Austin, Texas, promotes itself as the live music capital of the world, and every March it goes out and proves it. The city's annual South by Southwest music festival might be the largest annual gathering of touring bands, rock critics, and industry insiders in the country.
|Lucero’s Ben Nichols is locked and loaded for the Reigning Sound’s showcase.|
For years, Memphis has reaped some of the fruits of the festival in terms of an avalanche of local shows picked up by bands on their way to or from Austin. But this year, Memphis invaded Austin with its own avalanche of travelin' bands, starting last Wednesday night with roots-rock/jam-band Stout (whose 8 p.m. set I missed due to road construction in Waco) and Lucero, who played a late showcase for their record label, Tiger Style. Friday night, MADJACK Records put its entire roster on display at Coyote Ugly, while a reconfigured Big Star plugged in at the Austin Music Hall. And, on Saturday, the closing day of the festival, an entire two-block section of downtown Austin turned into a celebration of Memphis garage rock, with locals the Cool Jerks, Viva L'American Deathray Music, the Lost Sounds, and the Reigning Sound playing alongside a bevy of bands influenced by the Memphis scene.
And in between those sets was a host of Memphis-connected acts, from ex-pats like Garrison Starr, Megan Reilly, and members of the Drive-By Truckers to Murfreesboro's Glossary and Mississippians like the Preacher's Kids and Sharde Thomas and the Rising Star Fife & Drum Band (see Local Beat, page 57).
The Flyer was there to cover this Memphis invasion and to take the pulse of a festival that purports to capture what's new, exciting, and emerging in pop music. Here's what we found:
South by Southwest math: Fifty venues times six bands per venue times four nights equals 1,200 showcase concerts.
If the number of concerts seems overwhelming, consider this: That's only the "official" nighttime showcases. Most bands pick up extra shows at unofficial nighttime events or at day parties sponsored by publicity firms, record labels, or media outlets. And while all that music is happening, there's business being conducted all over town, with industry panels and trade shows cramming the calendar at the convention center. The reality of SXSW is that, while the showcase events are the draw, they're only the epicenter for a swirl of other music-biz activity.
Lucero was probably the busiest of the locals in Austin last week, following their Wednesday night showcase at Buffalo Billiards with a packed outdoor gig at Emo's Annex Saturday afternoon. Then, Saturday night, the band headed off the strip to participate in a bill at the Terrible One bike park on Sixth Street, playing in the middle of a ramp while fans sat on ledges around them. The night before, the Lost Sounds may have matched Lucero for rock-and-roll romance value, playing at a converted church called the Church of the Friendly Ghost.
Lucero also spent the week meeting with a couple of entertainment lawyers and a couple of prominent indie labels (one of which offered the band a contract on the spot) to plot a future that seems unclear because their current label, Tiger Style, is experiencing difficulties. One meeting occurred at the Four Seasons hotel, which prompted guitarist Brian Venable to remark that "the hotel staff looked at us a little weird. I think they have a hard time distinguishing between people in town for South by Southwest and the local homeless."
|The Hives’ Howlin’ Pelle Almqvist and the Reigning Sound’s Greg Roberson hang out at Emo’s between sets.|
MADJACK artists were busy Friday afternoon before their showcase that night at Coyote Ugly. The Tennessee Boltsmokers drove to College Station, home of Texas A&M University, for a live community-radio performance, while Cory Branan played the trade-show day stage at the convention center before a sparse crowd of catnappers, laptop clickers, and networking attendees. A bemused Branan pitched his show to the handful of Memphians in the audience. Playing his song "Skateland South," Branan looked up in mock mournfulness at the "trade show" banner when he sang the line "I'll share all my fame with you." Soon after, Venable cracked the joke of the day when Branan asked him from the stage what he wanted to hear and Venable deadpanned "Play something from the first album." (Branan's debut, The Hell You Say, was released a couple of years ago and recording on the follow-up that was supposed to start in February got delayed.) But, as unexcited as Branan was about playing the trade show, he wasn't in bad company; Robyn Hitchcock and Andrew Bird played the same day.
