Looking back at South by Southwest 2018

By Chris M. Junior

No two editions of South by Southwest are ever the same, but that doesn’t mean there’s never any carryover or recurring patterns from one year to the next.

For 2018, once again mainstream household names — particularly from the rock ’n’ roll realm — were relatively scarce on the schedule of showcasing performing artists. Meanwhile, Nile Rodgers and Darryl “DMC” McDaniels, who separately were part of the South by Southwest itinerary this year, both made their second consecutive appearances at the long-running music conference and festival in Austin, Texas.

Other legends weren’t physically present yet still left their mark during SXSW 2018, as did a number of notable under-the-radar acts from Austin’s backyard as well as others who came a long way to expand their audiences and further their careers.

Exploring Elvis

The story of Elvis Presley has been told many times before, with Peter Guralnick’s detailed Presley biographies “Last Train to Memphis” and “Careless Love” arguably the best works about him to date.

“Elvis Presley: The Searcher” seems poised to give all previous efforts a run for their money. At the namesake panel discussion March 14 about the upcoming two-part HBO documentary, ex-wife Priscilla Presley said the goal of the project was to tell “the definitive story” about the singer and his music and cover “what has never really been told.”

Priscilla Presley listens to director Thom Zimny talk about the HBO documentary “Elvis Presley: The Searcher.” (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Director Thom Zimny, whose music-related credits include a few Bruce Springsteen documentaries, said it was a “great new challenge” to look at Elvis Presley’s story in a different way. He had access to Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis, Tennessee — Zimny referred to it as “a character” in the story — as well as recordings via Sony Legacy and Presley historian Ernst Jorgensen.

Segments of “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” each one featuring crisp archival photos and video footage, were played during the panel. At one point, moderator John Jackson from Sony Legacy asked Zimny why he chose not to show Springsteen, Tom Petty and other notables in the documentary as they spoke about Presley. By using a microphone instead of a camera, Zimny said, he was able to get his interviewees to open up.

“In that comes a rhythm,” Zimny explained, “and in that comes a truth that you can’t always get as a filmmaker when there’s a crew of people looking at you.”

Memphis-reared Stax songwriter-producer David Porter, one of the documentary’s featured speakers, talked during the panel about Presley’s interest in music made by black musicians, particularly what could be heard back then in the city’s black churches and clubs.

“When you’re real, people can feel real,” Porter said. “There was something about him that you could feel the realness. It was real because he was legitimate with his passion for [the music].”

The first part of “Elvis Presley: The Searcher” will premiere April 14 on HBO at 8 p.m. ET.

Revisiting good times with Nile Rodgers

Almost one year to the day of his SXSW 2017 keynote speech, Chic guitarist, songwriter and producer Nile Rodgers was back at the Austin Convention Center, this time for a March 14 interview with BBC Radio 2 host Jo Whiley.

Rodgers covered a lot of familiar ground during “Music Business 101: A Q&A With Legendary Music Icon Nile Rodgers,” but he has a knack for storytelling and seems to thoroughly enjoy talking about his many collaborators.

Nile Rodgers (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

He estimated that “98 percent of every record I’ve ever done is because I accidentally ran into someone.”

“I met David Lee Roth standing in a pool of urine,” Rodgers said. “He had an after-hours club. I walked into this place; it was supposed to be the bathroom. It was a shower [that was used as a urinal], and there’s all these guys urinating. I’m standing there with these gorgeous suede Maud Frizon shoes, and [I end up with] this urine stain across my shoes.” Rodgers later produced Roth’s 1994 solo album, “Your Filthy Little Mouth.”

Through specific examples, Rodgers illustrated that as a producer, there’s only so much you can do in terms of controlling the end result. While producing separate sessions for David Bowie and Eric Clapton, Rodgers said he attempted to have them say a word a specific way, and with Carly Simon, he tried in vain to get her to shorten the length of certain notes.

“Even though I try and direct an artist to what I intrinsically believe will communicate to a larger audience … if they say to me, ‘Sorry, I’m saying it like this,’ I go, ‘OK, you know better than me’ … I must respect that,” Rodgers said.

Rodgers is planning to release a new Chic album later this year.

Hail, hail Chuck Berry

On March 18, 2017, the final full day of music activities at last year’s South by Southwest, Chuck Berry died at his home near Wentzville, Missouri.

When the news broke, SXSW ’17 attendee Gary Pierson, an attorney who in recent years has handled business affairs for Berry, was en route to his own home. And this year, Pierson was back in Austin as part of the “CHUCK: 38 Years in the Making” panel on March 15, discussing how Berry’s first studio album for the Dualtone label unexpectedly became a posthumous release.

The material on 2017’s “Chuck” was conceived and recorded in the 1980s and on through into 2014. Will McDonald of Dualtone’s A&R-marketing department entered the picture in 2015.

“I had this meeting with [someone who knows Pierson], and he gave me this really cryptic message: ‘I have this attorney friend; he’s got a project. I can’t tell you what it is, but if you go meet him here at 5 o’clock or whatever, and he’s going to feel you out. And if he feels comfortable, he’s going to tell you what it is,’ ” recalled McDonald.

Becoming the label for “Chuck” was “a real easy decision” for the Dualtone staff, added McDonald, despite two promotional obstacles. They were told up front that Berry would not do a single interview to discuss the album, nor would he be touring after its release. (Berry played his last concert in October 2014.) On top of that, Berry had never made a music video, and this would be his first new album to be issued on CD on release day.

