By Chris M. Junior
Electric scooters and cannabis conversations were all around South by Southwest this year, with Uber’s JUMP serving as the official SXSW scooter provider and the multi-industry conference and festival offering three packed days of marijuana-related sessions (kudos to the Austin Chronicle for titling its story previewing the cannabusiness programming “SXSWeed”).
On the streets of downtown Austin, Texas, laws and common sense pertaining to scooters and marijuana were clearly being tested, as scooter users zipped along pedestrian-filled sidewalks and, in some cases, rode against vehicular traffic, while the scent of marijuana smoke occasionally clashed with that of food-related aromas emanating from stationary and mobile restaurants.
Changes to those industries are likely by next year — and inside the Austin Convention Center and the neighboring Hilton Austin Downtown, featured speakers during SXSW’s music component talked about the need for change in their line of business and elsewhere. Meanwhile, throughout the run of SXSW, showcasing artists from around the world let their music do the talking. Here’s a recap of select sessions, panels and performances from the 2019 edition.
Musicians with a message
Although his March 13 appearance inside the Hilton Austin Downtown’s Salon H was billed as a music keynote, T Bone Burnett didn’t take a trip down memory lane, like so many of his predecessors had done. Nor did he offer rah-rah advice to aspiring acts or make repeated references to his latest project (a new solo album, The Invisible Light, is due April 12). In fact, there were only eight times when some form of the word “music” came up in Burnett’s speech.
Sounding more like a politician or a professor than a Grammy-winning producer with an impressive resume, Burnett centered on issues pertaining to technology monopolies — citing Google and Facebook often and Amazon multiple times — and stressed the value of personal information as well as the need for revised privacy regulations.
“The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States asserts that the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” Burnett said. “Well, unreasonable searches and seizures are Google and Facebook’s business models.”
Later, he added, “I am here today to strongly encourage all of you artists to not give in to the extreme intimidation of a sad group of very rich, emotionally and intellectually stunted people who threaten to destroy centuries of human experience and hard-won knowledge, who threaten to destroy our race — the only race we have, the human race — but instead to stand up for yourselves, to stand up for humanity.”
After Burnett, David Byrne graced the stage to discuss Reasons to be Cheerful, his multimedia project that he named after an Ian Dury and the Blockheads song. It involves sharing news about efforts worldwide by communities and individuals “who are doing things that are quite hopeful and encouraging,” as he put it during the outset.
“I realized that the ones I was most interested in were the ones that were [a] proven success,” the former Talking Heads leader added. “We all have good ideas, but these were ideas that were put into action and actually proved to be successful.”
Using a slideshow, Byrne offered examples of positive change in the areas of health, prison reform and climate. There was more to his SXSW itinerary than this featured session: That night, Byrne was scheduled to attend a retrospective screening of “True Stories,” his feature-length directorial debut from 1986, at the Paramount Theater.
Gibson honors its past, embraces the future
There’s no mistaking the look of a Les Paul guitar.
Inside the convention center’s Room 12AB on the afternoon of March 13, one was on display as the man leading Gibson Brands’ new-look senior executive team spoke with passion and purpose in the featured session titled “Now What? Setting the Gibson Stage As the 125-Year-Old Startup.”
James “JC” Curleigh, who was named CEO of Gibson Brands in November, outlined what the company’s mission and mindset have been moving forward since emerging last year from bankruptcy.
“We have all this heritage and legacy, but we have a new, fresh start,” said Curleigh, a former Levi’s and M&M Mars executive. “Imagine taking that dynamic of [an iconic brand] and having a startup mentality … I think you have to think like that. We had a near-death experience. Financially, guess what? In a startup, if you make a big, wrong decision, you might fail. … Fortunately, for Gibson, because of our heritage and our iconic status, we were given a lifeline.”
Gibson has put more focus on its guitars in the past four months than in the previous four to five years, he said. An example of that effort was on display the previous day at the Gibson Austin Showroom on South Congress Avenue. That’s when and where a small group of visitors got a glimpse of a prototype of the Chuck Berry 1955 ES 350T model, which Charles Berry Jr., the late Rock and Roll Hall of Famer’s son, praised for its craftsmanship and played following a chat with Curleigh.
The decision to produce the Berry model guitar “was more of a family moment than it was a business moment,” Curleigh told Goldmine afterward. “The conversation was a lot about, ‘How do we continue his legacy and legendary status through music?’ ”
The Chuck Berry 1955 ES 350T will not be a mass-produced model: There will only be 55 of these guitars.