Later, Branan and guitarist sidekick Steve Selvidge peered through the window to catch some of ex-Memphian Garrison Starr's Thursday night set at a sold-out Coyote Ugly, while Lucero drummer Roy Berry caught up with ex-Memphian Megan Reilly at her Friday night showcase at the Ritz. Selvidge later tracked down Drive-By Trucker and ex-Memphian Patterson Hood at a Bug publishing party. Lucero couldn't stay away from recent tourmates Against Me!, with most of the band spotted in the crowd at the Florida punk band's day set at Emo's Saturday (which was a festival highlight) and bassist John Stubblefield hopping on stage to pitch in with backup vocals.
But it wasn't only acquaintances and fellow locals that Memphis musicians checked out. Berry was talking up sets by indie-rockers Electrelane and the Constantines while Venable tried but failed to work his way into the overflowing Saturday afternoon set by punk sensation Ted Leo. Branan, meanwhile, tagged along with his publicist Shelby Meade to a late-night party off-site, where he came back unimpressed with New York buzz band the Walkmen but amused by the "hissy fit" thrown by indie-rock prankster Har Mar Superstar.
Local musicians took the opportunity to get away from the madness too, or to escape "the van culture," as Venable called it. "We've been in bars for the past 32 days," Venable said. "At this point, going to some of the shows seems like going into the office on your day off." To get away from it all, Venable and Nichols went to see the film Hidalgo (because, apparently, nothing breeds band camaraderie like taking in a rousing adventure yarn together), while members of the Lost Sounds stayed at their hotel and went swimming. And while his bandmates were hanging out in the clubs, the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright went to his tour van and went to sleep.
There was also plenty of Memphis-related action away from the performances. At the convention center on Thursday, there was a well-attended panel discussion about Big Star. Former Memphian and current Austin-based music writer Kent Benjamin moderated, with the panel including Big Star drummer and Ardent Studio manager Jody Stephens, original bassist and current aerospace engineer Andy Hummel, Posies and current-edition Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow, and former Ardent engineer Terry Manning (currently working on the next R.E.M. album at his Bahamas studio). Missing were Big Star frontman Alex Chilton, who doesn't participate in these kinds of events, and Third/Sister Lovers producer Jim Dickinson, a last-minute scratch who was there "in spirit," which meant in the form of a worn vinyl copy of his '70s solo album Dixie Fried, which Benjamin propped up on the table.
The timing of the panel coincided with a new batch of Big Star-related activity. Chilton, Stephens, Auer, and Stringfellow are at Ardent this month working on the first new "Big Star" album in 30 years, and a book on the band is set to be published in November. The panel itself was pretty subdued, filled with meditations on late Big Star founder Chris Bell and reminiscences of the Memphis teen scene that gave birth to the band. "The main thing behind Chris leaving the band was that he had produced this wonderful piece of music; he had done his job and then the record people went out to promote it and failed utterly," Hummel said.
"In Memphis at that time, well, it was a very strange place. You couldn't be different at all," Manning said, remembering being sneered at on the street for having hair that would seem conservative today. "When you went to school dances, the bands played soul music -- 'In the Midnight Hour,' 'Knock on Wood.' Nobody wanted to hear the Beatles or the British Invasion. And we were all rebelling against that."
Manning, whose eloquent observations dominated the panel, described Big Star as the first "street band."
"I saw the Stooges and the New York Dolls," he said, "and they wanted to be the Rolling Stones. Big Star was really the first band I'd seen get on stage in T-shirts and jeans and just be themselves." The reconfigured lineup of the band performed a showcase (which was panned by the local Austin press) Friday night at the Austin Music Hall.
Another event at the convention center was Flatstock, a gathering of concert poster makers from around the country. The event was sponsored by GigPosters.com, the "meeting room or dorm room" of the American Poster Institute, according to Memphian Andrew Vastagh of Boss Construction, who, along with his wife Christa, was there to show off his work. Also participating in Flatstock was Michael Carpenter, an employee of local ad agency Red Deluxe, whose poster-making sideline, Nokturnal, has won him national clients in addition to his work for local bands and clubs.
