From Amy Winehouse to Sharon Jones to Eddie Floyd, soulful artists crushed other contenders in Austin
Wednesday, March 14
AUSTIN – This year, to compete with the exponentially growingnumber of daytime parties happening in bars, clubs, record stores,parking lots and homes, South by Southwest staged a full slate ofshowcases (day and night) instead of just the Austin Music Awards. Sothere was time to acclimatize to the city and get your bearings. Theonslaught begins the moment you step off the plane.
Strangely, in a year when buzz about Canuck bands is arguably atan all-time high, the annual Canadian Blast BBQ featured veryfew of our country’s most-anticipated acts. Sure, you had yourMalajube and Holy Fuck sets, but what about acts that arereally making noise in their hometowns? Pride Tiger? Rock PlazaCentral? Think About Life? Why not throw the freakin’ Besnard Lakesonto the bill?
The early talk of the fest was the Arcade Fire’s impressive first-weeksales of their new Neon Bible (Merge) album, which finished secondonly to the Biggie Smalls Greatest Hits CD – and only by the verynarrow margin of 7,000 units.
Houston punks Fatal Flying Guiloteens opened theirexplosive Red Eyed Fly set by snarkily announcing, “Welcometo Austin, capital of Canada!” Before they finished thrashing,stage-diving and bar-walking, they asked all the bloggers in the crowdto “blog the shit out of this show, and make sure you mention we’refrom Texas, not Canada!”
After catching up with the usual T.O. contingent at Against TheGrain’s Green Mesquite BBQ bonanza, we squished in with a verystyley crowd of Anglophiles to the Dirty Dog to check out UKpseudo-Wiccan Bat For Lashes, whose members sported snazzyheadbands, faery-friendly makeup and a blatant penchant for KateBush. Natasha Khan‘s haunting serpentine vocals, stick-poundingpercussion (literally – she bashed a giant pole into the stage) anddouble-violin accompaniment suggested that Bat For Lashes might begiving the CocoRosie/ Antony & the Johnsons/ Joanna Newsom bentperformance art-rock camp a run for its money.
Krista Muir‘s post-Lederhosen Lucil act, a sweet mix ofomnichord beats and charming ukulele strumming, was a smart move awayfrom her previous campy synth-pop approach. Judging from her Ale Houseset, Muir’s at her best when she ditches the jokey bits and goesstraight for melancholy.
After a brief glimpse of Cody ChesnuTT‘s intenseacoustic guitar soul attack, we barely made it to Emo’s IVLounge, where Swede sissy Loney, Dear, eschewing theone-man-band shtick of his superb Loney, Noir album for a full-bandspectacle, received massive applause for his soaring orch-popanthems.
At Antone’s, the special guest at the Merge showcasewasn’t Arcade Fire (as some sorry sods might’ve hoped) but hometownboys and perennial SXSW “special guests” Spoon, who were intop form as they blasted through tunes from their forthcoming album -slated for a summer release.
Thursday, March 15
Thanks to eager alterna-showcase organizers’ desperation tobrand themselves with as many au courant bands as possible, it was easy to catch the hot ticket you accidentally missed if you waited amoment. Case in point: Loney, Dear, who strummed prettily at the UnderThe Radar party at Flamingo Cantina – ground zero for freeSaucony kicks, though the sneaker supply reportedly ran out at noon -in the early afternoon, then provided an orch-pop jolt at the Rhapsodyshindig at Mohawk Lounge barely two hours later.
The Rhapsody fete was packed with slightly nerdier-looking types,who seemed more stoked about the free memory key hanging off the partylaminate than they did about Oakley Hall‘s shambolicroots-rock set. The joint filled up for the old-guardsinger/songwriter-style set by Robyn Hitchcock and PeterBuck, though their slightly psyched-out strummy tunes were nothingto write home about.
On a more positive (and patriotic) note, Amy Millandelivered a very strong midafternoon set at Emo’s. She didadmit she was three beers into her day, riding on no breakfast, beforecrowing, “My dream of the festival is to have drinks with AmyWinehouse.” Music-wise, adding folks schooled in playing country androots music (like Darcy Yates and Christine Bougie) hasdone wonders for the quality of her live act. Keep that bandtogether.
