Looking back at South by Southwest 2017

 

By Chris M. Junior

In a little more than a year, South by Southwest went from hosting a sitting U.S. president to standing up in opposition to the actions of the current commander in chief.

On March 17, one day after President Donald Trump’s revised travel ban was scheduled to go into effect, SXSW presented its ContraBanned panel and showcase, both featuring music artists from nations named in the executive order.

Other political statements were made in Austin, Texas, during the music portion of South by Southwest. Inside the Austin Convention Center, the hub of the conference’s daytime activities, there was SXSW signage in the men’s facilities that opposed Texas’ Senate Bill 6 (aka the “bathroom bill”) and supported civil rights for all. (The signs also reminded readers to wash their hands.) Across the street in Brush Square Park on March 17, a woman in the registrants lounge wore a T-shirt with “Grab America Back” displayed on the front, and downtown on that same day, a man sported a festival-worthy shirt that said “Alt-Country, Not Alt-Facts.”

Speaking of alt-country, Ryan Adams called off his SXSW showcase gig due to illness. Nevertheless, this year’s lineup of panels, discussions and performers was quite healthy as well as diverse, and here’s a recap of select events.

Mick Fleetwood flashes back

Sure, his surname makes up the front part of his band’s moniker. But when it came to running the show in the early days, Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood says it was revered guitarist Peter Green who handled that job.

“Peter was very driven about what he was doing,” Fleetwood said March 15 during his conversation with Rolling Stone writer David Fricke. “He was the boss, and yet, it was the best working environment you could possibly think of. … You wouldn’t know he was the boss, but he was the boss.”

Mick Fleetwood, photographed at Austin's JW Marriott a few hours before his SXSW appearance. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Mick Fleetwood, photographed at Austin’s JW Marriott prior to his South by Southwest appearance. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Asked who took over as the band’s leader in the immediate aftermath of Green’s departure, Fleetwood said, “We didn’t have a boss.”

“We were petrified — all of us,” he added. “But that vulnerability gave us one shot: Either we go and abandon ship, or [the rest of us believe that] ‘We’re not finished yet.’ ”

From that point forward, the subsequent musicians who joined Fleetwood Mac “all had their own thing about who they are, and they had no preconceived orders” to sound like Green, Fleetwood said.

“Somehow we survived,” he added.

Fleetwood writes about that survival and more in “Love That Burns — A Chronicle of Fleetwood Mac, Volume One: 1967-1974,” due in September from Genesis Publications. (The limited-edition book can be preordered now at fleetwoodmacbook.com.)

In “Love That Burns,” Fleetwood also stresses the importance of singer-guitarist Bob Welch’s contributions to the Fleetwood Mac catalog in the early 1970s.

“We were doing what we were doing, we were surviving — we were actually happy,” Fleetwood said. “We had moved to America [around the time of 1974’s ‘Heroes Are Hard to Find’] and ended up staying there, which we all know where that led eventually.”

(Look for an exclusive interview with Mick Fleetwood about his new book in an upcoming issue of Goldmine.)

 

Tommy Stinson makes things happen, Fastball brings the heat

Tommy Stinson (left) and Fastball's Tony Scalzo (Photos by Chris M. Junior)

Tommy Stinson (left) and Fastball’s Tony Scalzo. (Photos by Chris M. Junior)

Following the 1991 breakup of The Replacements, Tommy Stinson wasted little time moving on to his next project, forming the band Bash & Pop, which released its debut album, “Friday Night Is Killing Me,” in 1993.

Since then, Stinson has released solo albums, been a member of Guns N’ Roses and reformed the ’Mats (with frontman Paul Westerberg and two hired guns). And recently, with little fanfare, Stinson revived the Bash & Pop name and released a new album, “Anything Could Happen,” on the Fat Possum label.

On March 15 at the Hotel Vegas Patio, Stinson led his band through a rowdy set that ended with the new album’s title track. Other than Stinson, the 2017 edition of Bash & Pop is different from the 1993 model, but there’s been no decline in the strength of the material, the ballsy sound and the energy level.

Later that same night at the Parish club, Austin’s own Fastball mixed familiar favorites (such as the set-closing “The Way,” which turned into a big audience sing-along after the guitar solo) with new material from the forthcoming “Step Into Light,” the band’s first album since 2009’s “Little White Lies.” Among the highlights: “I Will Never Let You Down,” which will be the new 12-song collection’s first single.

