"I know we've got rock and blues and singer-songwriters, but I really think 'Memphis' should be a genre," filmmaker Craig Brewer told an MTV News crew last week at Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival, the biggest annual gathering of musicians and music-industry insiders in the country. And for four days in Texas, an unprecedented number of visiting Bluff City bands gave lucky fans and curiosity seekers a sense what that might mean.
Onstage Thursday night at the Dirty Dog bar on 6th Street as part of a showcase hosted by the Memphis Music Foundation, rapper Al Kapone preached the same gospel: "We're gonna take y'all on a tour of Memphis," Kapone said to the assembled crowd. "We got Soulsville — rest in peace, Isaac Hayes — blues, soul, rock-and-roll, and hip-hop, aka, all of the above." Hill Country Revue's Cody Dickinson joined Kapone onstage to play electric washboard during a blues-rap tribute to Beale Street. Kapone's live band dipped into soul and rock. And Kapone himself more than supplied the hip-hop.
Kapone was wearing a $5 Cover T-shirt — promoting Brewer's upcoming Memphis-music-scene-themed MTV project in which Kapone's among the on-screen subjects — and Brewer was in the crowd, filming the set with a tiny AT&T digital camera (a new $5 Cover sponsor) that sent live streaming video to MTV.com.
At this moment, the two primary forces — $5 Cover and the Memphis Music Foundation — driving the largest Memphis delegation in SXSW history came together. With Brewer and MTV New Media executives in Austin to promote the series for a probable May launch and the Music Foundation hosting two events and financing the travel of participating local bands via its "ambassador" program, roughly 30 Memphis acts descended on Austin, smashing last year's record of 20.
There were seven Memphis-oriented day or night showcases over the festival's four days — two each sponsored by the Memphis Music Foundation and Goner Records, one co-sponsored by $5 Cover and MusicMemphis, one by Ardent Records, and one by local rockers Lucero, who created a "Lucero Family Picnic" day party featuring tourmates and friends (including fellow Memphians River City Tanlines) at the last minute when the Dirty Dog had an unexpected opening. (Sadly, we were forced to come back a day early and missed Goner's Saturday night showcase.)
I haven't even bothered trying to figure out how many total shows were played by Memphis artists, not when John Paul Keith played nine shows himself, five leading his band the One Four Fives and four more as a sideman for Jack Yarber and Harlan T. Bobo. (It would have been more if Bobo hadn't missed or canceled a couple of his scheduled shows). Trumpet player/flautist Nashon Benford played shows with four different Memphis bands (Snowglobe, Antenna Shoes, Two Way Radio, and Jump Back Jake.) These flurries of activity are entirely typical of SXSW, where upward of 2,000 acts (according to a New York Times report) now show up and live music runs from noon to 2 a.m. only if you skip after-parties.
There were no individual Memphis performers this year as buzzed about as Jay Reatard or Amy LaVere at previous festivals and no Memphis-centric events as high-profile as the Stax showcase two years ago or Goner's first showcase the year before. But in terms of overall festival presence, this was Memphis' biggest SXSW year yet.
Memphis' Austin invasion got started late Tuesday night at Central Station, where roughly 60 Memphis musicians and scene-connected representatives had a few beers in the parking lot and then boarded a bus to Austin sponsored by the Music Foundation. The motley assemblage included members of the classic Stax instrumental band the Bar-Kays (headlining the Foundation's Thursday night showcase), members of Kapone's live band, and members of rock bands such as the Tearjerkers, River City Tanlines, Jump Back Jake, and Two Way Radio. "It was the only way to make sure we could get everyone down there," Foundation president Dean Deyo said with a shrug at the organization's Thursday day party, while acknowledging the inherent comedy of the trip.
Around 8 a.m., the bus pulled into a Cracker Barrel restaurant parking lot outside of Dallas. "Somebody said we probably scared the crap out of everybody at Cracker Barrel," Deyo said. Among the many moments of humor and incongruity to emerge from this cultural clash was, according to Two Way Radio's Kate Crowder, a post-breakfast siesta in which a row of Memphis musicians sat on the restaurant's front porch rocking chairs, smoking. Remembering the same moment, songwriter/bandleader Harlan T. Bobo wryly noted the sign overlooking the scene: "OUR ROCKERS ARE FOR SALE."
