Looking back at South by Southwest 2014

By Chris M. Junior

The show went on, but with a collective heavy heart.

The usual revelry that accompanies the South by Southwest music conference and festival in Austin, Texas, was met with tragedy in the early morning of March 13, when an alleged drunk driver drove into a crowd in the vicinity of the Mohawk club on Red River Street. More than 20 people were injured, and as of March 21, three of the individuals who police say were hit by suspect Rashad Owens have died.

A memorial outside the Mohawk club in Austin, Texas, was erected in honor of those who were hit by an alleged drunk driver on March 13. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

A memorial outside the Mohawk club in Austin, Texas, was erected in honor of those who were hit by an alleged drunk driver on March 13. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

In the aftermath, SXSW’s featured attractions and its organizers responded quickly and effectively, and in various ways. Vintage Trouble singer Ty Taylor asked the huge crowd gathered March 13 in Butler Park for five seconds of silence, while other performers that same evening and throughout the weekend sent out condolences and dedications from SXSW’s stages. (Donations for victims can be made online to the SXSW Cares Fund; SXSW representatives will handle distribution of the funds along with the Austin Convention and Visitors Bureau, the City of Austin and the Austin Community Foundation.)

The tragedy will not be forgotten, nor will the inspired performances and informative panels that transpired during SXSW 2014.

MARCH 11

Sahara Smith and The Bright Light Social Hour: Locals leave their mark

Visiting Austin for SXSW and not checking out a few hometown bands would be unforgivable — on par with not consuming some of the city’s delicious barbecue (unless you are a vegetarian).

Sahara Smith (who now performs under the billing girl pilot) and The Bright Light Social Hour are both Austin-based, but they have so much more in common. Both released impressive debut albums in 2010 (Smith’s “Myth of the Heart” and BLSH’s self-titled effort) and received multiple honors at the 2011 Austin Music Awards.

They’re also way overdue to release their follow-up full-length studio efforts, and what was probably a scheduling coincidence, they showcased on the same night at the Main II venue.

Sahara Smith (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Sahara Smith (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Taking the stage first was girl pilot: Smith on vocals and guitar, plus a second guitarist, a bassist and a drummer. These days Smith looks different from the artist who performed during the 2011 Austin Music Awards: Gone is the long, well-past-her-shoulders hair, which has been replaced by a shorter style; the long, flowing dress from ’11 has given way to a short, tight skirt. It’s a look that’s more confident and edgy, and that translates to her music (both old and new), most notably in an unrecorded song called “Impossible Heart,” which featured a stomping, staccato rhythm hook.

What had been The Bright Light Social Hour’s most distinctive visual feature is no more: Instead of a Yosemite Sam-style mustache, bassist Jack O’Brien now sports a full beard, like other members of his band. The group’s tight, high-energy, danceable sound remains intact, though, so that’s a promising sign as the public waits for that overdue second album.

Bright Light Social Hour bassist Jack O'Brien (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Bright Light Social Hour bassist Jack O’Brien (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

MARCH 12

Rockers, historians reflect on The Rolling Stones

They were onstage as speakers, not performers, but what Ian McLagan, John Doe and Wayne Kramer had to say about The Rolling Stones was worth listening to as much as any music they’ve made on their own.

Faces/Small Faces keyboardist McLagan, X leader Doe and MC5 guitarist Kramer were among the participants in the panel “It’s Only Rock & Roll: Fifty Years of the Rolling Stones,” sharing personal memories about the band as well as opinions about their body of work and their personalities.

Ian McLagan (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Ian McLagan (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

McLagan remembered as a young man being told by a friend at art school in England about “a blues band that plays every night.”

“I get [to the club] … and there’s already a line to go in,” said McLagan. “And I can hear the thump. I said, ‘Oh man, there’s the music I love.’

“ I walk in, and they’re white guys — they’re [around] my age,” he added. “They convinced us that we could do it, too.”

Doe says the Stones’ early attitude influenced X. He was just as impressed with the way the Stones have mellowed.

“You represent less danger as you get older,” said Doe. “[If you] become a nasty, crabby old man, then nobody wants to hear about you. … The Stones [have become] more generous, more encompassing.”

Kramer recalled seeing the Stones in 1964’s “The T.A.M.I. Show,” a concert film he viewed five nights in a row at a drive-in near his Detroit home.

“It was very exciting: the way they sounded, the way they looked, the way they dressed,” Kramer added. “Every generation is looking for their voice, their music, their artists, their clothing styles, and The Rolling Stones [was the one] for my generation. … I embraced them completely. It was like a tsunami.”

