By Chris M. Junior
They came, they spoke and they performed.
This year’s South by Southwest music conference/festival featured its share of legendary artists, and here’s a recap of what some of them did in mid-March while in Austin, Texas.
Cheap Trick interview — March 17:
Rick Nielsen usually does all the talking during a Cheap Trick concert. And while the guitarist spoke the most during the band’s South by Southwest interview on March 17, it was singer Robin Zander who made some of the most interesting and humorous statements.
When asked about “The Flame,” a song not written by the band that became the only No. 1 Billboard pop hit of Cheap Trick’s career, Zander recalled Nielsen smashing the cassette demo after hearing just a few seconds of the song.
Producer Richie Zito talked Zander into listening to it, and in turn Zander had drummer Bun E. Carlos check it out.
“Then we decided that we could probably pull this off,” said Zander, who added that the entire “Flame” experience proved “we can turn s**t into something.”
Zander also said the band thought At Budokan, Cheap Trick’s breakthrough album in America, “was crap. We didn’t like it at all. … A year later, it was the biggest [selling] album we ever made.”
Asked about post-production doctoring that was done to At Budokan, which was recorded in 1978 during multiple concerts in Japan, Nielsen admitted to Carlos’ bass drum getting a boost because its microphone had fallen to the side. Zander then admitted that “I Want You to Want Me,” the album’s Top 10 pop single, was added “about 15 minutes before we went on” in order to lengthen the set list.
During the interview with journalists/radio hosts Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot, Zander also said that Cheap Trick is thinking of doing another run of concerts where the group plays entire albums from start to finish.
The band also talked about having a re-recorded version of In Color in the can that may be commercially released in the future.
Wanda Jackson showcase — March 17:
Wanda Jackson is not one to rest on her laurels or live in the past.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame member (and contemporary of Elvis Presley) took time during her South by Southwest showcase on March 17 to perform new material alongside her classics as well as say a few kind words about producer Jack White.
Jackson described White as “quite a young man” who pushed her “right into the 21st century.” After that, she launched into her version of Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good,” and she did anything but phone in it. As she sang the last line, Jackson playfully milked the moment by putting a finger to her mouth and pulling on her lower lip.
The packed crowd ate it up, as well as her comments about the unique hairstyles she spotted in the audience and the annoying white pole at the front of the Beauty Bar/Palm Door stage. She also had the crowd laughing as she described how her pink acoustic guitar was designed with the female figure in mind.
On March 19, Jackson participated in the SXSW panel “Elvis at 75,” during which she showed the audience a ring Presley had given her.
Smokey Robinson keynote and showcase — March 18:
Not much time passed during Smokey Robinson’s South by Southwest keynote interview before he told his classic tale about meeting Motown founder Berry Gordy Jr. and how the experience changed his life both personally and professionally.
At the time they met, Gordy was best known as a songwriter for Jackie Wilson, and the astute Robinson knew that. Gordy asked to hear some of the aspiring Robinson’s material, so Robinson sang about 20 original songs for him.
But Robinson was far from a polished composer, and Gordy was quick to critique what he heard.
“I would have five songs in one song,” he told interviewer Dave Marsh. In many cases, Robinson added, all he really had was “a bunch of stuff rhymed up.” He improved thanks to Gordy, who was essential to teaching him how to “write songs professionally,” as Robinson put it.
Here are some other highlights from Robinson’s keynote interview:
• “I wasn’t actually writing ‘Shop Around’ for the Miracles and me. … Berry had assigned me to do an album on Barrett [Strong]. … [But when Gordy heard ‘Shop Around’], he said to me … ‘I want you to sing this song, man.’ ”
• “I get in moods about music. … For the last three weeks, I’ve just been loving classical. I listen to classical music all the time, so I’ve been listening to Mozart and Beethoven and people like that. … When I listen to that music, I think how wonderful that is: This music is 300 years old, it’s 400 years old, and we’re still listening to it. … So I want to be Beethoven; I want to be Mozart.”
That night at a jam-packed Austin Music Hall, Robinson followed a show-stopping performance by Raphael Saadiq with a string of Miracles and solo hits.
John Hiatt and Ray Davies showcases — March 18
John Hiatt is considered by many to be a songwriter’s songwriter, and the same description applies to Ray Davies, so their presence on the same South by Southwest bill March 18 at La Zona Rosa made perfect sense.
Backed by a solid three-piece band simply dubbed The Combo, Hiatt alternated between acoustic and electric guitars as he performed songs old and new, including “Your Dad Did” from his classic Bring the Family. He closed his set by dedicating “Memphis in the Meantime” to a pair of late music legends with strong ties to that city: producer Jim Dickinson, whose credits include Big Star’s Third/Sister Lovers; and singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, the Big Star/Box Tops leader who died March 17 in New Orleans.
Davies began his set playing acoustic guitars while sitting on a stool, but he wasn’t in a mellow coffeehouse mood. Supported by a second guitarist, Davies performed stripped-down readings of such Kinks classics as “Where Have All the Good Times Gone” and “Victoria” that were upbeat, spirited and, like all good songs, able to stand tall with just the barest of instrumentation.
Alex Chilton/Big Star tribute panel and performance — March 20:
Alex Chilton had a blasé attitude toward death.
That was one of the many small but significant personal anecdotes shared by those who knew him best during a pair of South by Southwest tributes to the late Box Tops/Big Star leader.
Chilton’s unexpected death earlier in the week at age 59 naturally put March 20’s originally scheduled Big Star panel (dubbed “I Never Travel Far Without a Little Big Star”) and showcase performance into jeopardy. But the principle figures involved – among them current Big Star members Jody Stephens, Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow – decided to carry on and turn both SXSW events into Chilton tributes.
Commercial Appeal writer Bob Mehr, who wrote some of the liner notes for last year’s Big Star boxed set, Keep An Eye on the Sky (Rhino), started the Saturday afternoon panel by talking about the Memphis, Tenn., home of Chilton’s parents. Mehr described it as “almost like a salon for artists” that shaped Chilton’s artistic sensibility.
“Just walking into the house, it felt like a pretty artistic environment,” recalled Stephens.
“He was exposed to a lot of intellectual views and political discussion and all that, and he stuck with that his entire life. You would not see him without a book and a couple of newspapers,” said Ardent Studios owner John Fry (who first met a teenage Chilton at a Box Tops session) via a Skype connection.
During his Box Tops days, Mehr said, Chilton hung out with Dennis Wilson as well as Charles Manson, a friend of the Beach Boys drummer at the time. Stephens, in his dry, deadpan style, promptly launched into a funny story about Chilton doing a grocery run for Manson in San Francisco. Manson’s list included a gallon of milk, but Chilton elected not to buy one because of its weight.
“Charles was really upset about that,” Stephens said. “I’d loved to have seen the look on both of their faces.”
That Stephens memory prompted laughter from the audience, and there were some light moments as well during the Chilton tribute concert several hours later at Antone’s in downtown Austin. After brief opening comments from Stephens, publicist Heather West read a long, heartfelt statement from Chilton’s wife, and it included his attitude toward death. The subject “didn’t interest him,” which prompted a few chuckles from the rapt audience.
Then the show started with the three current Big Star members playing “Back of a Car.” After that, the parade of guest musicians began, with some of the best performances coming from dB’s co-founder Chris Stamey (who sang “When My Baby’s Beside Me”) and X leader John Doe (“I’m in Love With a Girl”).
After the show ended, Stephens had the final word, thanking the audience for celebrating Chilton’s life and music.
His hardcore fans have never been blasé about either one.