By Chris M. Junior
Great weather in Austin, Texas, isn’t a given in mid-March, and neither is a superstar-filled showcase music lineup at South by Southwest.
Overcast conditions and occasional rain dominated the skies over the self-proclaimed live music capital of the world during the 2015 edition of SXSW. And for a change — intentionally, perhaps — this year’s SXSW did not have nearly as many current big names as in the recent past.
In the end, the weather really didn’t hinder too much, and there was plenty of good stuff on the official SXSW schedule. Here’s a recap of choice panels and performances.
Through the lens of Jim Marshall
You may not be familiar with his name, but most likely you’ve seen his work.
The late photographer Jim Marshall is probably best known for his iconic images of The Beatles walking across the Candlestick Park field in August 1966 for what would be their final official concert, Jimi Hendrix setting his guitar on fire onstage at the Monterey Pop Festival in 1967 and The Allman Brothers Band with their equipment cases on the cover of the 1971 album “At Fillmore East.”
Those who knew Marshall, worked with him and were photographed by him participated in the panel “Jim Marshall: All Access Photo Pass.” In her opening remarks, moderator Amelia Davis, who was Marshall’s assistant for the last 13 years of his life, pointed out that “history was happening” in the San Francisco area circa the mid-1960s, “but nobody at the time really knew that. And thankfully Jim was there.”
She added, “One of the things that made Jim such a genius photographer was … he turned his camera outward and he started documenting and photographing everything else that was going on around at the same time. A lot of other photographers … missed everything else that really made it historic.”
Former Jefferson Airplane guitarist Jorma Kaukonen seemed to enjoy the Marshall slideshow that included early images of the Airplane and the Grateful Dead in San Francisco.
“If you think about what was going on back then,” Kaukonen said, “there were no superstars. We just all lived in cheesy walk-up apartments. So even though as the years have evolved, some of these images are iconic, [but] at the time, we were just the guys and gals who did that stuff — and Jim was around all the time.
“He was just there, he was one of the guys — everybody liked him,” added Kaukonen. “He was one of the most lovably abrasive people you’d ever meet, and when he was shooting pictures, you never [noticed] he was there.”
The slideshow included a series of “middle-finger” shots, which former longtime San Francisco Chronicle columnist Joel Selvin said was some of Marshall’s most important work. That distinct group of images not only includes the famous photo of an angry-looking Johnny Cash flipping off Marshall at the soundcheck for Cash’s show at San Quentin Prison in 1969, but also finger photos of Dead and Airplane members, concert promoter Bill Graham and mustachioed Creedence Clearwater Revival leader John Fogerty.
“You can’t really photograph [the f-word], but you can photograph the bird,” said Selvin. “So what we’re dealing with here is the liberation of language and the use of gesture to create an anti-censorship moment. And also, we’re dealing with something that’s pertinent to Jim Marshall’s character.”
“The Haight: Love, Rock, and Evolution,” a collection of Marshall’s photography (with written contributions from Selvin and Kaukonen), was released last fall.
Saluting Frank Sinatra
It’s no secret that Frank Sinatra wasn’t particularly fond of rock ’n’ roll, but two well-known rockers with strong ties to his native New Jersey had plenty of good things to say about the singer during “Sinatra: An American Icon.”
E Street Band members Max Weinberg and Steven Van Zandt shared personal and professional perspective throughout the panel discussion, which was moderated by Bob Santelli, the Grammy Museum’s executive director (and also a guy with Jersey roots).
“Because it’s his centennial,” Santelli said of Sinatra and the panel’s purpose, “[the Grammy Museum wants to] make certain that younger people who perhaps never got to see Mr. Sinatra perform live or aren’t familiar with the recordings are learning about them and being introduced to them.”
Looking and sounding very much like his old man, Frank Sinatra Jr. provided an unintentionally funny moment while responding to a question about his father’s early influences. Ever the producer, Van Zandt gave a hand signal to Santelli, who was seated at the other side of the table, meant for him to move Sinatra Jr.’s microphone forward. Santelli did, and without shifting his gaze or straying from his answer, Sinatra Jr. promptly put it back where it had been, eliciting a few laughs from the audience.
Growing up in New Jersey as an Italian-American, Van Zandt said, “We couldn’t help but have a little bit of pride” in Frank Sinatra’s success.
“Your parents and grandparents are always trying to encourage you in some kind of way,” Van Zandt added. “I don’t think people know how important a role Frank Sinatra played in terms of a role model and what we could aspire to … [He was] not only a great singer but a force of nature, somebody who was powerful and wasn’t shy about being powerful. That kind of stuff is very encouraging.”
The panel — which also included Charles Pignone, senior vice president of Frank Sinatra Enterprises and author of the forthcoming “Sinatra 100: The Official Centenary Book” — provided great context and insight with regard to Sinatra’s skills, work ethic, success and lasting influence.
Santelli cited the three generally acknowledged significant recording phases of Sinatra’s career — the Columbia big-band years of the 1940s, the Capitol years of the 1950s and the Reprise years of the 1960s — and had the three performers on the panel address them.
Weinberg said about Sinatra’s Columbia era, “When you listen to those songs, they’re very, very lush, and they’re operatic. They span almost 10 years, and they’re quite different from the other eras. … The sound of those records in the Columbia years, in my view, [was] exactly what the country needed at home [during World War II] to calm down, and in most cases, be uplifted by calming down.”