Early on, that storm created by the Stones was driven by cover songs, and Rolling Stone senior writer David Fricke said the band “paid a great service to their inspirations by acknowledging them.”

“Their real power was they created their own authenticity,” Fricke added. “They actually devised a style that was true to the sources and respectful of the sources, but was not simply parodying that.”

Moderated by Grammy Museum executive director Bob Santelli, the “It’s Only Rock & Roll: Fifty Years of the Rolling Stones” panel was a presentation of the Grammy Museum’s Musical Milestones series. So was the Stones-themed concert held the following night at the Red Eyed Fly club.

Elizabeth Ziman (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Elizabeth Ziman (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Among the participants was Elizabeth Ziman, the leader of the Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band Elizabeth & the Catapult. Following her afternoon outdoor performance on March 13 as part of Berklee’s SXSW Party: Boston and Beyond party, she spoke with me about being a Stones fan.

“How can you play music and not take your hat off to the Stones?” she asked rhetorically, with a smile. “There’s a certain freedom to their writing, and it sounds like some of the songs were even improvised. I think that everyone aspires to be that free with their writing and performing.”

MARCH 13

Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart takes a high-tech trip

Music intersected with science, health and technology when a rocker and a doctor joined forces for the panel “Rhythm and the Brain.”

There was a lot to digest, but at the core of the detailed discussion was this question, posed by Dr. Adam Gazzaley, the founding director of the Neuroscience Imaging Center at UC San Francisco: “Can we think of rhythm as a healer?”

Grateful Dead drummer and panel co-presenter Mickey Hart answered by telling a personal story.

“For me, music is medicine … it’s a healing agent,” said Hart. He then talked about his grandmother who had advanced Alzheimer’s disease in the 1970s and who had not spoken for a few years. Hart took her for a ride, bringing a drum with him. When he played it, she said his name.

“I had never seen a medicinal remedy like this, where it would arouse somebody to come out of the darkness,” Hart said. “When I stopped drumming, she [ceased talking]. But while the rhythms were right … she reconnected those broken pathways for a while that allowed her the power of speech.

“That’s when the light went on for me … and that’s [why I’m] here today with Adam to figure out what really happened at that moment.”

Gazzaley then quickly summarized some of his work that preceded the “Rhythm and the Brain” panel. As part of a four-year study “to see if we could impact the cognitive abilities of older adults … even if they don’t have Alzheimer’s disease,” Gazzaley and his team built a 3D game that was played by people between the ages 60 to 80, recording their brain rhythms before and after.

“What we found was even after 12 hours, we’re able to improve their abilities in attention and memory performance, even though that wasn’t explicitly trained by this game,” Gazzaley said.

Mickey Hart rejoices after finishing a demonstration of NeuroDrummer during the "Rhythm and the Brain" panel. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Mickey Hart rejoices after finishing a demonstration of NeuroDrummer during the “Rhythm and the Brain” panel. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Gazzaley stepped aside so Hart, wearing goggles and an electrode-covered cap, could play a demo version of a virtual-reality game called NeuroDrummer, the visuals of which appeared on a video screen for the audience. On another screen was something Gazzaley referred to as the Glass Brain, a 3D brain visualization that showed Hart’s reconstructed brain from an MRI scan done in a lab.

While Hart was drumming, asteroids appeared to him as distractions, which he had to destroy with a controller before returning to his rhythm. The video-game presentation, which lasted more than seven minutes and sounded like something you might hear at an electronic dance music festival, also included artwork that was created by Hart.

“So we have art, music, the video-game technology itself and then rhythm — and we think that this is going to be the cornerstone of a new therapeutic that we’re going to now develop and test in our lab,” said Gazzaley.

Rebel Cats: Fantastico rockabilly via Mexico

It sounded so familiar yet so different.

Blasting from the International Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center around 3 p.m. was the throwback fury of the Rebel Cats, a quartet from Mexico playing revved-up rockabilly and early rock ’n’ rolls hits.

The band’s set featured covers of signature Buddy Holly and Gene Vincent tunes, along with lots of theatrics, with bassist Lalobilly playing his instrument behind his back and shedding his stylish jacket as well as his shirt and bowtie.

Rebel Cats (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Rebel Cats (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Honoring Jimi Hendrix, in more ways than one

More than 40 years after his death, Jimi Hendrix continues to receive accolades — and his latest posthumous honor has put him in very rare company.

At Austin’s Butler Park, a limited-edition and very colorful “forever” Hendrix stamp was officially unveiled, the latest in the United States Postal Service’s Music Icons series (which last year included stamps of Johnny Cash and Ray Charles).

On hand for the presentation and subsequent concert tribute (preceded by fine sets from Los Lonely Boys and Vintage Trouble) was Janie Hendrix, the late guitarist’s sister.

