by Scott Schinder
In its 23-year existence, the Austin, Texas-based South by Southwest music festival/industry gathering has always mirrored the mood of both the mainstream music biz and the alt-rock underground. So it wasn't surprising that the vibe at that this year's SXSW carried an undercurrent of unease over the perilous state of the recorded-music business, even as a horde of young and/or unsigned acts were in town attempting to launch their careers by bypassing traditional business models.
While the seismic shifts in the music biz are undeniable, music continues to play as essential a role in people's lives as ever, a fact that's affirmed by SXSW's ongoing vitality in these hard times. For me, the most significant thing about the festival is the sheer quantity of music that descends upon Austin during SXSW week. During the four days and nights of the music fest proper, one can't take more than a few steps on Austin's club hub of 6th Street, or on the booming hipster drag of South Congress, without being assaulted by all manner of live music. The fact that much of that music is mediocre-to-downright-terrible is beside the point; the overkill is exhilarating and inspiring all the same.
SXSW's reputation as a venue for buzz bands to be discovered, and for rising and established recording acts to launch new products, is well deserved. But attendees who focus exclusively on seeking out new talent are in constant danger of being disappointed, considering the multitude of unremarkable acts who regularly manage to stir up a SXSW buzz. Perhaps it's just because I live in New York, but I long ago stopped relying on SXSW as a vehicle for discovering new music. Of course, it's always a thrill to stumble upon something unexpectedly great, and I inevitably do on multiple occasions during the festival. But rather than spending SXSW seeking out the next big thing, I generally make an effort to sample the best of the festival's embarrassment of far-ranging musical riches, along with the countless unofficial events that take place within the festival's orbit, allows one the potential of seeing something great, or at least really good.
One early SXSW highlight was swamp-rock godfather Tony Joe White's riveting set on Wednesday, the festival's opening night. Four decades down the road from his signature hit "Polk Salad Annie," the Louisiana-bred singer/guitarist/tunesmith made some of the most raw and most compelling music of his storied career on last year's Deep Cuts. That album tricks out some of the artist's classic tunes with oddly appropriate electronic elements, creating a bracing mutant-blues stew that carries his iconoclastic style into exciting new sonic territory. The modified approach really comes to life on stage, where, accompanied only by a keyboardist and drummer, White's sublimely funky guitar work reaches new levels of funky inspiration.
Less inspired was resurgent psych-punk cult icon Roky Erickson's two-song mini-set the same night at the Austin Music Awards. Erickson's mere presence on stage, after decades of mental illness and musical inactivity, is miraculous in itself. But, after a run of inspired comeback shows with his '80s combo the Explosives, recent attempts to team Erickson with younger, hipper bands have been less satisfying. Tonight's pairing with talented Austin neopsychedelicists the Black Angels, must have seemed like an inspired concept on paper. But Roky tends to get lost in unfamiliar territory, and the Black Angels (like worthy Austin outfits Okkervil River and the Summer Wardrobe before them) weren't up to the task of keeping the erratic icon focused. After Erickson missed his cue on an otherwise promising reading of his 13th Floor Elevators classic "Splash One," the performance went off the rails and never regained its momentum.
More enjoyable was the awards show's paean to Roky's equally seminal contemporary, the late roots-rock godhead Doug Sahm, to celebrate the release of the largely excellent various-artists disc Keep Your Soul: A Tribute to Doug Sahm. Led by Sir Doug's son Shawn (whose effusive stage persona eerily recalls that of his old man) and featuring Sahm's longtime keyboard sidekick Augie Meyers and a one-song guest spot by Alejandro Escovedo, the four-song set maintained the sort of loose but insistent groove that Sahm helped to invent.
One of the best bands I saw on Thursday—Michael Hall's current combo the Savage Trip—wasn't even playing an official SXSW showcase. Hall, a matter-of-factly elegant songwriter whose much-loved combo the Wild Seeds was a leading light of Austin's '80s alt-rock boom, has been making consistently excellent records (the most recent being 2006's The Song He Was Listening to When He Died) ever since. The Savage Trip, comprised largely of longtime Hall cohorts, was a subtly powerful vehicle for the artist's evocative songcraft, and it's a shame that the band rarely performs outside of Austin.