 

Singing the praises of folk greats

Jesse Colin Young (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Jesse Colin Young (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Most music scenes have quiet, indeterminate beginnings, and the 1960s folk scene in New York’s Greenwich Village is no exception.

Around late 1961 or early 1962, when Jesse Colin Young attended New York University, Washington Square “was still owned by the old Italian men … and I remember just an occasional guitar player at that time,” the singer-songwriter said March 16 during the panel Sorrows & Promises: Greenwich Village in the 1960s. “[The Italian community] must have welcomed us in and welcomed the music, and I guess the money followed it.”

One thing’s for sure: Young was so encouraged by what was going on there that he dropped out of school and started playing gigs in the neighborhood, eventually signing with Capitol Records, which released “The Soul of a City Boy,” his first solo album, in 1964.

The other panelists — Bongos guitarist and solo artist Richard Barone, Moby Grape singer-guitarist Peter Lewis, and singer-songwriters Pegi Young and Elvis Perkins — all spoke about the Village-connected artists who struck a chord with them. For Lewis and Pegi Young, it was Tim Hardin. As for Perkins, who grew up in the 1980s and was into hair metal bands at the time, seeing Tracy Chapman and the Traveling Wilburys on MTV helped steer him toward Village veterans.

“And then all of a sudden, I was just wall-to-wall Simon and Garfunkel, early Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, and that was infinitely more enriching and nourishing as compared to Poison,” Perkins said. “To this day, some of that stuff [from the 1960s Greenwich Village era] is still the freshest and most alive.”

 

Darryl McDaniels raps about classic rockers

Nick Huff Barili (left) and Darryl McDaniels (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Nick Huff Barili (left) and Darryl McDaniels. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Ask him a direct question, and you might get a roundabout response from Darryl McDaniels, aka DMC of the trailblazing rap act Run-DMC. And that’s what happened March 16 during his talk with journalist and Hard Knock TV founder Nick Huff Barili.

Faced with picking rap music’s first MC, McDaniels gave a freewheeling answer that delved into two rock-related experiences. The first had to do with Run-DMC’s version of Aerosmith’s “Walk This Way.”

Originally, according to McDaniels, the plan was for him and Joseph “Run” Simmons to rap “about how incredible we are” over a loop of the drum intro. And initially, McDaniels didn’t know the name of the song: To him, it was “ ‘Toys in the Attic,’ ” number four.”

Producer Rick Rubin suggested they cover the full song, and DJ Jam Master Jay liked the idea, too. But upon hearing the lyrics for the first time, McDaniels thought they were “hillbilly gibberish,” and he and Simmons hid out for a week before coming around and deciding to record the song (along with Aerosmith’s Steven Tyler and Joe Perry).

After that story, McDaniels told a tale about Run-DMC opening for Lou Reed in the mid-1980s and being subjected to lots of middle fingers and F-bombs by fans up front. When Run-DMC finished its set, Reed took the stage to address the crowd.

“ ‘If you’re gonna boo them, you booin’ me,’ ” McDaniels recalled Reed saying to the audience, likening it to “a father scolding his son.”

McDaniels, who sported a black Motorhead T-shirt for the SXSW discussion, eventually got around to naming the person he considered to be the first rap MC: Melle Mel.

 

Sammy Hagar does it his way

The honeymoon was great, Sammy Hagar said about his early days fronting the band Montrose. But after the proverbial divorce, he made an important decision.

“When I left that band,” Hagar told USA Today’s Mike Snider on March 16, “I said, ‘I’m only going to play with friends.’ So when I auditioned people, I would hang out with them for three or four days before I would let them into the band. And it’s still like that. I can’t play with people I don’t get along with. It hurts the music … it hurts your performance, and it just hurts your life. And lifestyle is more important than anything to me.”

Mike Snider (left) and Sammy Hagar (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Mike Snider (left) and Sammy Hagar. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Hagar admitted that his relationship with former bandmates Eddie and Alex Van Halen remains strained, but the recent wave of rock-star deaths got him thinking that he didn’t want to take any bad blood to his grave.

