I learned of the sad and untimely death of Brent Grulke at the age of only 52 this week while I was on a family vacation in France, a country he routinely visited in his role as Creative Director of SXSW, the world's biggest and most important music festival and conference.
It was while attending MIDEM music industry event in Cannes, a few years ago Brent spotted a disheveled but charismatic British singer playing in a small board room and he decided he had to have her at his event. As a result I was lucky enough to see a then-unknown Amy Winehouse backed up by the Dap Band in a small, half-filled Sixth Avenue Club in Austin, Texas, an event typical of the music magic Brent and his colleagues regularly have created at Southby. This now-legendary artistic-free-for-all is unlikely to have achieved its world-beating significance without his steady hand. Hell, Winehouse probably wouldn't have either, such was the magic this quiet-but-driven man was continually capable of.
Brent was one of the good guys, a gentle bear of a man with a lovely smile and blue eyes that were never afraid to meet yours head on. In an industry crowded with egos, Brent never let his own get in the way of the artists and the music he was so committed to promote. It would be easy to overlook just how important a player this unassuming man was in creating Southby's unlikely success but his heartbroken colleagues in Texas sure know.
Like many of the Southby pioneers, Brent was part of the team that created the Austin Chronicle, the still independent alternative newsweekly in that rocking Texas town. In addition to writing for the Chron, he was a soundman on Austin's talent-packed music scene and regularly working with bands no doubt helped deepen his commitment to their needs at the fest he helped create.
As a co-founder of Canada's Northbynortheast (NXNE) festival I got to move my friendship with Brent from buddy to colleague as he led a team of Texans north to help us launch our event in 1996. Our gang came up with the slogan "It's for the music" as our early credo but Brent would have directed us there, insisting that we always have the best backline for the bands, treat them with respect and for god's sake make sure the gigs actually started on time. Brent and a Southby team worked directly at our side in Toronto for the first five years of NXNE. He always remained available for essential consultations and for the great pleasure of talking music together.
He knew that by treating bands well, they'd want to play our event and the
audiences and industry would eventually show up too. But I think Brent wanted to do things that way, because, in his heart, it was the right thing to do.
The only thing he loved more than music was his family and I still recall the delight with which he shared the wonderful news of the birth of his son Graham six years ago to he and his wife Kristen.
SXSW has become a monster event, capable of generating headlines around the
world and now even the planet's biggest names clamber to play the event's jam-packed stages.
But I will never forget the chaos of SXSW's early days, when none of us, I am sure Brent included, could have imagined how big it was going to become. It was an all-hands-on-deck affair and though he never complained, you knew he was working 26 hour days to pull it off. Battered and bruised just from attending in the mid-80s, I skipped the Sunday exodus from town and stayed over on a Monday before heading back home. I dropped into Austin's legendary Waterloo Records to grab some of the awesome music I had seen and heard over the weekend, the excellent tunes still ringing in my ears of bands I just didn't want to forget.
Pouring through stacks of records, I looked over at a figure bent over doing the same as me, unbelievably it was Brent.
"What are you doing here man? Haven't you had enough music? Don't you need a break?"
"Hi Michael," he said the words slowly propelled by that smile of his. He sweetly shrugged his shoulders and tucked back into the stacks of music, a pile of discs already jammed between his arm and his ribs. He was just doing what he loved, it had become his job but it was always his passion.
Adios amigo, long may you run.