By Chris M. Junior
Limited and pricey parking. Layers of posters and fliers. A great stretch of weather. And lots of music-related activities day and night, both indoors and outdoors.
That’s what immediately comes to mind when summarizing the 2013 South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival, which officially wrapped up March 17 with a light schedule. Read on for more detailed descriptions of select highlights from the previous five days of SXSW action in downtown Austin, Texas.
Folk and country upstarts shine
Like many participating acts, The Lone Bellow packed in as many performances as possible while visiting the self-proclaimed “Live Music Capital of the World.” In addition to several day-party events, the Brooklyn trio had three official SXSW showcases, the first one taking place outdoors at the Blackheart venue on Rainey Street.
Similar to recent Grammy winners Mumford & Sons, The Lone Bellow plays dynamic, anthemic and oftentimes rousing folk, only with more passionate vocal harmonies and rhythmic punch. Rounding out the core group of Zach Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin were a bassist and a drummer, who at one point placed a small cymbal on top of his snare drum to give it extra crack. By the end of the band’s set, main singer and primary songwriter Williams was waving his arms and leading the audience in spirited a cappella sing-along of the refrain “carried away” from “Teach Me to Know,” which can be found on the band’s recently released self-titled debut album.
Earlier at the Empire Control Room on East 7th Street, the country duo Striking Matches performed songs from its self-titled EP, released in 2012 and available on iTunes. Imagine a real-life Scarlett and Gunnar, the fledgling songwriting team in the ABC series “Nashville,” and that could very well be Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis. In fact, Zimmermann and Davis had a hand in writing “When the Right One Comes Along,” which was featured in a scene with “Nashville” actors Clare Bowen (Scarlett) and Sam Palladio (Gunnar); it’s one of the four songs on Striking Matches’ EP.
Showing some love for Nick Lowe
Aging gracefully in rock ’n’ roll isn’t easy. But Nick Lowe has found a way, and that wasn’t lost on the veteran musicians who were part of the “Lowe Common Denominator” panel at the Austin Convention Center.
“He’s done this beautiful thing, you know – created this almost whole new image,” singer/songwriter Ron Sexsmith said.
“He’s definitely figured out a way to age gracefully a lot more than I have,” added longtime R.E.M. sideman Scott McCaughey, prompting laughs from the audience. “He’s doing these really classy [albums]. They're fantastically produced records, even though they seem fairly live. They sound like guys in the back room of a pub recording, which I think they actually have done. But there’s still the sense of self-deprecation and humor that Nick has always had in his music.” To illustrate his point, McCaughey, armed with an acoustic guitar, performed Lowe’s “Lately I’ve Let Things Slide,” which can be found on the 2001 album “The Convincer.”
McCaughey wasn’t the only panelist who performed. The acoustic was passed around to the other musicians, too: Sexsmith sang a song from “The Impossible Bird,” his favorite Lowe album; Chris Stamey (who admitted that in the early days of The dB’s, “we just stole everything we could from Nick Lowe”) tackled “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass”; and Kathy Valentine of the Go-Go’s did “Heart of the City.”
“I feel like I owe Nick my entire career,” Valentine said. “When I started playing music in Austin, I wanted to be a guitar player. In Austin, Texas, you don’t even touch a guitar unless you have a certain understanding about a standard of tone and soul. That was kind of what I took to L.A. with me. … When I was approached to be a bass player in The Go-Go’s, that was not my vision of what I was gonna [do] with my life. I was going to be one of those Texas guitar greats. I really owe it to Nick, because if it wasn’t for Nick Lowe, I don’t think I would have ever had a context for how you could be a really f—ing cool bass player [and] songwriter, and just be such a personality.”
McCaughey and Stamey separately produced tracks for “Lowe Country: The Songs of Nick Lowe,” released last year on panel moderator Rod Seidenberg’s Fiesta Red Records. The tribute album includes performances by Sexsmith as well as Caitlin Rose, Hayes Carll and Griffin House, among others.
Shakey Graves: Have suitcase, will perform
It takes a good feel for rhythm — and an equal amount of coordination — to be a one-man band.