Santelli had Sinatra Jr. speak about the Capitol years, and he proceeded to ramble uninterrupted for more than 12 minutes, talking about the birth of Capitol Records and mentioning such music notables as Nelson Riddle, Stan Kenton, Johnny Mercer, Les Baxter and Nat “King” Cole along the way. Eventually, Sinatra Jr. pointed out that in 1953, “a dejected, broken, totally lost and for all intents and purposes washed-up Frank Sinatra” came to Capitol, and the label eventually paired him with arranger-composer Billy May.
In closing, Sinatra Jr. said, “In the ’50s, the music became part of the story of the vocal. Nobody understood that, even today, as well as Frank Sinatra did.”
Van Zandt admitted that the Reprise period was one of his favorite Sinatra eras.
“I love his attitude on those records,” Van Zandt said. “I enjoy that ’60s period very much. … That’s the swingin’ Frank that really was inspiring for people like me … the lifestyle and the culture that went with it.”
Typically, at the conclusion of a SXSW panel, the participants linger for a few moments and pose for a group photo. Sinatra Jr. would have none of that on this day, and he wasted no time in leaving the stage.
Argent and Blunstone talk about The Who, then rock with The Zombies
Santelli and Van Zandt returned to a more rock ’n’ roll frame of mind as part of “The Who at 50,” and the other panelists were Blondie drummer Clem Burke, singer-songwriter Chuck Prophet, journalist Holly George-Warren as well as two Who contemporaries, Zombies mainstays Rod Argent and Colin Blunstone.
Topics discussed included the different backgrounds of original members Roger Daltrey, Pete Townshend, John Entwistle and Keith Moon, as well as the approach Townshend, Entwistle and Moon took to playing their instruments.
In his take on Moon’s drumming, Burke said, “He was like a one-man symphony, really. … There were four stars in The Who, and Keith was one of them. From a drummer’s point of view, that was kind of unusual, I suppose.” Van Zandt added that Moon’s drumming is “absolutely part of” chief Who songwriter Townshend’s compositions.
Argent used the word “fantastic” multiple times in describing Townshend’s abilities as a musician and the demo the guitarist gave to him containing the songs that ended up on 1978’s “Who Are You” album, on which Argent plays keyboards, piano and synthesizer.
Blunstone commended The Who for developing a distinctive look right from the start.
“People didn’t understand about image in ’60s,” he said. “You went down to the pub, had a few beers, and then you went and played — and you played in the same clothes you traveled in. But The Beatles, the Stones, The Who and The Kinks, I think they understood about image.
“And personally, I’m very impressed with [Daltrey’s microphone] swinging,” added a smiling Blunstone, who might be the most motionless singer rock has ever seen. “If that was me, I would have lassoed myself.”
A few hours later, Blunstone stood relatively still and kept his microphone in its stand throughout The Zombies’ showcase performance at Stubb’s. In addition to the hit troika of “Tell Her No,” “She’s Not There” and “Time of the Season,” the band’s set included two new songs (“Maybe Tomorrow” and “Edge of the Rainbow”) and a mention of an in-progress studio album.
Scott Weiland: Life After Stone Temple Pilots
Not many singers use a megaphone onstage, and former Stone Temple Pilots singer Scott Weiland might be the only who windmills the funnel-shaped device between vocal lines.
Weiland gave his right arm quite a workout while performing with his latest band, the Wildabouts, on the Radio Day Stage inside the Austin Convention Center. His new group sounds a lot like his old one, and on the single “Way She Moves,” the rhythm guitar borrows a bit from T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” In addition to new material, Weiland and company also played select STP favorites, among them “Big Bang Baby.”
Songwriters let their music speak for them
It was billed in advance as “a freewheeling conversation about the creative process,” and that’s sort of how the “I Wrote That Song” panel went down.
Moderated by Karen Glauber from Hits magazine, the panel featured Mac McCaughan of Superchunk, Britt Daniel of Spoon, Matthew Caws of Nada Surf and Will Butler of Arcade Fire, as well as solo singer-songwriter Marshall Crenshaw.
Some of Glauber’s general questions generated brief responses but nothing too specific or enlightening. Queries that produced the best results were whenever Glauber asked a panelist to pick up a guitar and play something.
Crenshaw performed a new tune titled “Grab the Next Train,” which he wrote with Dan Bern, as well as the Glauber-requested “Cynical Girl,” from Crenshaw’s self-titled 1982 debut. At Glauber’s urging, Daniel did “Rainy Taxi,” a track from Spoon’s latest album, “They Want My Soul.” Caws played a new Nada Surf song called “Friend Hospital,” which had a really good chorus hook and lyrics (“So much better that we’re not together/’cause I will not lose you/Or be the blues to you”).
An unexpected highlight occurred when Glauber acknowledged that Big Star drummer Jody Stephens was in the crowd, then she called him up to the stage to perform. Supported by two guitarists, Stephens — who sings with much more confidence now than ever before — did two of his power-pop band’s songs: “Thirteen” and “For You.”
A Texas tribute to Doug Sahm
In addition to a March 19 screening of the documentary “Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove,” SXSW 2015 also included a well-paced, star-studded tribute to late Sir Douglas Quintet leader Doug Sahm at the Paramount Theatre two days later under the extended billing “A Gathering of the Tribes.”
Those Texas- and Gulf Coast-connected tribes people included Charlie Sexton, who led the evening’s Doug Sahm Tribute Band and later shared vocal duties with Shawn Sahm, who now fronts his late father’s Texas Tornados group; Steve Earle, who played his own material as well as Doug Sahm music; and Roy Head, who made the most of his brief time onstage with an enthusiastic rendition of his signature hit, 1965’s “Treat Her Right.”