And so, Hagar’s “dream come true for the fans,” he said, would be for him and original VH frontman David Lee Roth to tour with the Van Halen brothers and bassist Michael Anthony.

“[For that], I would sit across the table, and I would go through negotiations,” he added.

Hagar also talked about his latest business venture, Santo Mezquila, a blend of mezcal and tequila (created with partner Adam Levine, the Maroon 5 singer), and also mentioned that he was filming an episode of his AXS TV show “Rock & Roll Road Trip” with Darryl McDaniels while they were both in Austin.

 

Spoon serves up ‘Hot Thoughts’

One of the busiest and potentially exhausting SXSW itineraries belonged to Spoon. The Austin-bred band had a three-show residency at The Main on 6th Street (with each gig’s scheduled start time at 1 a.m.), played brief late-morning sets on hometown radio stations KGSR and KUTX on separate days, and performed a late-afternoon show at Waterloo Records.

Spoon's Britt Daniel (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Spoon’s Britt Daniel on South by Southwest’s Radio Day Stage. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

And on March 17, when Spoon’s latest album, “Hot Thoughts,” was released, the band rocked the Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center during the mid-afternoon. Stamina was not an issue for frontman Britt Daniel, who was in good voice and animated throughout the well-paced set, which included familiar tunes (“I Turn My Camera On,” “Do You”) as well as fresh material ( the new album’s title track, plus “Do I Have to Talk You Into It,” “Can I Sit Next to You” and “I Ain’t the One”).

 

The Royal treatment

Left to right: Producer Chris Bell, Lawrence "Boo" Mitchell, Concord Music Group president John Burk, Robert Cray and Steve Jordan. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Left to right: Chris Bell, Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, John Burk, Robert Cray and Steve Jordan. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

For most of its 60 years in business, Royal Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, has been run by a member of the Mitchell family.

First it was bandleader, trumpeter and producer Willie Mitchell, who took over the facility in 1959. And by the end of the 1960s, Mitchell had reworked the room to his liking.

“He was trying to make his stuff sound quiet and intimate, so he put up a lot of fiberglass insulation, a lot of burlap,” son Lawrence “Boo” Mitchell, an engineer-producer and the facility’s current manager, explained during March 18’s Royal Studios: 60 Years panel. “He built a little drum shack within the room; there’s a little house for the drums. I think [that has a lot to do with the drum] sound. We still got the same drum kit that was used on ‘Love and Happiness’ and every Al Green record after that.”

Other classic equipment still has a place at Royal, added Mitchell, such as the microphone Green used to track the vocals for his string of hits on the Hi label in the 1970s.

Drummer-producer Steve Jordan’s first time working at Royal was in 1988, adding horns to Keith Richards’ solo debut, and his latest experience there was a few months ago, recording and mixing Robert Cray’s new album, “Robert Cray & Hi Rhythm,” due in April on the Jay Vee label.

Jordan mentioned that he has a documentary on the late Willie Mitchell in the works called “Solid Soul.” The film got its start during Mitchell’s last trip to New York. Jordan asked if he could do a documentary on him, and Mitchell —who had previously turned down similar requests, according to Jordan — agreed to do it.

“I met him in his hotel room, and I said, ‘OK, I got 10 questions,’ ” Jordan recalled. “I asked him the first question, and he proceeded to answer the other nine without me asking. … We built the film around him basically telling his story. It was really quite something.

“We are very close [to being done with the documentary],” Jordan added. “It depends on how much funding we receive … It’s a story that must be told.”

Noteworthy sounds

While showcasing their latest album, “Duende,” at the Parish club on March 15, The Band of Heathens included a great version of John Lennon’s “Instant Karma” that fit seamlessly within the Austin-bred Americana group’s set.

Ed Jurdi of The Band of Heathens belts out John Lennon's "Instant Karma." (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Ed Jurdi of The Band of Heathens belts out John Lennon’s “Instant Karma.” (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Classic country (think George Jones) runs through the veins of Jason James, who highlighted his 2015 self-titled debut album on March 18 at Lamberts. During the set-closing “Hot Mouth Mama,” James called out to his lead guitarist, “One more time — Chuck Berry!” — a respectful nod to the rock ’n’ roll pioneer on the day of his death at age 90.

Jason James (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

Jason James at Lamberts. (Photo by Chris M. Junior)

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