Also trading in literate, infectious jangle are England's Blue Aeroplanes, whose SXSW sets marked the band's first U.S. appearances in nearly two decades. In that time, the band's personnel has turned over completely, with the exception of frontman/lyricist Gerard Langley and his drummer brother John. But the current lineup (joined here by local ringer Steve Collier, late of Doctors' Mob and the Rite Flyers, standing in for the band's rhythm guitarist, who'd been refused a U.S. visa) do right by the Aeroplanes' longstanding mix of punchy folk-rock and barbed beat poetry.
Unlike Hall and the Aeroplanes, ex-Mavericks frontman Raul Malo, actually had a new release (the fine Lucky One) to promote, and did so with effortless class and passion in his SXSW showcase. If there's a better male vocalist than Malo in contemporary American popular music, I'd like to hear him.
On Friday afternoon at the Yard Dog folk-art gallery, venerable indie roots-rock label Bloodshot hosted its popular long-running SXSW bash. Swell performances by '50s R&B innovator Andre Williams, postpunk rockabilly visionary Dex Romweber and Florida cowpunk pioneer Charlie Pickett showed how much the label's vision has expanded in its decade-and-a-half existence. And a typically rousing closing set by Bloodshot's flagship band the Waco Brothers—an Anglo-American sextet co-led by Mekons member and multimedia renaissance rabble-rouser Jon Langford, whose multi-band work ethic has long made him one of SXSW's busiest performers—demonstrated how the Wacos have evolved from alcohol-fueled diversion to protest-song juggernaut.
Friday night's Ponderosa Stomp revue offered a scaled-down version of the annual New Orleans-based festival of the same name, which every April offers a dizzying assortment of the underappreciated greats of early rock 'n' roll, blues, R&B, rockabilly and garage-rock, with an emphasis on vintage performers from the Gulf Coast region. This year's SXSW mini-Stomp offered a typically riveting array of talent, including such regulars as blue-eyed-soul wildman Roy Head, guitar-slinging soul queen Barbara Lynn and the great Louisiana guitarists Classie Ballou and Li'l Buck Sinegal, along with some of the never-thought-you'd-live-to-see-it rediscoveries that that the Stomp is so adept at providing. The latter group included memorable performances from fabled Dallas rocker Floyd Dakil, whose energetic set included his garage-compilation standards "Dance Franny Dance" and "Bad Boy," and Texas rockabilly original Huelyn Duvall. The latter pair received expert, unfussed backup from Austin semi-supergroup Eve and the Exiles.
Although they've never played an official SXSW gig, Houston's Allen Oldies Band is as much a SXSW success story as any act. Led by irrepressible frontman and vintage Top 40 fanatic Allen Hill, the Allen Oldies Band plays vintage AM pop hits with a transcendent fervor that belies the group's cover-band status, and their long-running marathon outdoor sets during the convention have won them a loyal following of SXSW registrants. Meanwhile, the group's instrumental expertise has won them a sideline backing vintage artists in their hometown and elsewhere. This year, the Allen Oldies Band was so in-demand that they managed to pack five sets in the space of six hours on Saturday. The marathon began with the band's annual 10AM throwdown at the Continental Club, followed by a noontime set across the street at Jo's Coffee (in between, Hill sat in on bass with German country-rock wiseacres the Twang). After Jo's, the band rushed across town to play behind the aforementioned Barbara Lynn and Roy Head at an outdoor neighborhood party, then returned to the Continental to back Andre Williams, after which Oldies multi-instrumentalist David Beebe walked down the street to play bass with Jon Langford at Yard Dog. Although none of these adventures was officially sanctioned by SXSW, it's this sort of thing that keeps the festival fun and exciting, and a big part of what keeps me coming back year after year.
"Roosevelt And Ira Lee (Night Of The Mossacin)" mp3
by Tony Joe White, 1969.
available on ...Continued
"Every Little Thing" mp3
by Michael Hall, 1994.
available on Adequate Desire
"Yr Own World" mp3
by The Blue Aeroplanes, 1991.
available on Beatsongs
"Sugar Shack" mp3
by The Allen Oldies Band, 2005.
available on Live and Delirious! on WFMU
"Dance Franny Dance" mp3
by The Floyd Dakil Combo, 1964.
available on Pebbles, Vol. 1
"Oh, Baby (We Got A Good Thing Goin')" mp3
by Barbara Lynn, 1964.
available on The Jamie Singles Collection 1962-1965
"Just A Little Bit" mp3
by Roy Head, 1965.
available on Teeny Weeny Bit
all photographs: Jacob Blickenstaff © 2009