbz and manager/partner Antonio Tubbs on stage, Skewby more than held his own in a potentially tough environment, giving a physically dynamic performance of "Authentic" and "Sweet Dreams" from his most recent mixtape, More or Less, and earlier songs such as "Angels Remix," "Get Retarded," and "Talk 2 'Em."
Two other artists making waves at this year's festival are a bit more tangentially Memphis-connected.
First was the aforementioned Apex Manor, who showcased early Friday at the Merge Records event. The band is the brainchild of Memphis native Ross Flournoy, who is returning after the breakup of his fine previous band, the Broken West.
Flournoy was born and raised in Memphis, but his family moved to California when he was 11. When Flournoy was in college, at Amherst in Massachusetts, his family returned to Memphis. And though Flournoy is currently California-based, Memphis is "home" again — where he comes for holidays to visit parents and a grandmother in East Memphis.
The Broken West was a bright, winningly melodic band. Apex Manor, which debuted early this year with the album The Year of Magical Drinking, scales back a little from the previous band's power-pop sound and adds a little more classic-rock muscle.
"[The Broken West] made those two records and weren't really making a lot of money. That burned everyone out a bit," Flournoy says after his showcase, slipping out to the club's back alley for a little respite from the noise. "But I knew I still wanted to keep writing. I made demos and sent them to Merge [which had released both Broken West albums] and they liked them."
Assembling a new band that also includes Broken West bassist Brian Whelan, now on guitar, Flournoy tweaked his sound. "I grew up listening to classic rock," he says. "I sort of wanted to rock out without any preciousness. Just balls-out rock."
At the Parish, Flournoy and his band were really strong, opening with the rave-up "Teenage Blood" before moving into the hooky "Under the Gun" and generally bringing the album's impressive combination of melody and power to even greater life.
The next night, one-man-band Bosco Delrey showcased at Friend's on 6th Street as one of the few rock acts for his label Mad Decent, an imprint run by Philadelphia DJ/producer Diplo (best known for his work with M.I.A.). Delrey is listed in the festival guide as a Memphis artist, but, like a lot of young musicians ditching their day jobs for the touring life, is probably closer to itinerant.
"I can fit all of my worldly possessions in a two-door car," Delrey says, ducking around the corner from the club a couple of hours before his gig. "But I feel most at home in Memphis."
A New Jersey native, Delrey was an aspiring musician in New York when he met up with some Memphis natives. He ended up moving south, touring with locals the Magic Kids and recording part of his coming debut album, Everybody Wah, locally with producer Doug Easley. The video for his recent single "Space Junky" was shot at South Main bar Earnestine & Hazel's.
There's a bit of Memphis in Delrey's music too, his affinity for rockabilly coming through in sound and visual style but mixed up with glam-rock, electronic dance music, Spectorian pop, and other influences.
"It comes from what I was hearing while writing those songs in Brooklyn," Delrey says of his album's eclectic sound, though he does acknowledge a childhood Elvis fixation. "I was living in this apartment with thin walls, hearing music from neighbors, coming out of bars, what my friends were playing. I don't try to do just one thing."
For his showcase, Delrey performed solo, playing guitar over remixed backing tracks and singing through a slightly distorted microphone, Diplo watching appreciatively from the side of the small stage.
But however much his label benefactor may be a fan, Delrey's debut has been in flux for a while. Recorded last summer, it's been pushed back several times. The most recently announced release date is March 29th, but Delrey said in Austin that he's now expecting an April release — he hopes.
"They want to make sure the audience is there for it," says Delrey, who was leaving Austin for a Mad Decent event in Miami and then going on a brief tour with buzzy New York band Sleigh Bells.
"Waiting for someone else to put out your music is a strain," Delrey says with exasperation. "If it doesn't finally come out in late April, I quit."
The label? Music itself?
"Everything," he says, throwing his hands up, but smiling.
For more from the South By Southwest Music Festival, particularly from nonlocal acts we saw, see the Flyer's pop culture blog, Sing All Kinds, at memphisflyer.com/blogs/singallkinds.