The folksy-blues musician from Texas known as Shakey Graves has both going for him, along with an inventive mind.
Graves sings and plays guitar, and to keep the beat, he uses his heels to work two drum pedals that strike a modified suitcase.
Following his afternoon performance at a press event held at the Moody Theater, Graves told me how his percussive approach has changed and developed over the past few years.
“I started doing the one-man band [with] a kick drum and a hi-hat,” he said. “And at the time, I didn’t have a car, which made that really frustrating, where I had to get friends to bring their kick drum and hi-hat. I had been longing to have something that could contain all of the things and have booming kick sound.”
His creative wheels started spinning after seeing a musician in a New York subway station use a kick pedal to hit the side of a small suitcase. And when Graves was asked to be an official busker at the Austin stop of the 2011 Railroad Revival Tour, he asked a friend to build him a suitcase drum using an old yellow Samsonite.
“He put this thing together in about two hours,” Graves recalled. “He got a children’s floor tom and cut it in half, so there’s an actual drum in the suitcase, and it helps with the resonance. He welded some things together so a tambourine can go on it.”
There are some quirks involved with using the suitcase drum.
“Eventually it’ll drift backward,” Graves says, “and the pedals will come off, [and when that happens] you’re hitting air, so you’ve got to fix it during the middle of a show. But I’ve gotten the hang of it now.”
Graves, who graces the March cover of Austin Monthly magazine, is expected to release a new album this year.
Dave Grohl recalls his classic-rock roots
Before he discovered punk, and long before he helped the alternative-rock scene reach the masses, Dave Grohl got his rocks off from listening to many of the classic artists who had ruled the radio for decades.
Not long into his keynote address, Grohl thanked Edgar Winter for allowing “Frankenstein” to be included on a mid-1970s hits compilation that, as a youth, the future Nirvana drummer and Foo Fighters leader purchased at a drugstore.
“It was this record [that] changed my life,” he said, subsequently doing a verbal simulation of the instrumental’s main riff.
Grohl also referenced his Kiss albums and Rush posters; once he began playing music, he covered material by David Bowie, Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix. To much laughter from the huge keynote audience, Grohl recalled being a high schooler in Virginia and playing the early Rolling Stones hit “Time Is on My Side” at a nursing home.
More recently, another classic artist provided him with a nonmusical memory — Bruce Springsteen, who laughed when Grohl informed him of his 2013 keynote assignment. Springsteen gave the SXSW keynote in 2012.
That night, Grohl led Stevie Nicks and other musicians who appeared in his “Sound City” documentary during a showcase at Stubb’s on Red River Street.
David Hood: The bass muscle in the Muscle Shoals Sound
The mild putdown of Neil Young in Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” has been written about ad nauseam, but not enough has been made of Ronnie Van Zant’s flattering reference to The Swampers in the song’s last verse.
The Swampers were the session musicians whose sweet home base was Alabama’s Muscle Shoals Sound Studios, and in the 1960s and 1970s, they recorded with Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Paul Simon and The Staple Singers, among many others.
Bassist David Hood, guitarist Jimmy Johnson and keyboardist Spooner Oldham were in Austin to promote the new documentary “Muscle Shoals,” which was screened March 13 as part of SXSW’s film component. On March 14, they participated in the “Muscle Shoals Sound” panel, led by journalist Holly George-Warren.
Hood recalled he and his fellow musicians being “a little nervous for the first six, eight, 10 months” after breaking from producer Rick Hall and his FAME recording facility in the late ’60s to start the Muscle Shoals Sound Studios. The first big hit to come out of Muscle Shoals Sound was R.B. Greaves’ “Take a Letter Maria,” says Hood, and after that, “we could pay the rent.”
In a brief interview following the panel, Hood told me about his first bass guitar.
“It was a 1961 sunburst Fender Jazz bass,” he said. “I had a friend who was a guitar player whose father repaired TVs in his kitchen at night. He printed up some [company] letterhead, and he ordered my bass guitar from Fender. We got it for $180, which was half off the list price.”
