SXSW Diary: Day 2 — It's Memphis Time 

On the back of every NBA locker room pass is language forbidding media members from asking players for autographs. Not that this is needed. I can’t imagine a credentialed media person coming up to Shaquille O’Neal after a game, asking him a question, and then whipping out a game program to be signed. It just isn’t done.

Alas, no such decorum exists in the world of music, as witnessed Thursday afternoon in Austin, where an interview session with Stax Records artists devolved into a free-for-all of fandom and genuflection, a mostly baby-boomer group of reporters and critics having come armed with albums, CD jackets, and other appropriate canvases for their musical heroes to autograph.

Of course, if anyone in Austin this week deserved to be worshiped and salivated over, it was these Memphis legends — the remaining members of Booker T. & the MGs, Isaac Hayes, Eddie Floyd, and William Bell. And they proved it later that night in a mostly excellent, occasionally thrilling revue-style showcase in celebration of Stax’s 50th anniversary, at blues warhorse Antone’s.

I showed up an Antone’s more than half an hour before the scheduled 7:30 start time and the line to get in was already snaking around the block. Soon, the line reached from the Antone’s door around the corner to the opposite end of a very long city block, out into the street, and back around halfway back toward the club. The number of people in line seemed to be about four times club capacity. In three trips to the South By Southwest Music Festival, I haven’t seen anything quite like it. In fact, I barely got in.

Inside, the Stax crew proved worthy of such attention. Isaac Hayes strode across the stage clad in a red dashiki and sunglasses to offer an introduction: “Tonight is about some very special music. It’s about 50 years of soul music. We’ve come together to celebrate Stax. Can you dig it?”

And, with that, Booker T. & the MGs took flight, Booker T. Jones setting the foundation on organ, childhood friends Steve Cropper and Donald “Duck” Dunn flanking each other on guitar and bass respectively, and modern-era addition Steve Potts keeping the beat. There were moments when the quartet lapsed into playing like a very good contemporary blues bar band instead of playing like BOOKER T. & THE MGS, but when they locked into the grooves of classic hits such as “Green Onions,” “Time is Tight,” and “Hip-Hug Her,” you could feel the whole room lifted up.

After a 40 minute set, the band was joined by original Stax male star William Bell, who still sounds great more than 40 years after his trademark hit “You Don’t Miss Your Water.” With a gaggle of Memphis VIPs — including Soulsville matriarch Deanie Parker, Big Star’s Jody Stephens, and Bo-Keys bandleader Scott Bomar — grooving away in the balcony, Bell ripped through a few of his biggest hits and then gave way to Eddie Floyd, who gave the crowd what they were waiting for with “Knock on Wood.”

The night ended with an Otis Redding tribute of sorts — Hayes joining Bell, Floyd, and Cropper for a group rendition of “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay” and Bell closing the show with Redding’s “I Can’t Turn You Loose.”

After the Stax showcase, I headed down to the opposite end of club row and was greeted with another reminder of the popularity of Memphis music, as a smaller but more frenetic crowd gather outside the bar Red 7 hoping to get into a Norton Records showcase. The New York-based rock-and-roll label had Memphis’ Sam the Sham (of “Wooly Bully” fame) on the bill, but the real attraction was ex-Memphian Greg Cartwright and his Memphis-born Reigning Sound, who played a typically dazzling solo set and then stayed onstage as the backing band for Mary Weiss, the onetime teen-queen lead singer of the classic girl-group the Shangri-La’s (“Leader of the Pack.”)

On the downside, the concurrence and popularity of all this Memphis action made bouncing back and forth between venues impossible. While Stax and Norton where having their showcases, Memphis punk labels Goner and Shattered had also teamed up for a showcase at Beerland, just around the corner from Red 7.

Finally, towards the end of Weiss’ set, I decided to duck out in hopes of catching the end of Memphis’ Jay Reatard’s set at Beerland, but by the time I got there, he’d already finished. Reatard was standing on the street talking into a cell phone, the only rocker in town wearing short shorts. Reatard was scheduled to play a daytime set at Beerland Friday, which I’m hoping to make.

Look for a lot more details from the Stax and Norton showcases in next week’s Flyer. — Chris Herrington

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