Statistics may eventually prove otherwise.
But to the naked eye, the Austin Convention Center and the entertainment-centric stretch of Sixth Street sure didn’t seem all that crowded during the music portion of South by Southwest 2022.
Then again, just being able to stage SXSW in person for the first time since 2019 made it a success. With COVID-19 protocols in place along with a participant health pledge, SXSW didn’t ignore the fact that the pandemic isn’t over. And in many ways, the programming for this edition of the music festival-conference was on par with previous years.
Leaving no ‘Stone’ unturned
Shortly before 5 p.m. on March 15, a white Chevy van rolled into the parking lot at the Broken Spoke, and minutes later, Willie Heath Neal and Kira Annalise — known collectively as The Waymores — entered the longtime honky-tonk dancehall on South Lamar Boulevard.
Two days ahead of their official full-band SXSW showcase at Valhalla, the married singer-guitarists from Georgia performed an acoustic set of their old-school honky-tonk music in the Broken Spoke’s front-room restaurant. And by old-school, I mean the kind that would have fit right in when the Spoke opened in 1964, a straightforward style that goes well with a chicken-fried steak (a Spoke menu specialty) washed down with a Jack Daniel’s and Coke (a drink of choice for Neal).
Stone Sessions, the second Waymores album, is due April 8 on Chicken Ranch Records and features a guest appearance by Dale Watson.
All by his lonesome
At 3TEN Austin City Limits Live on March 15, Nichols featured material from his self-titled Fat Possum debut, which was released in October. Like fellow Austin bluesman Gary Clark Jr., Nichols’ voice and guitar playing grab your ear, and his sense of style catches your eye.
Nichols’ spring-summer tour includes a handful of U.S. dates opening for Valerie June.
Shooks can’t be shaken
“It’s been a rough South by Southwest so far,” Shooks guitarist Deven Ivy said to me with a smile, jiggling a guitar cable with a slightly fraying cover as he was setting up for the band’s March 15 showcase at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que.
Around the same time, singer-guitarist Marlon Sexton (son of longtime Bob Dylan guitarist Charlie Sexton) was trying in vain to have a stagehand put a slapback sound on his vocals through the monitors.
Preshow equipment and technical imperfections didn’t shake up the Austin-based Shooks, whose textured sound (MGMT and Cage the Elephant quickly came to mind) contrasts somewhat with the fact that three members play guitar (although not at the same time). With and without an instrument, Sexton worked the stage at Cooper’s while on his feet and also on his back, and he also ventured into the crowd, which gave him plenty of space to do his thing.
Prior to their last song, drummer Hunter Pierce’s snare malfunctioned, so a call went out to the crowd for a replacement. When the request went unanswered, he switched on an electronic drum and played on — another example of Shooks going with the flow, the issue at hand having no real negative impact on the show.
After their set, the musicians brought their gear outside and killed some time in front of Cooper’s on the Congress Avenue sidewalk. I couldn’t help but notice Gabe Poliakoff rest his case-free Fender bass on top of his SXSW tote bag.
“Come on, man: That’s no way to treat a bass,” I said in jest.
“Yeah, I know,” Poliakoff replied with a sheepish grin.
Given their potential, it’s only a matter of time before Shooks have the need and the means to hire a road crew to set up, maintain and transport their equipment for gigs in Austin and elsewhere.
Nixon hasn’t lost his Mojo
Mojo Nixon is perhaps best known for 1987’s “Elvis Is Everywhere,” and ever since, the man raised as Neill Kirby McMillan Jr. has had a multifaceted career in entertainment, much like the sideburned subject of his signature song.
Nixon’s latest gig is as a host Monday through Friday on SiriusXM’s Outlaw Country channel. And with minor roles in Great Balls of Fire! and Car 54, Where Are You?, he’s no stranger to the silver screen, but now Nixon is the subject of The Mojo Manifesto: The Life and Times of Mojo Nixon.
The documentary marks the directorial debut of Matt Eskey, who is perhaps better known for playing bass behind Nixon under the name Earl B Freedom. Prior to its March 16 screening at the State Theater, Eskey said the idea for The Mojo Manifesto came to him in 2011, and along the way he learned how to be a filmmaker.
Like Nixon’s best-known songs, The Mojo Manifesto elicits plenty of laughter. His propensity for stirring things up can be traced to Nixon’s formative years in Danville, Virginia, where he caused a ruckus in town by opposing a leash law for dogs. Complementing the bountiful archival concert and TV footage are plenty of recent interviews with the likes of Todd Snider, Eric Ambel and, of course, Nixon himself, whose hair is now gray, but he remains a colorful personality.
After the screening and a short Q&A session with the audience, Nixon strapped on a guitar to perform “You Can’t Kill Me,” during which he interjected an anti-Vladimir Putin chant — a Mojo move if there ever was one.
Tunstall has a ball
By her own admission, KT Tunstall is “one of those” — meaning an artist who performed an early-career showcase at SXSW and has returned after selling a fair share of albums.
Tunstall first showcased at SXSW in 2006, and on March 16, the loquacious Scottish singer-guitarist played a solo set at the Creek and Cave Backyard.
