By Chris M. Junior
Well, another South by Southwest music conference/festival is in the books. Here's a look back at some of this year’s highlights.
Bruce Springsteen makes his way around Austin, Texas
When Joe Ely put out the call for another guitarist, any number of capable players could have answered. After all, Ely uttered his request March 14 while standing on the Austin Music Hall stage during the Austin Music Awards, a centerpiece event each year as part of SXSW.
Mere seconds later, Ely’s request was answered by Bruce Springsteen, who was the last in a string of guests during Alejandro Escovedo’s set, which closed out the Austin Music Awards in fine fashion.
Springsteen chipped in occasional vocals and some crisp lead breaks (much better than anything he played during the guitar showdown that wrapped up the 2012 Grammy Awards) on songs such as Escovedo’s “Always a Friend” and a long cover of The Rolling Stones’ “Beast of Burden.”
Garland Jeffreys also participated in Escovedo’s set, and former Animals singer Eric Burdon made a brief appearance during an award segment, but Austin-associated talent both familiar and fresh ruled at Austin Music Hall throughout the night. Hall of fame inductees Joe “King” Carrasco and the Crowns, Sixteen Deluxe, Christopher Cross and Patty Griffin all performed, as did Quiet Company, a winner in multiple Austin Music Awards categories, including Band of the Year.
By musicians’ standards, Springsteen had a relatively quick turnaround for his next SXSW appearance: delivering the keynote, which was scheduled for noon March 15 at the Austin Convention Center. Jimmy LaFave, Eliza Gilkyson and Juanes warmed up the big crowd inside Ballroom D with their interpretations of songs by Woody Guthrie, who was the subject of a panel later that afternoon.
In his opening remarks and introduction of Springsteen, SXSW cofounder Roland Swenson looked over his left shoulder and made reference to Dave Marsh, as if he was stalling for the Springsteen biographer before The Boss could get down to business. Perhaps the keynote was really supposed to be done as an interview with Marsh (two stools did grace the stage), but ultimately, Springsteen walked out by himself around 12:34 p.m. and stood behind the podium.
Throughout his SXSW keynote (among the best of the last 10 years), Springsteen was sincere and poignant, sprinkling in a few f-bombs along the way for humorous effect. Springsteen interviews can be hit or miss, with him resorting to clichés and bland, recycled responses, but he seemed quite comfortable in this format, shining much more light on his influences and songwriting than anyone probably expected.
Sure, like he’s done many times before, Springsteen mentioned the impact Elvis Presley, Phil Spector, Roy Orbison and Bob Dylan had on him. But he also waxed nostalgic about doo-wop (“the most sensual music ever made”) and, with the aid of an available black acoustic guitar, showed how the genre connected with his own song “Backstreets.”
He also talked at length about The Animals, describing the group as “a revelation” and their music as the “first records with full-blown consciousness.” To emphasize his point, Springsteen picked up the black acoustic again and sang a bit “We Gotta Get Out of This Place” — and suddenly those lyrics, sung in his voice, delivered with his phrasing, could have passed for a Springsteen original.
When he was done, Springsteen said, “That’s every song I’ve ever written. That’s all of them. I’m not kidding.” He then showed how “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” was similar to his own “Badlands.”
But Springsteen didn’t travel from New Jersey to Austin just to relive the past. Like many of the SXSW 2012 artists, he had a new album (the recently released “Wrecking Ball”) to promote and an official showcase, which was held March 15, the same as his keynote. The concert venue (the excellent ACL Live at the Moody Theater) was not officially announced until the day of the show — believed to be a SXSW first for a showcasing act confirmed way in advance. Those who would be admitted (music/platinum badge holders and music festival wristbanders had to enter a ticket drawing) were not notified until the morning of the show — another possible first for SXSW, which has been around since 1987.
Those who attended were treated to a full-scale Springsteen show with the entire E Street Band, plus some extra musicians. Some new songs, particularly “We Take Care of Our Own” and “Shackled and Drawn,” fit in just fine, but the same can’t be said for his latest album's title track, which ranks among Springsteen’s most pedestrian efforts. The show’s pace and energy were anything but ordinary, and the intensity level surged whenever Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello added his guitar firepower to the proceedings (the high point being “The Ghost of Tom Joad”).
Michael Kiwanuka and Alabama Shakes: Newcomers with old souls
Two highly touted newcomers performed back to back March 14 at the Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center, and neither one disappointed.
First up was Michael Kiwanuka, a London-raised singer/songwriter who’s dented American radio with “Tell Me a Tale,” which features his soulful voice over an Allman Brothers Band-style/”Whipping Post”-type instrumental track. His acoustic set included that song (which can be found on “Home Again,” Kiwanuka’s upcoming debut album), as well as a cover of Bill Withers’ “I Don’t Know."
Up next were Alabama Shakes, who play the type of dynamic-yet-sparse soul music that can be traced back to the scenes in Memphis, Tenn., and Muscle Shoals, Ala., that thrived in the 1960s and early 1970s. Led by the explosive Brittany Howard, the band tore through “Hold On” and other songs from its debut album, “Boys & Girls,” which is due in April.
