At this year's South By Southwest Festival, Memphis musicians made a splash.
Last week marked the fourth time in five years I've attended the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin, Texas — a four-day, around-the-clock extravaganza where more than 1,000 bands play thousands of shows before even more thousands of critics, industry insiders, fellow musicians, and hustling fans.
It's the country's largest annual showcase of emerging (and, in many cases, re-emerging) music, and, in previous years, the Memphis angle has been obvious: Last year, it was Stax royalty being feted for a 50th anniversary; the year before, it was Memphis garage rock taking charge with Goner Records' first SXSW showcase.
By contrast, this year's local story wasn't the dominance of any one artist or scene but the sheer quantity — and quality — of Memphis bands in town. By my count, there were a record 20 Memphis-based bands or performers playing in Austin, and that number doesn't include such Memphis-connected acts as MGMT, Oh No! Oh My!, and Cory Branan.
Due to overlapping schedules and the complicated logistics of the festival, photographer Justin Fox Burks and I were only able to see about half of the Memphis-based artists. We missed local hip-hop fusion band Free Sol's early-Wednesday set due to travel delays and were then forced into some tough decisions during a Friday free-for-all absurdly packed with Memphis action.
The most Memphis-centric location in Austin was Opal Divine's Free House, an indoor-outdoor venue on the far western edge of the SXSW grid. In an event inspired by blogger Rachel Hurley's Memphis-themed, post-festival day party from last year, locals took control of the venue day and night for a marathon showcase of 12 Memphis bands dubbed "Six Degrees of Memphis."
The distance between Opal's and the bulk of the SXSW action made the venue something of an all-or-nothing bet. We skipped the day party in favor of catching Jay Reatard at the other end of the strip and hunting down buzz band Vampire Weekend. Meanwhile, setting up all night at the official Six Degrees of Memphis showcase forced us to miss Harlan T. Bobo, Ross Johnson, and Jack Yarber & the Tearjerkers at the Goner showcase at the opposite end of the strip, as well as a comedy showcase from Memphian and Flyer contributor Andrew Earles.
Because its location made it unlikely to draw much foot traffic from other SXSW events, the Six Degrees of Memphis showcase — organized primarily by Hurley, Third Man guitarist Jeff Schmidtke, and Memphis Music Foundation honcho Dean Deyo — seemed in danger of turning into a private party for the participating bands. But the crowd built gradually during the night's first three acts: bluegrass Tennessee Boltsmokers and indie rockers Snowglobe and Third Man.
During Snowglobe's terrific set, I spotted a man I didn't recognize taking notes and introduced myself. He was Wolfgang Schoen, a German music fan on a month-long American music vacation with friends. I asked him what had brought him to the Memphis showcase. "The lineup, of course," he said.
He'd happened upon Amy LaVere at a day party at Jovita's earlier in the week and fell in love. He wanted to see her again and saw she was playing the same showcase with the North Mississippi Allstars. ("I never miss a chance to see the Allstars," he said.) And there he was, loving Snowglobe.
After talking to Schoen, I spotted another group that didn't fit the Snowglobe profile but seemed to be enjoying the show. The ringleader was Alan Goldstein, a middle-aged Austinite who was searching the SXSW website for shows to attend when he spotted the North Mississippi Allstars, a band he already knew and liked. He listened to the samples on the site, liked Snowglobe and the Bo-Keys, and brought three friends with him.
By the time the Bo-Keys took the stage midway through (to be followed by LaVere and the Allstars), the large outdoor tent (bigger than most showcase venues) was fairly bulging with enthusiastic fans.
But if the Six Degrees of Memphis showcase did happily turn out to be a fine vehicle for presenting Memphis music to outside fans, it was equally a great Memphis party, with most locals in town not involved in the concurrent Goner showcase congregating at Opal's.
Archer Records' Ward Archer (in town with his stable's star, LaVere) and Beale Street Caravan's Sid Selvidge shared a booth inside the club while Selvidge's Caravan crew (Sam Tibbs and Dawn Hopkins) recorded the concert for future broadcast. Ardent's Jody Stephens talked about seeing a resurgent R.E.M. on the festival's opening night and later took a picture of a young lady with the Allstars' Luther Dickinson, the Big Star drummer playing photographer at the request of the woman, who was unaware that she had handed her camera to the more famous musician. Lucero bassist John Stubblefield wandered over to pay respects prior to his own band's 1 a.m. showcase that night.