The Rhino/Nonesuch party celebrating the career of EmmylouHarris (and launching her new Songbird box set) in the splendidballroom of the venerable Driskill Hotel, featured single songperfomances by Charlie Louvin, Kelly Willis, Buddy &Julie Miller, Charlie Sexton, the Watson Twinsand Paula Cole. An impressive tribute, though if the singingportion had been restricted to just Louvin’s moving version of WhenI Stop Dreaming and the Millers’ emotionally-charged take on LoveHurts, nobody would’ve left feeling short-changed.
After Harris graciously accepted her multiplatinum sales award,quipping. “I guess I have a career,” we high-tailed it toAntone’s to get in line with Amy Winehouse and 800 or so otherpeople hoping to squeeze into the Stax 50 Revue – a 50th anniversarycelebration of soul music in Memphis hosted by singer/songwriter/SouthPark Chef Isaac Hayes and featuring Eddie Floyd andWilliam Bell backed by the reunited Booker T & theMGs.
We can’t remember a SXSW show where the love vibe in theaudience was so palpable. It was ear-to-ear grins around the roomduring the MGs’ entire opening set, as Steve Cropper led oneof the greatest rhythm sections ever assembled through a smallsampling of their classic tunes – Soul Limbo, Time Is Tight and, ofcourse, Green Onions, before calling out the sharp-suited Bell tocroon a few familiar faves. Seen-it-all-before music biz types wereliterally in tears when the still powerful-voiced Bell fore intoPrivate Number, singing Judy Clay’s parts as well as his own.
A youthful-looking Eddie Floyd then bounded out, loosened his necktie,and busted out Sam & Dave’s Soul Man, 634-5789 and Knock OnWood, then Hayes returned in a red robe to reprise Dock Of The Bay inhonour of Otis Redding. A rare occasion where one of the festival’sbig buzz shows exceeded the advance hype. After that show, just trywatching half-assed sets by mediocre groups from Middle America.
Long before the Besnard Lakes‘ showcase over at theMohawk, the lineup snaked all the way down Red River andPitchfork-reading punters had their faces pressed up against everyhole in the fence, hoping for even a glimpse of Montreal’s latestblogosphere heroes.
While local lounge-dance-pop fusion faves the OctopusProject (Austin Music Award winners and Chronicle poster kids)were a baffling disappointment Silverlake Cambodian psych-rockfreaks Dengue Fever, who preceded the Austin crew at Emo’s,made up for it.
Hearing the lip service Amy Winehouse was getting Thursdayafternoon, showing up for her Eternal set early seemed like theonly way to get guaranteed entry. Sadly it wasn’t until 11:45 thatopeners Straylight Run started playing what turned out to bethe lamest suburban radio pap you could possibly imagine. Then anothernear-hour delay before mind-numbingly horrible Fair To Midland– not Winehouse – took the stage. Nobody at the club bothered toinform attendees of the line-up change.
Thankfully, Winehouse and her Dap Kings-bolstered band puton a superb display – fabulous songs, snazzy choreography andperfect pacing – that made the ordeal almost worth it.
Meanwhile, over at Red 7, Mary Weiss lookedflabbergasted to be playing to a packed house. “I haven’tperformed since 1989!” she laughed, flipping through cheat sheets ona music stand. “This is crazy!” And though the Shangri-La wasclearly quite rusty, forgetting chunks of lyrics, then waiting forprompts from the Reigning Sound‘s Greg Cartwright, bythe time she launched into a smokin’ version of the Shangs’ TrainFrom Kansas City, you felt honoured to be in the presence ofgreatness.
Friday, March 16
Friday afternoon at the Red Eyed Fly, the members of AmyMillan’s band stepped aside and let underrated mandolin master DanWhiteley sizzle through a lightning-speed string-plucking tributeto Bill Monroe. The ear-to-ear grin on Whiteley’s face when thecrowd, none of whom had showed up expecting bluegrass, cheered waspriceless.