Also at the convention center, MADJACK Records was participating in the Indie Village networking and meeting project along with scores of other indie labels, including In the Red, Kill Rock Stars, and Lookout. MADJACK's Friday night showcase at Coyote Ugly (where the club's trademark dancing bartenders hoofed across the bar to the tune of the recent Junkie XL remix of Elvis' "A Little Less Conversation") seemed to be the preferred gathering spot for local bizzers. The Memphis and Shelby County Music Commission's recently hired associate director of business development and community relations, Wayne Leeloy, was there cheering on local artists after spending the day networking and brainstorming at the convention hall. Current local Recording Academy president Jimmy Davis was also spotted in a crowd that included Billboard columnist Chris Morris.
For writers, fans, and prospecting bizzers alike, one thing South by Southwest is indisputably about is trendspotting. The festival not only offers a glimpse at scenes on the rise but at how scenes hold up after the hype has receded.
An article in the festival's preview guide by Austin-based music writer Jim Caligiuri noted that a few years ago alt-country was where the buzz was at SXSW, but the spotlight has since dimmed on the genre. No argument there, but it didn't take much looking around to see that the genre still has plenty to offer even with its "next big thing" tag discarded. Thursday night's showcase of rootsy female singer-songwriters, including Garrison Starr, Mindy Smith, and Alison Moorer, reached club capacity quickly. Earlier that day, the Texas-based New West Records (which has become a haven for great roots artists fed up with or abandoned by major labels) showed off perhaps the strongest alt-country lineup in the industry at a picnic in which the Old '97s, the Flatlanders, and the Drive-By Truckers delivered fantastic acoustic sets.
The not-really-so-alt-country Lucero played to the biggest crowds of any locals at SXSW (save maybe Big Star) with their well-attended showcase Wednesday night at the mammoth Buffalo Billiards. The performance itself was disappointing, with the band seeming to go through the motions (playing some songs too fast and Ben Nichols shouting rather than singing) and with the sound mix a little off. But the band rebounded with a fine show Saturday afternoon that mixed spirited takes on old songs such as "Kiss the Bottle" and "Little Silver Heart" with That Much Further West standouts "Hate & Jealousy" and "Tears Don't Matter Much." And with Eric Lewis & Andy Ratliff delivering pitch-perfect bluegrass and Cory Branan roughing up his songs, the MADJACK showcase offered proof that there's still plenty of life left in the acoustic guitar.
But as far as trends go, alt-country is really yesterday's news once removed. The new genre to beat up on this year was garage rock. The Austin Chronicle took potshots at Saturday's garage-rock showcase headliners the Hives for not being as popular as they were last year and for not "saving" rock-and-roll. (SXSW unanswerable: What's more of a drag: cookie-cutter hipsterdom or jaded critical backlash?) But if garage-rock was "over," the memo never showed up at Red River and Sixth on Saturday, where garage-rock-themed showcases at Emo's and Beerland were big successes.
Tyler Keith of Oxford's the Preacher's Kids set the tone at a blazing afternoon set at Beerland when he introduced a new song called "I Wanna Be a Lost Cause." And the rest of the lost causes in this scene rocked well into the night. Memphis' Viva L'American Deathray Music and the Cool Jerks opened the showcase at Emo's, where the Hives were headlining. Deathray ended their set with a "Sister Ray"-style noise meltdown, frontman Nick Ray playing guitar using his microphone as a slide. The Cool Jerks followed, with Jack Yarber, Scott Rogers, and former Neckbones Forrest Hewes and Dave Boyer all taking turns with vocals and with Austin music-scene stalwart (and Yarber's partner in the band South Filthy) Walter Daniels joining them on harmonica.
In between those sets, I got to chat with Hives singer Pelle Almqvist, who watched both performances. Almqvist is a huge fan of the Memphis garage-rock scene, especially Cartwright-Yarber collaborations the Oblivians and the Compulsive Gamblers, and has toured with the Reigning Sound. "I was a big Oblivians fan when I was 16 or 17 and had a chance to see them in concert when they toured Europe," Almqvist said. "When we were going on tour in America, we had gotten to be pretty popular, so we wanted to take bands on the road with us that we really liked, so [we asked the Reigning Sound]."