That Fender was Hood’s only bass until it was stolen while on tour with Traffic in 1973. Oh, the stories that instrument could tell: Hood used it on such enduring hits as James and Bobby Purify’s “I’m Your Puppet,” Etta James’ “Tell Mama,” Luther Ingram’s “If Loving You Is Wrong” and The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There,” during which lead singer Mavis Staples gives a shout-out to “little David,” who responds with a bass bit he came up with on the spot.
“When I lost that bass, I bought two more Fender Jazz basses,” Hood says. “They were crap compared to [my first] bass. I eventually bought an Olympic bass, and I used it from 1976 until yesterday, practically. And everybody thinks that’s a Fender bass until they see it. I play Lakland more than anything now.”
Remembering Jim Dickinson
It seems as though anyone who had a close personal or working relationship with Jim Dickinson has an interesting anecdote about the late session musician (whose credits include playing piano on “Wild Horses” by The Rolling Stones) and producer (“Pleased to Meet Me” by The Replacements).
Several Dickinson quotes and stories were shared by the panelists who participated in “I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone: Life and Times of Jim Dickinson.”
Big Star drummer Jody Stephens first met Dickinson circa 1975, when Dickinson was hired to produce the band’s “Third/Sister Lovers” album, which was recorded at Ardent Studios in Memphis, Tenn. Subsequently, they would often cross paths at Ardent, where Stephens has worked since 1987. He recalled Dickinson’s fondness for marijuana, and after Dickinson recording sessions at Ardent, “all the assistant engineers would line up to clean the console” to see what remains they could find.
Luther Dickinson, guitarist for the North Mississippi Allstars (and briefly a member of The Black Crowes), told the story about his father’s small role in “Brown Sugar” by The Rolling Stones. At one point, Mick Jagger, as he was trying to nail the lead vocal, stopped singing the line “Hear him whip the women just about midnight.” In the control room, Dickinson pointed this out to Stones drummer Charlie Watts. Prompted by Watts, Dickinson reminded Jagger about the forgotten lyric, which found its way back into the song.
Luther, who was joined by brother/Allstars bandmate Cody and their mother, added that his father “liked to capture that creative spark” in the recording studio. Panel moderator Joe Nick Patoski said Jim Dickinson “worked your head” more than anything else, and that supports the longtime belief that Dickinson was more of a psychological producer rather than an overly technical one.
“He tricked me into doing the thing I wanted to do,” said Mojo Nixon, whose “Root Hog or Die” album with Skid Roper was produced by Dickinson.
As the panel dispersed, I approached Luther to share my own brief Dickinson anecdote with him. I interviewed your father twice, I said. What stood out both times — aside from the talks being long and rich in details about his solo work and his Big Star experiences — was that he answered the phone before the first ring had finished.
Luther laughed and jumped at the opportunity to discuss his father’s other phone habits.
“And he never said ‘hello’ — it was always, ‘Yeah?’ ” Luther said, and I nodded in agreement. “I remember one time getting a call on my cell phone and not answering. My father saw what I did and said, ‘You must be doing really well to not answer every call.’ ”
A glorious return for Green Day
SXSW showcasing acts can usually be filed under at least one of these categories: Promoting a New Album, Austin-Based Act and Unknown Hoping to Get Discovered or Create Buzz.
In Green Day’s case, the most applicable classification would be this: Return from Public Meltdown and/or Rehab. Sure, the veteran punk trio’s album trilogy is relatively fresh, but it’s oh-so secondary. That’s because the band’s March 15 gig at the Moody Theater was to be the first following leader Billie Joe Armstrong’s September 2012 rant at the I Heart Radio festival and his subsequent treatment for substance abuse.
With the help of three support musicians, and with a profanity-happy Armstrong repeatedly urging the audience members to stand and/or clap, Green Day sounded and acted more like a mainstream arena-rock band than its punk-principled members would ever care to publicly admit. Even so, the band was in good form, and its tight, fast-paced set was proof that Armstrong and company are ready to resume regular touring. The first date is March 28 in Rosemont, Ill.