Over to the annual NXNE-thrown Canadian BBQ at CaswellHouse, where implausibly adorable Prairie folkies Nathanchirped and strummed prettily while NOW‘s MichaelHollett, the NXNE crew, Paper Bag’s Trevor Larocqueand Enrique Soissa, the Cliks and tons of other Canuckspanicked about the gradually dwindling supply of Labatt Blue andMoosehead, anathema for any Austin bash. Luckily, the beer supply wasreplenished before violence broke out.
After a brisk trek back to East 6th, we were charmed by themuscular post-Riot Grrrl rock antics of Portland girl squad SwanIsland. Sporting a so-bad-it-was-stylish 80s rayon dress inelectric blue, lead singer Brisa Gonzalez, with her snaky,urgent vocals and awkward dance moves, accompanied by aggressivelymelodic guitar bleats, was winning enough to convince the hangers-onwatching through the window of BD Riley’s to tip the band atenner. Right on.
Fearing that the 10:30 pm appearance by Perry Farrell’snew Satellite Party project would be a nightmare to get into,we made an early entrance at Stubb’s, where Pete & ThePirates entertained early arrivals with generic templatedBritrock.
Weirdly, Chicago violin whizkid Andrew Bird, a completelybaffling choice to warm up for Farrell fans, had the most vocal andlargest reception. Definitely warranted – Bird’s stunning loopedarpeggios, hair-raising whistles and gorgeous vocals were a trilliontimes better than the awful glamazoid disaster that followed.
Farrell, sporting gross silver lam? pants and a Charlie Browncardigan, led his band through a horrifically derivative set of datedglam-tinged rawk that was reminiscent of what the canned music at theBovine sounds like when you’ve done 12 too many shots of Jager.
The 60s soul revival continued Friday night with a stellarshowcase at Opal Devine’s put together by the organizers ofthe Ponderosa Stomp Festival. Following entertaining sets by guitargreat Ray Sharpe (of Linda Lu fame), Louisiana Hayridecountry-rocker Jay Chevalier and pedal steel legend HerbRemington, Lil Buck Senegal and His Buckaroos bustedout the serious funk with Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural onHammond organ.
Tammy Lynn might be best known today for writing the bestever version of Mojo Hannah, but her soulfully sexy voice andcommanding presence made it apparent why Keith Richards wanted to haveher on the Exile On Main Street sessions. The intervening years havejust added an appealing rasp to her voice – she’s definitely duefor a Bettye Lavette-style career revival.
Next up was Motown session ace Dennis Coffey, whoseappearance caused the person next to me to ask, “Who’s the collegeprofessor?” But once Coffey launched into a searing rendition ofScorpio, the snide quips turned to slack-jawed awe.
Next up was the Tighten Up man himself, Archie Bell, whodemonstrated the hip swiveling and wrist twisting (“like you’redriving a screw”) technique of the regionally popular Tighten Updance.
It was well past 1 am when dapper Dallas Soul man BobbyPatterson appeared, but those who hung around – including StonyPlain’s Holger Peterson – were treated to a dazzlingdisplay of Southern-style showmanship. He soon had the whole place ina booty-bumpin’ frenzy, shouting along with the chorus of How Do YouSpell Love (M.O.N.E.Y.). Patterson’s choice of vest, emblazoned withimages of cartoon Sylvester and Tweety, just added to his kookycharm.
Best indie rock show of the fest honours, however, go to theDears, who sailed through a transcendent set at Habana Calle 6Annex in the wee small hours. Parenthood and the will of Moz havebeen good to them – they’ve never sounded this spectacular.
Saturday, March 17
By the time Amy Winehouse appeared backstage at Emo’sAnnex Saturday night to bestow best wishes upon saxophonistNeal Sugarman and the rest of his Dap Kings posse, whobacked her eight showcase and party appearances, the badass Brit souldiva was the big buzz of the festival. It’s a shame she didn’thang around through the crankin’ Afro-Latin set of Staten Island’smighty Budos Band to see Sharon Jones turn the placeupside-down.