Rappers Lord T & Eloise hung out in civilian garb before heading over to a Red Bull after-party run, in part, by former Music Commission president Rey Flemings, who was also at Opal's for the showcase. The night before, Lord T had made the scene in full aristocratic regalia — swaying along to LaVere at Antone's, hustling his way into a full MGMT showcase at Rio, and pausing for photo ops with several curious passers-by. The band closed the Memphis portion of SXSW with a chaotic, deliriously entertaining set at the Ninety Proof Lounge Saturday night, a fortuitous choice of location in that the back of the stage was adjacent to a large open window, from which the gold-plated Eloise, in particular, taunted rapt curiosity seekers and petulantly tossed dollar bills.
Inside Opal's, Bo-Keys tour manager Chad Weekley kept one eye on the college basketball game on the bar television while explaining that the band had just come from Shreveport where they'd filmed scenes for the upcoming Samuel L. Jackson and Bernie Mac film Soul Man. Weekley's hoops addiction (he was wearing a University of Memphis shirt he acknowledged not taking off through the Conference USA tournament) was a common theme, with Snowglobe's Luke White and Jeff Hullett also eager to talk Tigers. Earlier in the night, Hurley, whose initial efforts set it all in motion, danced joyously to Snowglobe then gushed that, if nothing else, the night was like "my own private concert with all my favorite bands." By the end of the evening, she seemed tired but gratified that things had gone so well.
While there was plenty of Memphis action in Austin this year, two local artists seemed to be generating the most attention: Amy LaVere and Jay Reatard.
LaVere and Reatard were the only Memphis artists to be pegged as critics picks by the Austin Chronicle and to play multiple shows throughout the week, including a rare double-dip of official showcases for LaVere, who opened the Americana Music Association showcase at Antone's Thursday night before playing the Memphis showcase Friday.
When LaVere strode onto the stage at Antone's, clad in a low-cut, ankle-length white dress and black heels, a guy near me gasped, "Wow!" Two thirds of the way through her set, a woman behind me gave her an enthusiastic, "Go on, girl!"
Needless to say, LaVere had control of the crowd. She was backed by two of Memphis' finest musicians, drummer Paul Taylor and guitarist Steve Selvidge, the latter of whom found space to deploy plenty of his own tricks — skronk blues, Southern boogie riffs, and speed-rock solos — within the context of LaVere's eclectic roots sound.
But it was LaVere herself who was the real star, dancing a pas de deux with her upright bass, slapping back at Taylor in a musical call-and-response, and putting everything she had into each song in a performance that was as expressive as possible without veering into theatrics.
She was by turns mischievous, flirtatious, and defiant and gave the impression of thinking through each song's lyrics as she sang them. Even when her songs aren't good-to-great (and they usually are), LaVere exploits all the meaning and potential in them.
We skipped Reatard's official showcase at the Vice Bar Thursday night because it coincided with MGMT's showcase, reasoning that, with Reatard playing some half-dozen shows in Austin during the week, we'd be able to catch him somewhere else. And at Emo's the next day, he did not disappoint.
A prolific member of the local garage-rock scene going back a decade now to his intense teen band the Reatards and extending through his awesome if eventually strained collaboration with Alicja Trout in the Lost Sounds, Reatard is now having a moment as a solo artist. He's recently signed a multi-album contract with renowned indie Matador and will soon begin releasing a series of highly anticipated singles via the label.
For a musician too well known for his on- and offstage antics, Reatard took the stage and showed why so many who know him well speak wondrously of his drive and creativity. With his two-piece backup band, Reatard delivered a quick and ferocious set that started with the title track to his recent solo album Blood Visions. Shouting out the name of the next song to his bandmates near the end of each preceding song, it was a silence-free set. At the end of the final song, Reatard set his guitar down and fled the stage, while feedback was still wringing.
If LaVere and Reatard were the Memphis artists with the most momentum last week, the Memphis artists with the biggest audience were Lucero, for whom SXSW is by now old hat. The band played three shows last week, and we caught up with them at their last, a public show at Austin's Waterloo Park, where we slipped backstage and then onstage to get a band's-eye view of what it's like to play for roughly 2,000 fans. The band played a relaxed but spirited set that ranged from their most recent album all the way back to their earliest days on the local scene, taking song requests underscored by proffered whiskey shots and taking in stride a series of fans climbing on stage in order to dive back into the throng.