Heart’s Ann and Nancy Wilson recall early career challenges
Hardcore Heart fans cherish the early era of the enduring band’s career.
So do singer Ann Wilson and guitarist Nancy Wilson, but not everything that happened back in the 1970s falls under the heading of “the good ’ol days.”
In walking down memory lane during their SXSW interview March 15 with NPR’s Ann Powers, the Wilson sisters shed some light on what it was like to be women in a rock band when no matter where they turned, men were the overwhelming majority.
There was a level of craziness to the physical aspect of touring back in the day, especially for women, Ann Wilson said. Meet-and-greet events at shows, she added, were usually nothing more than interacting with “a roomful of slimy, sleazy guys.”
Heart’s prefame bar-band period had its challenges as well.
“It was very Wild West,” said Ann Wilson, who remembered being approached in Montana by a few “mean-spirited guys” when Heart was on a break between sets. Fortunately for her, Wilson’s band mates would come to her defense.
Looking ahead, Heart has a career-spanning boxed set planned for this year, as well as an autobiography.
In-progress Big Star documentary makes its world premiere
Tommy Stinson was momentarily confused when I asked him on March 15 to autograph a postcard promoting a sneak-preview screening of the in-progress documentary “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
Then something clicked with the former Replacements/current Guns N’ Roses bassist.
“Oh yeah, I’m doin’ that,” Stinson said over the bustle inside the Austin Convention Center. “What’s it all about?”
Stinson was actually referring to his role in a special all-star performance of Big Star’s “Third/Sister Lovers” album (with R.E.M.’s Peter Buck and Mike Mills, plus The Posies’ Ken Stringfellow and Jon Auer, among others) that was taking place in just a few hours, immediately after the screening of the documentary at Austin’s Paramount Theatre.
But he wanted to know: Did the documentary have performance footage of the influential Memphis, Tenn.-bred band from back in the day? Probably not, I told him, but I read somewhere that the film would have some home movie-type segments of Big Star rehearsing.
Stinson, grateful for what little information I could provide, documented his appreciation above his autograph on the postcard (see below).
It turns out I was correct: “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me” does contain some rehearsal footage (although without sound) that just has to make the final cut of the film. Director/producer Drew DeNicola and company cast a very wide net in terms of interview subjects, and among those they landed were Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, along with former bassist Andy Hummel and “Third” producer Jim Dickinson (both of whom have died in recent years), plus such essential Ardent Studios/Ardent Records personnel members as John Fry, Richard Rosebrough and John King.
Former Rolling Stone writer and longtime Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye gets a lot of screen time in the documentary and provides some of the best perspective. Not long after the screening ended, I complimented Kaye personally when I spotted him inside the ACL Live at the Moody Theater.
Kaye said he’s looking forward to seeing the documentary, and added he would have liked to been able to check out the all-star runthrough of “Third/Sister Lovers.” But you can only be in one place at one time, and Kaye was at ACL Live with the other lucky ticket winners for Bruce Springsteen’s SXSW showcase.
“But that’s South by Southwest — too much going on,” Kaye said with a smile.
Visit www.bigstarstory.com for more information about “Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me.”
Donovan digs the Rock Hall’s Library and Archives
You can count Donovan among those who are excited about the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s new Library and Archives facility.
After hearing director Andy Leach describe some of its historical contents during the March 16 panel called “New Digs: A Rock and Roll Library and Archives,” Donovan said, “Give me the keys for a weekend. I’ll go in there.”
The four-story, state-of-the-art building is on the Metro Campus of Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College, which is about two miles from the Rock Hall. The facility is free and open to the public.
Donovan joked that there would be a need for a library and archive at the Rock Hall “if it were just only great-looking haircuts, wonderful suits and gorgeous pop music. Everybody loves that.”
He added, “But something extraordinary happened in 1961 [through 1963]: Folk music got into bed with popular music, and it would never be the same again, and so that’s where I came in. So the need for a library and an archive becomes a social document.”
Fellow panelist Lenny Kaye said, “To me, what’s really going to be central to the library concept in this new century is the archives part — a place for people to put their stuff, their collections, the actual physical objects that reveal who were are. … I’m so happy that the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame has gotten a museum together of such scope and honor, and I personally plan on coming out and doing research there as soon as humanly possible.”
Visit http://rockhall.com/library/ for more information.
Mitch Easter provides The dB’s with some guest power
Sure, it would have been great to see the original dB’s lineup in action at SXSW. But with bassist Gene Holder unavailable to make the trip to Austin, the band made a move that made perfect sense: asking longtime friend/associate and former Let's Active leader Mitch Easter to fill in for its official showcase and other appearances.
At BD Riley’s on March 16, following a mock arena-style introduction by dB’s singer/guitarist Peter Holsapple, the Easter-assisted band played a set that included a handful of well-received songs from the new dB’s album, “Falling Off the Sky,” due in June on Bar/None Records. Holsapple dedicated one of the new tunes, “World to Cry,” to former Replacements guitarist Slim Dunlap, who is recovering from a February stroke. Fellow dB’s singer/guitarist Chris Stamey sweetened the gesture by making a point to mention he was using Dunlap’s capo.
For free downloads of two new dB’s tracks, visit www.bar-none.com/downloads.php.