At Beerland, the In the Red showcase offered both the good and bad of the genre. Wisconsin's Mystery Girls (named after a Compulsive Gamblers song) were garage-punk-by-numbers and Portland's Hunches were simply an indulgent mess. But Chicago's Ponys were a revelation with their mix of Tom Verlaine vocals, hypnotic guitars, and bass-heavy, cymbal-free percussion. They played before the not-really-so-garage-rock Lost Sounds, whose furious set was one of the fest's frenetic highs, with Jay Lindsey and Alicja Trout unleashing a torrent of sound and energy (and hair) as they switched off between guitar and synth. And that set the stage for the Reigning Sound.
Over at Emo's earlier, I'd mentioned to bassist Jeremy Scott that my original hope of bouncing between the two clubs in order to see the Hives would likely be foiled by the large crowds. Scott, in what seemed to be an entirely sincere observation, said, "I don't think you'll have a problem getting in to see us." But Beerland was packed with a long line waiting futilely outside well before the Reigning Sound took the stage to turn yesterday's news into timeless literature. Just seconds before the first drumbeat kicked in, Lucero's Ben Nichols yelled, "The best band in the world!" And whether that assertion is true or not, Scott, Cartwright, and Roberson spent the next hour proving it.
But if alt-country and garage rock are trends on the wane, the new big thing at SXSW appeared to be indie hip-hop. Where the alt-country and garage-rock shows seemed to draw fairly insular, partisan crowds, the Rhymesayers and Definitive Jux showcases at Emo's on Wednesday and Thursday night were far more diverse affairs. Hip-hop heads and punk rockers mixed with indie kids, rock critics, and assorted others (I saw Old 97's guitarist Ken Bethea at the Def Jux show!), packing both shows and creating a vibe that gave off a palpable excitement.
At the Rhymesayers set, the Minneapolis-based label showed off its newest star, Brother Ali, an overweight, lazy-eyed, albino, Muslim MC who came out to the blaring sounds of Muddy Waters' "I'm a Man" and lived up to all that conceptual baggage and then some. His half-hour set was incendiary and self-deprecating, smart and funny and passionate and combative. The next night, New York's Def Jux presented its nationwide roster of underground hip-hop stars: California's Jean Grae rapped over tracks from Scarface's "On My Block" and J-Kwon's "Tipsy" and sought to bridge the divide between hip-hop's underground and mainstream, teasing the crowd: "It's okay to party to underground music. That's what hip-hop was born for, to party. Don't act like y'all don't go out and get drunk and tried to pick folks up." She was followed by the Boston tag-team of Mr. Lif and Akrobatik and then by label owner El-P and his signal artist, Brooklyn's Aesop Rock.
The crowd excitement for each of these sets dwarfed that of most of the rock and roots shows I saw at SXSW, and I can only imagine what it was like when British MC Dizzee Rascal performed, since his showcase coincided with that of the Reigning Sound. The fan enthusiasm and artistic energy of the indie hip-hop scene proved at SXSW to be far more than just press hype. Too bad Memphis couldn't have contributed to it, but if locals like Memphix and the Iron Mic Coalition continue to develop, there's always next year.
"This goes to those whose love is so strong you can shut your eyes and see it when you listen to their songs."
That line comes from "Multiples," an early song by the rapper Sean "Slug" Daley from the hip-hop group Atmosphere, who acted as the ringleader to the indie-hip-hop celebration at SXSW, presiding over the Rhymesayers showcase and introducing Aesop Rock at the Def Jux showcase. I don't know if Slug performed the song during his own headlining slot at the Rhymesayers show, since I had to leave to make the Lucero showcase. (Being forced to make such decisions is perhaps the cruelest part of the SXSW experience.) But it might be the perfect theme song for not only those hip-hop coming-out parties but also for what was best about the festival as a whole.
For all the biz shenanigans and herd mentality and old pros going through the motions (B-52's opening for Junior Senior at Stubb's, which prompted this observation from my wife: "I'd be okay with this if I was at the state fair") and major-labelers trying to recapture lost momentum (hello, Papa Roach), at its best, SXSW could still be about the music, about art and culture instead of just taste-making and commerce.