In Austin, a scattering of local bands got started with official showcases Wednesday night — indie rockers Third Man, hardcore assault unit No Comply, and $5 Cover subjects Two Way Radio, whose early set suffered interference from a loud metal band the next club over; The New York Times' four-word verdict: "Homely, cute. Metal disrupts."
But the Memphis action really got going Thursday, starting with an early Music Foundation outdoor day party in Brush Square Park, adjacent to the convention center. Heading into Austin, I was starting to question the wisdom of the Foundation putting such focus and funds (surely tens of thousands of dollars) on a few days in Austin, but both of their Thursday events came off very well. With its proximity to the convention center and catering from Memphis in May Barbecue Fest award winners Natural Born Grillers, the day party served its purpose — luring hungry industry types over from the convention site to see Memphis bands.
After indie-poppers Two Way Radio finished their opening set — Brewer training his streaming camera on $5 Cover breakout bet Crowder — the singer found herself facing a receiving line of business-card-clutching bizzers. One, who licenses music for television shows, suggested the band would be a good fit for TLC's Jon & Kate Plus 8. Another suggested a USO Tour booking. Who knows if anything will come out of these new contacts, but it's a start. While Crowder was doing business, the tent was filling up with the sounds of Jump Back Jake, a young Ardent Records swamp-rock/R&B band whose sharp set was highlighted by a cameo from Ardent patron and Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, who sat in for one song, and a closing cover of Eddie Floyd's Stax chestnut "Big Bird."
The Foundation moved to the Dirty Dog that night for its official festival showcase, a diverse lineup of local acts dealt a slight blow when rap duo Eightball & MJG missed their flight to Austin, spurring early bands to start a little bit later to fill up the duo's middle slot.
Jack O & the Tennessee Tearjerkers started things off with a show-stealing first set that relied heavily on their most recent album, Flip Side Kid (the follow-up, The Disco Outlaw, will be released in May on Goner, though advance copies were available in Austin), and showcased his underrated skills as a hooky rock songwriter and skilled lead guitar player.
With Kapone and the River City Tanlines filling out the middle portion of the bill, the Foundation showcase was closed by the odd-couple pairing of Lucero and Stax vets the Bar-Kays. There was some apprehension about how this combination would work. More than any other Memphis act at this year's festival, Lucero brings with them an independent national fanbase, and their set transformed the bar from a two-thirds-full crowd that was at least a third Memphians to a full crowd heavy with hardcore Lucero fans.
The band had been charged by showcase organizers to "be sober" for their set, a request they partially fulfilled, but which gave lead singer Ben Nichols a conversation topic in his back-and-forth with the audience. Toward the end of the set, Nichols sensed that the crowd his band had lured into the club probably weren't big Bar-Kays fans. "The Bar-Kays are going to play after us," Nichols said. "Anybody ever heard of a song called 'Soul [effing] Finger'? Badass shit." Not getting the recognition he sought, Nichols threw his hands up in resignation and admonished his fans: "Ignorant motherf##kers!"
After Nichols polished off the Lucero set with "Fistful of Tears," accompanied only by Rick Steff's piano, the Bar-Kays took the stage and proved to not need any help with the crowd. The club thinned out a little when Lucero finished, but a new wave came in expressly for the Bar-Kays, who took the stage in white sequined suits and unleashed a surprising blur of energy and sound that immediately gripped the crowd. With three backup singers/dancers filling out the lineup, the small stage could barely contain the band, but that only made the energetic set seem more chaotic. Memphis-connected critic Stanley Booth once wrote that "in Memphis, if your whole band can't do the sideways pony, then you don't have a stage show." The Bar-Kays, clearly, still have a stage show.
Microphone problems for a very unhappy frontman Larry Dodson threatened to derail the set, with Dodson storming off the stage while a tech tried to fix the problem and the band kept playing. But once that wrong was righted and the band launched into "Soul Finger" — their one, sure, claim on eternity — it was a big party. And a big success.
Though the Foundation party was Lucero's lone "official" showcase, it was probably the least significant of the four shows the band played at SXSW — and five if you count Nichols' official solo showcase at a packed Maggie Mae's Friday night.