Jackson Firebird’s thunder from Down Under
Here’s the thing with guitar/drum duos: They only work when it seems like nothing is missing from the music.
As for guitarist Brendan Harvey and drummer Dale Hudak, the bearded gents from Australia known collectively as Jackson Firebird, the sound they produce is both explosive and expansive. Their mighty riffs and cool tempo shifts were on display March 16 during the Aussie BBQ event at Maggie Mae’s on East 6th Street.
In April, Jackson Firebird will open a handful of Australian shows for The Darkness and Joan Jett and the Blackhearts.
A big moment for Teenie Hodges
He co-wrote some of Al Green’s biggest hits, and he was a key member of the session band that producer and Hi Records honcho Willie Mitchell relied on in the 1970s.
Now, after so many years working behind the scenes and in the shadows, Mabon “Teenie” Hodges is front and center as the subject of a new documentary. “Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original,” directed by Susanna Vapnek, made its world premiere March 16 at the Ritz theater on East 6th Street. The star was in attendance, as well as other members of the Hi Rhythm band, including Hodges’ brother/pianist Charles.
Clocking in at roughly 30 minutes, the film features relatively recent interviews with Mitchell (who died in 2010) and includes a funny exchange between him and Hodges about how they met. Hodges also explains how he and Green wrote songs together, and Hodges is shown visiting the body of water that inspired “Take Me to the River.”
The onscreen subtitles and captions could have used some serious proofreading: In the film, a captioned photo of Annie Lennox (who covered “Take Me to the River”) only has one “n” in her last name, and there are punctuation problems throughout. Nevertheless, “Mabon ‘Teenie’ Hodges: A Portrait of a Memphis Soul Original” is a nice glimpse into the life and career of an unsung musician. The documentary is expected to be available for download later this year.
John Fogerty and flannel: perfect together at the Moody Theater
Leave it to John Fogerty to sell flannel shirts — featuring a special pocket for guitar picks — at his concerts.
After all, Fogerty has been sporting flannel onstage since his Creedence Clearwater Revival days, and that’s what he wore March 17 at the Moody Theater.
As one might expect, Fogerty’s set was heavy on CCR hits, plus some of the band’s album cuts, among them “Ramble Tamble,” which featured a lengthy Fogerty guitar solo full of huge bends and lengthy sustain.
Fogerty was joined by the band Dawes for a rendition of CCR’s “Someday Never Comes,” which they recorded together for his new album, “Wrote a Song for Everyone,” due in May.
ODDS AND ENDS
* An added bonus to being in Austin for SXSW is seeing a long-forgotten band with an interesting backstory get a chance to capitalize on the festival’s foot traffic. The lineup for the annual Roky Erickson Ice Cream Social, held March 15 at Threadgill’s on West Riverside Drive, featured a short set by the reunited AutoSalvage. Interesting facts: Skip Boone, brother of Lovin’ Spoonful drummer Steve Boone, was the bassist for the psychedelic group when AutoSalvage released its self-titled debut on RCA in 1968. And Frank Zappa played a key role in the band’s name.
“Now that we know we can still play,” Tom Danaher said afterward with a laugh, he and fellow AutoSalvage guitarist Rick Turner are planning to record this summer and perform some low-key gigs in the San Francisco area.
* Well, it looks as though the ticket-drawing process for select big-name SXSW showcases is here to stay. Last year, badgeholders needed to enter a drawing for the opportunity to see Bruce Springsteen’s performance (instead of it being totally open — first-come, first-entered style — to those with prepurchased badges and wristbands, as well as walk-up paying patrons). This year, the random ticket-drawing process applied to the Depeche Mode, Prince, Green Day and Sound City Players showcases.
On the positive side — and something that wasn’t really advertised beforehand — SXSW presented a series of free indoor showcases at night. Traditionally, the free evening general-public shows have been held outdoors at Auditorium Shores. This year, SXSW also scheduled multiple freebies March 12-16 in the downtown venues, and those lineups included some good acts, such as The Tontons, Amplified Heat and Free Energy.