As they've done before, the band also seemed to be using the festival as a means of conducting business. At Opal's Friday night, some Memphis musicians suggested the band was about to sign a full-fledged, major-label deal, but Lucero members themselves were mum on the specifics — for now.
The density of Memphis bands in Austin this year made it harder than in the past to scout out emerging artists from other areas, though we did manage to catch the most buzzed-about act at the festival: New York indie band Vampire Weekend.
Spin cover boys and Saturday Night Live musical guests the week of the festival, this Columbia University-formed four-piece was the toughest ticket in town, and we didn't even bother trying to get into their official showcase Friday night at Antone's. We did head down to a Thursday day party sponsored by National Public Radio only to find the line flowing down the street and around the block well before the venue opened and hours before the band was set to take the stage. Heading back, I spotted the band standing against the wall of a building and being interviewed by an MTV crew. My camera-wielding companion snuck over to snap a shot. We figured that was as close to seeing the band as we'd get.
But after a few days of trying, we were able to snag passes to an invite-only Spin party on Friday where Vampire Weekend was playing. The verdict: They were no revelations. I love the album, which combines the bright, clean guitar sound of Afropop (and a few other of that genre's sonic signifiers) with witty, descriptive lyrics that make most modern indie-rock songs sound like half-formed gibberish. Since I think records are profoundly more important than live shows, the fact that the band didn't improve on the record didn't bother me, though it does underscore the sense that while the band has mastered the sound of African guitar, the groove and sense of ecstatic buildup in that music may be out of their reach.
The second most buzzed-about new band in Austin last week, the Brooklyn-based but Memphis-connected MGMT, turned out to be the better live band. We headed over to the Rio Thursday night after Amy LaVere's showcase to catch MGMT's SXSW debut. The band — which features White Station High School grad frontman Andrew VanWyngarden (son of Flyer editor Bruce VanWyngarden) and MUS grad and touring guitarist Hank Sullivant — was in fierce form. An electronic/psychedelic outfit that echoes David Bowie and Prince at times, the band is only two months out from their debut album, Oracular Spectacular, but when they launched into singles "Electric Feel" and "Time To Pretend," a ripple of excitement ran through an exuberant, overflow crowd that was akin to a stadium band finally playing their big hits. By the time the band took the stage, the club was so packed that people were hanging off railings and standing on stools at the back of the club to try to see the stage.
One unfortunate byproduct of such a Memphis-heavy itinerary was that it left less time to explore than in past years. And the freedom of Wednesday night, when we arrived too late for Free Sol and no other Memphis acts were on the schedule, confirmed what interesting accidents are always possible at an event so bursting with new music.
A little bored with Ohio blues-rock duo the Black Keys, I left Emo's for air and wandered down Red River Road, hearing a familiar sound — no, noise — blaring from the open door of the club Spiro's. It was a cover of "Funhouse" by proto-punk band the Stooges, a record I adore. I went in to check it out and what I saw was a stage crammed with college-aged derelicts who looked very much like the Manson family — out of control facial hair, tribal face paint, and acid-casualty expressions. There was a four- (or five?) piece horn section bashing into each other like a mosh pit while they played and a lewd lead singer prowling around exhorting the whole band.
It looked ridiculous, but it sounded just like the apocalyptic jazz-punk meltdown Iggy Pop and his band put on vinyl in 1970. In this case, that wasn't lack of imagination. It was heroic feat. The band was Dark Meat, from Athens, Georgia.
Making my way back up Red River Road, I met up with my cohorts at Emo's Lounge, where they had congregated after the night-ending showcases they'd attended. Walking into the bar, the lights were up, there was a middling crowd milling about, and there was a lone young woman standing on the slightly elevated stage warbling an amateurish but likable version of the Guns 'N Roses classic "Sweet Child O Mine" into the microphone, accompanied by piped-in music.
A post-showcase round of karaoke? No — the headliner! It was the Blow, an electronic duo (though the singer's better half didn't appear to be around) from Portland. A Memphian recently returned from the Pacific Northwest tells me they're quite popular throughout the region. Proof that, in indie rock, there's a thin line between a put-on and a sensation.