Lucero has been together for more than a decade and are old hands at SXSW, but they came into this year's festival on an upswing, having just opened for the Pogues at the Roseland in New York and set to go into Ardent Studios Monday, with producer Ted Hutt (the Gaslight Anthem), to begin work on their major-label debut for Universal Republic.
Though a little loose at the Foundation showcase, the band had been in top form earlier Thursday at a day party alongside Brooklyn cult faves and good friends the Hold Steady, teasing the crowd with three songs from a upcoming album.
The new songs were expansive, rhythmic, and terribly impressive. Before the set, Nichols and guitarist Brian Venable couldn't hide their excitement about the new album, for which they're deploying a horn section and a more painstaking songwriting process. If the performances in Austin were any indication, this excitement is very warranted.
Lucero didn't get to stick around to see the Hold Steady, though the Brooklyn band sang Lucero's praises from the stage on several occasions. They had to hurry over to the Dirty Dog for an interview with MTV News, which also spotlighted other $5 Cover bands, such as Al Kapone and Two Way Radio. Though the official launch date of $5 Cover is still being set — with early May mentioned as a ballpark time — more news about the series is beginning to trickle out. It's looking more and more likely that the web-based conception will now have a television component. And at the Ardent day party, MTV New Media executive vice president David Gale confirmed a tip I'd picked up a couple of weeks before — that discussions are under way with a Seattle filmmaker (Lynn Shelton) about producing $5 Cover: Seattle — turning Craig Brewer's brainchild into a potential new franchise.
The MTV News crew almost seemed less interested in $5 Cover interviews with Memphis artists than in the fortunes of the University of Memphis Tiger basketball team. SXSW typically coincides with the first week of the NCAA basketball tournament, which has some attendees (okay, this one) juggling a band schedule and a bracket sheet as they navigate the clubs. This year, Tiger Fever was rampant among the Memphis contingent, many of whom took over a Vietnamese restaurant outside of Dallas on the way back Saturday to watch the team's game against Maryland. Lucero's John C. Stubblefield told MTV News that the Tigers' #2 seed was good, because Memphis is an underdog kind of town. Brewer and Antenna Shoes/Snowglobe frontman Tim Regan made the scene in Tiger gear. And Regan's bandmate Luke White, working sound at the Ardent day party, filled a brief gap in the schedule by picking up an acoustic and performing his Final Four lament "Tiger High '85." The Tiger connection would also come in handy later that night.
MusicMemphis and $5 Cover hosted a Friday night showcase, and like the Foundation the night before, faced some last-minute problems. For MusicMemphis, it was Harlan T. Bobo opting out of his scheduled set after professing weariness at all the MTV attention. This opened up a slot for Valerie June, a local folk/country/blues singer who appears in $5 Cover but who didn't have any shows in Austin lined up. She was just in town to support friends.
June was happy to play but didn't have her acoustic guitar with her — and no one else at the Memphis showcase had one either. MusicMemphis organizer Jeff Schmidtke headed out onto 6th Street on a guitar search, coming up empty until he was approached by a man asking about his bright blue University of Memphis T-shirt. The man didn't live in Memphis now but had attend the U of M. Turned out to be Jason Isbell, the former Drive-By Truckers songwriter/guitarist, who had a showcase across the street. And it turned out he had an extra acoustic he could lend.
The showcase, at the cozy Halle Cabana 6, kicked off with the instrumental trio City Champs (supplemented by the Bar-Kays' horn section) laying down a hot set of Memphis-style jazz and R&B —all groove and punctuation, no jam-band noodling.
June came next, charming the audience with an impromptu set, joined onstage by fellow Memphian Jason Freeman (of the Bluff City Backsliders) for a Mississippi John Hurt cover. She was followed at the showcase by Ron Franklin, Keith and the One Four Fives, Hill Country Revue, Susan Marshall (playing with Jody Stephens and Hi Rhythm's Teenie Hodges), and Amy LaVere. It was a showcase that demonstrated how diverse and idiosyncratic "roots" music can be in the hands of Memphians — just one definition of what Brewer's proposed genre could mean.
— Additional reporting by J.D. Reager