Prior to playing her breakthrough hit, “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree,” Tunstall reflected on some of the ways the song registered with U.S. listeners. While “Black Horse” landed on Billboard’s Hot 100, Adult Contemporary and Adult Top 40 charts, she noted that it made a mark on VH1’s country spinoff channel. Also, while on a tour of Barnes & Noble stores back then, she noticed lots of women showing up wearing spandex. Tunstall inquired and learned that “Black Horse” was a hit with the jazzercise crowd.
As she played “Black Horse” at the Creek and Cave Backyard, Tunstall sprinkled in bits of the Ram Jam-popularized “Black Betty” and The White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army.”
Following U.K. dates supporting Barenaked Ladies and Stereophonics, Tunstall is scheduled to begin a stretch of U.S. shows on May 13 in Napa, California.
Quinn’s musical quest continues
Now in his early 20s, Sullivan is hitting his stride as a singer and songwriter — for proof, see the Massachusetts native’s fourth album, Wide Awake, which was released in June.
On March 17, Sullivan and his band — bassist Kyle Spark, keyboardist Will Bryant and drummer Bennett Vee (1960s hitmaker Bobby Vee’s grandson) — featured that album and more during a showcase set at Augustine. And while Sullivan executed impressive solos when playing his material and in covering Derek and the Dominos’ “Why Does Love Got to Be So Sad?,” they all served the songs and didn’t overwhelm the efforts of his bandmates.
John Mayer fans bored by his poor choice to mine blasé, 1980s-era Eric Clapton on Sob Rock may want to check out Sullivan, whose vocals are more pleasing and passionate than Mayer’s. Just as important, Sullivan has more than enough guitar firepower to blast away whenever he wants but opts to shoot selectively and with precision.
A video for Sullivan’s “Real Thing” premiered March 9, and he’ll open for Beth Hart on May 7 in Red Bank, New Jersey, and May 8 in Glenside, Pennsylvania.
Metal on their minds
For a panel titled “Dreamers Never Die: The Enduring Power of Metal,” it was only fitting to have one of the recognized founders of heavy metal among the speakers.
But that doesn’t mean Black Sabbath bassist Geezer Butler approved when his band was tagged as heavy metal some 50 years ago.
The first time Butler heard “heavy metal” in relation to Sabbath, he says the term “was not complimentary.” As for how he classified his band at the start, Butler felt that he, singer Ozzy Osbourne, guitarist Tony Iommi and drummer Bill Ward were “the next heaviest step” from what Cream and Jimi Hendrix had created.
Asked by panel moderator and longtime radio host Eddie Trunk whether her late husband, Ronnie James Dio, embraced being known as a metal artist, Wendy Dio said, “He didn’t like that. He liked hard rock.”
Deciding upon the proper genre classification is really an exercise in splitting hairs. Nevertheless, Trunk, Butler, Wendy Dio and former Skid Row singer Sebastian Bach were on the same page in terms of their reverence for Ronnie James Dio, who sang with Rainbow and Sabbath before fronting Dio the band.
The main reason why the four panelists were in Austin was to attend the March 17 world premiere of Dio: Dreamers Never Die at the Paramount Theatre.
“The sound of his voice is so powerful,” Bach said after a clip from the documentary was played for the panel audience. “He’s like a little dude, right, with the biggest set of pipes, you know?”
As the March 18 panel was winding down, Butler noted that he was on the “98th rewrite” of his autobiography, which he said would be released by the end of 2022.
Beck looks back
Many Grammy Awards ago, and a year before the Rock and Roll Hall Fame building opened, Beck made his first SXSW appearance, playing on a bill at Emo’s that had Johnny Cash performing before him.
Eight Grammys and a Rock Hall nomination later, the eclectic Beck was back at SXSW on March 18 to deliver a keynote address (which Cash did in 1994, the year he and Beck shared the Emo’s stage).
Joined by Amanda Petrusich, staff writer at The New Yorker, Beck talked about his music and life, displaying a dry sense of humor throughout. His story about wanting to work with Pharrell Williams since the late 1990s was especially funny. Beck said he got in touch with Williams around 2012-13; when Beck’s manager asked his client what he hoped to accomplish at that time with their collaboration, the “Loser” singer remembers saying, “I just want to make something really happy — something uplifting. A lot of my music’s kind of heavy and weird.”
Beck recalled that on his first day he was to work with Williams, he was told, “Sit down. I just did this song. You have to hear this.”
Williams then played “Happy.”
“I showed up about three days too late,” Beck deadpanned. “In another life, in another reality, that could have been my song.” They did team up around 2018 to make the singer’s most recent album, 2019’s Hyperspace.
The most interesting stories pertained to Beck’s early life in Los Angeles: “I grew up in kind of a forgotten part of L.A. … It was like an invisible culture; it’s not the Los Angeles you see in films. It was mostly Mexican, Salvadorian; there was a Vietnamese kind of community as well.”
Beck went on to liken his neighborhood to the one depicted in the Denzel Washington film Training Day.
“But it was also kind of loose and free; there were literally, like, chickens running down the street,” he added. “You could kind of do whatever you wanted in a weird way, but it was pretty impoverished.”
In his neighborhood, “there would be a used furniture place, but they would also do your taxes. And they rented video tapes. So everything was kind of — ”
“That sounds like a Beck song,” interjected Petrusich.
“Yeah, exactly,” Beck replied. “There were a lot of multilevel things happening.”