The still-green 23 year old Winehouse could’ve picked up some usefulpointers about working a crowd from the charismatic Jones who showedshe could shout with fervour while bumpin’ booty with anyone willingto drop their backpack and climb up on stage. The Stax reps working upa sweat to the Dap Kings’ stone-solid grooves were likely wonderingwhy they ever cut deals with Angie Stone and Soulive to rekindle thesoul-fire of the legendary Memphis label’s glory years when Jonesand crew could wipe the beer-soaked floor with either of them.
One unforeseen effect of this year’s authentic soul revival atSXSW: hearing the real deal made it much more difficult to givewhitewashed wannabes the benefit of the doubt. After witnessingeven a shaky Mary Weiss rock Shangri-Las shit with gusto, thePipettes‘ girl-group pastiche, echoing off the tent canopy at acrammed Beauty Bar Patio fell flat. Despite the Brightonboppers’ mega-buzz, Gwenno, Becki and Rose havemore substantial dance moves than they do voices, and theirCassettes backing band was a tinny hurdy-gurdy compared to thepower of Weiss’s Reigning Sound.
On the other hand, Pittsburgh mashup maven Girl Talk(aka Gregg Gillis), who’s built up healthy hype by fanningthe last dying embers of the mashup trend straight into the au courantnew rave scene, killed with an end-of-night set at Elysium.Midway through, Gillis’s bouncing hoodie was obscured by the very 24Hour Party People spectacle of what looked to be 100 crazed dancerswho’d bum-rushed the stage. Not bad for a laptop jockey.
Over at the Continental Club, innovativesongwriter/producer and eccentric performer Jerry “Swamp Dogg”Williams showed he’s got no interest in getting by as anostalgia act. Opening with the biting Anti-Bush broadside, In Time OfWar, Who Wins? from his new self-released Ressurection (Sdeg Records)proved to be exactly the right choice for the crowd. He followed it upwith his prescient ecological anthem Synthetic World, whose insightfulsocial commentary seems even more relevant today, in ourgreen-conscious world, than when he first released it some 37 yearsago.
It’s amazing that the only artist we encountered at SXSW withsomething worthwhile to say about the ongoing war and the sorry stateof the environment was a 65 year old soul man who was there on his owndime.
Far less politically incisive but no less exciting was thescorching performance of Australia’s reunited supergroup Beastsof Bourbon, led by the maniacal Tex Perkins howling himselfhoarse at the Dirty Dog. Despite it being the worst-soundingroom of any venue at the festival, the revitalized Beasts powered bythe dual guitar blast of Spencer P. Jones and CharlieOwen raged with couldn’t-give-a-fuck abandon as Perkinsferociously screamed out their classics, along with a few tunes fromtheir forthcoming Little Animals (Albert Productions) disc betweensnide comments to the soundman about not being able to hear anythingfrom the monitors.
The Stooges show over at Stubb’s meant there wereonly 60 people in attendance, but all appeared to be hardcore fans.Those who’d shunned the Aussie heathens for Iggy Popand his leathery cronies, however, weren’t disappointed. Despite afew lacklustre appearances around town, including a four-song in-storeset of dreaded “new material” at Waterloo Records, the Stooges’reunion show stood as the most eagerly anticipated gig of SXSW.
As they strolled onstage, building up a wall of power, the bandmembers looked mature but not mouldy, and when Iggy came flying outfrom behind the stacks baring a buff body that defies all medicalprinciples, it was easy to believe he still wanted to be our dog.Throughout their set, the Stooges demonstrated the fury – andsomehow, the freshness – that rock dreams are made of. You couldeven forgive them the handful of new songs sprinkled in with theclassics. Getting slammed and pounded in the pit at Iggy’s feetalongside a couple of thousand close friends, every person there wasconvinced Iggy Pop’s maniacal smile as he contemplated his mayhemwas directed solely at him orher.
Stax 50 Revue
Sharon Jones & the Dap Kings
Mary Weiss & the Reigning Sound
Beasts of Bourbon
Red Stick Ramblers
Perry Farrell’s Satellite Party
Pete & the Pirates
The Octopus Project
Fair to Midland
The Broken West