“Some of those challenges we saw as unique opportunities because there was so much to draw from and so much there that we could explore,” McDonald said. “Just being a small footnote on his legacy was incredibly humbling, and it was a huge honor to be a part of it for all of us.”

Shore Fire publicist Matt Hanks remarked that his firm had plenty of experience working with a number of household names who don’t like to do interviews. And so the promotional strategy for “Chuck” while Berry was still alive — and even more so after he died — was to “make a moment out of every piece of content that we had, every announcement that we had.”

It all began on Oct. 18, 2016 — Berry’s 90th birthday — with the official word from Shore Fire that Berry would be releasing “Chuck,” his first new studio album since 1979’s “Rockit,” on Dualtone at some point in 2017. During the panel, Hanks said the reaction to the start of the campaign was “as successful or more successful than any launch that I personally had been involved with.”

Four days following Berry’s death — and after consulting with his family, who said he would want the album to be released — Shore Fire announced a June 9, 2017, street date for the 10-song “Chuck.”

CBGB revisited

Being paid next to nothing, the fantastic sound system and the disgusting downstairs bathroom: These topics and more were discussed with detail and humor during the March 16 panel “From CBGB to the World: A Downtown Diaspora.”

All six panelists had deep ties to the iconic Manhattan club that presented acts across myriad genres from 1973 to 2006. Rolling Stone writer David Fricke began attending shows there in the late 1970s, photographer Julia Gorton was a steady presence during the early years with her camera, and Chris Stamey (The dB’s), Richard Lloyd (Television), and Chris Frantz and Tina Weymouth (Talking Heads) were among the artists who played and hung out there often as their careers developed.

Talking Heads drummer Chris Frantz (right) shares a laugh with Television guitarist Richard Lloyd. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Frantz and Weymouth came to New York from the Rhode Island School of Design in fall 1974, and a friend who lived near CBGB told Frantz “there was something going on over there” music-wise.

So Frantz stopped by CBGB that night “and there was nothing happening, except for this one guy playing pool,” he recalled. It turned out to be Arturo Vega, who was the lighting designer for a fledgling band called The Ramones.

“He said, ‘Come back on Friday night, man. There’s this band called The Ramones. They’re gonna be great.’ He was a Latino and he had a heavy accent, so I thought, ‘Oh, The Ramones — like, a Latin band.’ Anyway, I went, and then later I saw Television. And then Patti Smith did a residency. And then one night, we went in and we met Debbie Harry. I mean, can you imagine? She could really sing. I felt like this was going to be the Cavern Club of our age — the incubator for all these new talents, new sounds, and it certainly was.”

Rita Coolidge opens her ‘Arms’

Almost two years after releasing her autobiography, “Delta Lady,” Rita Coolidge was at Cooper’s BBQ on Congress Avenue to share the latest chapter in her career: songs from her upcoming solo album, “Safe in the Arms of Time.”

Rita Coolidge at Cooper’s BBQ in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

With a backing band that featured guitarist David Grissom on a few songs, Coolidge performed a well-received set on March 16 that included her hit renditions of “(Your Love Has Lifted Me) Higher and Higher” and “We’re All Alone,” plus the soothing new track “Walking on Water,” which she co-wrote with Keb Mo and Jill Colucci.

Due May 4 on Blue Elan Records, Coolidge’s “Safe in the Arms of Time” also features material penned by Graham Nash, Chris Stapleton and Stan Lynch.

Noteworthy sounds

• The Saxon Pub on South Lamar Boulevard was the place to be during the early part of South by Southwest to see some on-the-rise Austin guitarists in action.

Nick Diaz, who keeps a busy schedule every March during SXSW, fronted his band Buenos Diaz for an official showcase on March 13. There was a Stevie Ray Vaughan element to Diaz’s solos and facial expressions, but the blues is at the edge of his broad musical palette. Diaz has three albums planned for 2018, the first expected to arrive in May.

Buenos Diaz leader Nick Diaz (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

On March 14, it was Jackie Venson’s turn to shine at the Saxon. Armed with a Fender Stratocaster, Venson, a Berklee College of Music graduate, played fast and heavy — and with a lot of feeling, too. Her latest release is the EP “Transcends.”

Jackie Venson (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

• Plenty of great music has come out of FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and you can add Belle Adair’s “Tuscumbia” to the list, which includes essential works by artists such as Aretha Franklin and Wilson Pickett. And as the Alabama quartet showed March 14 during the Single Lock Records day party, Belle Adair’s sound is breezy power pop — probably the most atypical music to come out of the legendary recording facility since The Osmonds.

Left to right: Belle Adair’s Matthew Green, Reed Watson, Hayden Crawford and Adam Morrow performing at the Single Lock Records day party. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

• Imagine a gruffer-sounding Bob Seger fronting a 10-piece band seeping with soul: That’s what you get with The Commonheart. A nine-member version of the Pittsburgh-based group capped off a series of Austin performances with a powerful March 17 showcase at the Palm Door on Sixth. Afterward, guitarist Mike Minda described The Commonheart’s music as soul rock in the vein of Joe Cocker’s “Mad Dogs & Englishmen” period, and singer Clinton Clegg said the second Commonheart album should be out in the fall.

Guitarist Mike Minda, singer Clinton Clegg and bassist Anton DeFade (left to right) of The Commonheart. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

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