“One of the most priceless heirlooms in our family are the letters that were written from my brother Jimi to our father, James A. Hendrix, while he was in the military,” she said. “Those letters are now yellow with time and contained more than the details of Jimi’s daily life and experience. They contained respect, pride, love and affection. Reading those letters allowed a father and a son to remain connected despite the physical distance.

“They were and still are very precious, and they were delivered by the United States Postal Service,” Janie Hendrix added. “Both my father and my brother are gone now, but the letters, the memories and the love live on, thanks to the United States Postal Service. The legacy lives on through this Jimi Hendrix commemorative stamp as well.”

The Jimi Hendrix tribute concert, curated by The MC5’s Wayne Kramer, featured performances of Hendrix originals and covers closely connected to him by former Blasters members Dave and Phil Alvin (“Killin’ Floor”), Jesse Malin (“If 6 Was 9”), and Doors guitarist Robby Krieger and ex-GNR member Slash (“Red House”).

Los Lonely Boys guitarist Henry Garza takes a Jimi Hendrix-type approach to his instrument while brothers and bandmates  Ringo (left) and Jojo watch. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Los Lonely Boys guitarist Henry Garza takes a Jimi Hendrix-type approach to his instrument while brothers and bandmates Ringo (left) and JoJo watch. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

From left: Vintage Trouble's  Nalle Colt, Richard Danielson and Ty Taylor (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

From left: Vintage Trouble’s Nalle Colt, Richard Danielson and Ty Taylor (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Slash (left) and Robby Krieger trade licks during the Jimi Hendrix concert tribute. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Slash (left) and Robby Krieger trade licks during the Jimi Hendrix concert tribute. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

MARCH 14

The Autumn Defense: A band for all seasons

Wilco fans know Pat Sansone and John Stirratt as members of Wilco, but Sansone and Stirratt are also the core members of another long-running Chicago-based band called The Autumn Defense.

For their showcase at Maggie Mae’s Gibson Room, Sansone and Stirratt were backed by bassist James Haggerty, guitarist John Pirruccello and drummer Greg Wieczorek — the same musicians heard on “Fifth,” the latest Autumn Defense album and first to feature the core live band playing the basic tracks.

There’s a Jayhawks-like quality to The Autumn Defense, both in the sound of their originals and their presentation of covers, which on this night included a great version of Bob Welch’s “Sentimental Lady.” The Autumn Defense also showed plenty of teeth in its high-energy rendition of “You Can’t Have Me” by Big Star, an admitted influence.

The Autumn Defense (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

The Autumn Defense (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

MARCH 15

The beat goes on for the Bartholomew family

New Orleans music — and music in general, really — owes a lot to the Bartholomew family, and it all starts with musician, songwriter and arranger Dave Bartholomew, best known for his work with Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Huey “Piano” Smith and Chris Kenner, among others.

He was scheduled to participate in “The Bartholomew Family: Three Generations of New Orleans Hitmaking,” but on the morning of the panel, it was decided that the patriarch (now in his early 90s) should not travel to Austin.

That news was disappointing but not devastating. Just as sons Ron Bartholomew and Don B. and grandsons Don Bartholomew Jr. (aka Supa Dezzy) and Blake Bartholomew (aka Trakka Beats) have carried on the family’s musical legacy in the studio and with business matters, the foursome carried on with the panel discussion, which was moderated by John Swenson, author of “New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Survival of New Orleans.”

Producer Don B., who is working on an album featuring music by his father, Dave Bartholomew. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Producer Don B., who is working on an album featuring music by his father, Dave Bartholomew. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

By far the best part of the panel came early on, when it was announced that Don B. was working on an album of his father’s music. After Hurricane Katrina, Don B. said he came across cassettes in the family studio that he had not heard since he was 8 or 9 years old. They were demos his father made at the house with Domino and other musicians; one tape featured narration by Dave Bartholomew.

“[They were] probably meant to be put out, but it just never happened,” Don B. said. “When I played [this material] for my daddy, he was like, ‘Well, thank God you found it. I didn’t even know where it was. I thought it was gone in the water.’ ”

A few months ago, Don B. started reproducing some of the music on these tapes with New Orleans musicians “who are relevant now” — and among the names he mentioned were Irma Thomas and John Boutte. Then there’s Dave Bartholomew himself, playing trumpet for the first time in a long time.

“The blueprint is [there] already,” Don B. added. “I want to keep it as authentic as it was, but I just want it to have a 2014 sound and not a 1973 sound.”

According to Don B., the project — dubbed “The Dave Bartholomew Lost Files” — should be finished by May or June.

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