And for this music fan, that purer, nobler quality was embodied most by three compellingly similar artists, all of whom put their transcendent music across with fairly old-fashioned guitar-rock.
Elizabeth Elmore got her start in the punk band Sarge, one of the most promising indie bands of the late '90s. A few years back, she disbanded Sarge for law school and a more promising legal career. But there she was in Austin Thursday night at the Ritz, opening the showcase of her new label, punk stalwart Lookout, with her new band, the Reputation. It was like the rock-and-roll equivalent of that Godfather III line Silvio always quotes on The Sopranos: "Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in."
With a mind as sharp as her tongue, Elmore's songs pick apart every bad relationship she's ever been in or heard about with a truly fierce intelligence and an artistic obsessiveness that borders on the frightening. Why is this woman touring the country with an indie band making no money when she could be well on her way to a six-figure law career, you ask? But then you watch her play and you figure it out. With her blond hair falling in front of her face and her guitar at her waist, Elmore rocks with a surly, suffer-no-fools intensity that evokes the Pretenders' Chrissie Hynde, and when she bites into a song, she's both transfixed and transfixing. She seems to be back on the road with a band because she has to be.
And you might be able to say the same thing about Craig Finn. Finn led the one-of-a-kind Minneapolis band Lifter Puller in the mid-'90s but broke up the band and moved to New York for a safer, more lucrative ("more" -- ha-ha) office job seemingly months before Lifter Puller's now-intense cult following bloomed. But there he was again Friday night at the Elysium on Red River with a new band, the Hold Steady, whose first album had come out only days before. Why is this guy doing this again, you think? Then he answers.
"I got bored when I didn't have a band, so I started a band, man," Finn sings to open the show, "and we're gonna start it with a positive jam. Hold steady!" And then we're off. With his ace new bar band behind him (Lifter Puller bass player Tad Kubler exploring his Skynyrd fixation on guitar this time), Finn stalks the stage more like a stand-up comic than a rock-and-roll singer, rattling off dizzyingly smart and funny rant-like lyrics and engaging in a form of frontman's Tourette's, where he seems to be carrying on a combative conversation with the voices in his head between verses.
You'd think it was a schtick if Finn didn't convey such a total involvement in what he's doing. But his Elvis Costello-meets-Peter Sellers stage presence seems less a put-on than a bit of Jekyll-and-Hyde split personality. (I spoke with Finn the day before, and he seemed sort of quiet and shy.) Finn seems utterly transformed by the act of playing in this little bar band that seems ready to conquer the world. The next day, a writer covering the gig for The Austin Chronicle predicted it'd be one of those shows that, a decade later, people would brag about being at.
Which brings me to the Reigning Sound's Greg Cartwright. Who knows if mild-mannered Cartwright ever thought about doing anything else, but as a three-time dad (with a newly arrived baby girl), he doesn't cut the kind of figure most people would envision for a garage-rock frontman plying his trade in beer-soaked punk-rock clubs. I chatted with Cartwright before he took the stage at Beerland Saturday, and he spoke with insight and humor about the cultural and social differences between Memphis and his new home in Asheville, North Carolina, and told funny anecdotes about his recent songwriting collaboration with '60s icon Jackie DeShannon. Then he joined bandmates Greg Roberson and Jeremy Scott on stage and he changed.
The vibration started with Roberson and Scott's flawless foundation then snaked up Cartwright's spine and through his hands and mouth and out into the crowd. Cartwright's entire body shakes when he plays, as if all the best parts of all the great records that this obsessive music fan has consumed can't wait to leap back out of his body in new form. Songs likes "Stormy Weather" and "Time Bomb High School" were eruptions. Pre-Reigning Sound songs like "Stop and Think It Over" and Cartwright's Saturday-night gospel version of "Live the Life" sounded like the alternate-universe classics they surely are. And by the time the band shut down the night, and thus the festival, with Elvis' "Suspicious Minds" and Sam & Dave's "You Got Me Hummin'," Memphis hadn't just invaded Austin. Memphis had taken over.