“We’re going to take a little time to make them, and they’ll be coming out late summer-early fall,” Curleigh said. “The Berry family has already put in an order for a few, so there might be only 50 left by the time we get them out.”
Concerns within country music
Kacey Musgraves’ Grammy win for Album of the Year over Drake, Cardi B and others put a mainstream spotlight on her as well as country music, but within that genre, women are still often relegated to the shadows.
In December, Billboard magazine’s Country Airplay chart did not have a single female artist in the Top 20, a first for this particular chart, which has been around since 1990. And as of early March, no female artists had cracked Country Airplay’s Top 10 so far in 2019.
But statistics only tell part of the story, as moderator Lorie Liebig pointed out early on in the “Country Music’s Struggle to Define Women” panel on March 13.
Liebig, the managing editor for Wide Open Country, called out bro country and how songs by artists in that male subgenre often depict women “in a very one-dimensional way. They’re usually called girls, they’re usually sitting in the passenger seat of a car. There’s not much too them other than that.”
Middle Tennessee State University professor and longtime music journalist Beverly Keel added, “Too often women are perceived as the accessory. We’re not hearing female voices. … I can drive to work — it takes me over an hour to get to work — and I can drive that whole time and not hear one song by a country solo female.”
Responding to Liebig’s question about what it’s going to take for the environment to change, singer-songwriter Priscilla Renea said, “We have to stop knocking on the door of the gatekeeper and saying, ‘Let me in.’ … We have to start having our own bonfires, start having our own get-togethers, [our own songwriting sessions].
“There has to be a collective consciousness. There has to be a total agreement amongst the community of radio, labels, publishers and PR. … Let’s build this network; let’s have each others’ backs.”
Honoring the Bluebird Café
Years before “Nashville” filmed there, The Bluebird Café had a reputation as a place where aspiring and established country artists could play in front of an intimate, interested audience.
“Bluebird,” a new documentary about the venue, was screened during SXSW, and a few “Nashville” notables were in town March 13 for a Bluebird-themed showcase at Esther’s Follies.
Charles Esten, who portrayed Deacon Claybourne in the ABC series, entertained the crowd with songs as well as the backstory to “I Know How to Love You,” which he co-wrote and performed in a pivotal episode.
Also there were Striking Matches, the duo of Sarah Zimmermann and Justin Davis, who over the course of “Nashville” wrote songs performed by the characters played by Esten, Hayden Panettiere, Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio, among others. On this night, Zimmermann and Davis went the acoustic route, but on March 15 at Antone’s (rechristened the Miles Davis House for the afternoon), they were full-on electric, playing a stomping blues set that highlighted Zimmermann’s slide guitar skills and included a cover of the Robert Johnson classic “Cross Road Blues” (aka “Crossroads”).
Zimny’s latest movie gift: a Johnny Cash documentary
Johnny Cash’s “At Folsom Prison” album was a major moment in his career, and it serves as a recurring subject in the documentary “The Gift: The Journey of Johnny Cash,” which screened at SXSW.
Thom Zimny, who directed “Elvis Presley: The Searcher,” takes a similar approach with “The Gift.” Notables such as Bruce Springsteen, Emmylou Harris, Rosanne Cash and Rodney Crowell are heard providing context and commentary in the Cash film, but they’re not shown when they speak. The voice of Cash himself is heard throughout, providing important details pertaining to his childhood and career.
Featuring original music by Pearl Jam’s Mike McCready, “The Gift” does not yet have a theatrical release or a network outlet lined up. (“The Searcher” debuted on HBO last year.)
Arthur Brown and Bubble Puppy: Still rockin’
Being a one-hit wonder doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with appeal and staying power.
It’s been at least 50 years since their signature songs made the Billboard Top 40, and The Crazy World of Arthur Brown (“Fire,” No. 2 in 1968) and Bubble Puppy (“Hot Smoke & Sasafrass,” No. 14 in 1969) are still at it, with both groups playing showcasing SXSW sets on separate nights.
On March 14, singer Arthur Brown and his bandmates were in good spirits prior to performing at the Empire Garage, as they continue to promote the deluxe three-CD edition of 1968’s The Crazy World of Arthur Brown that was released in October. And two days later at The Belmont, the Rod Prince-fronted Bubble Puppy kicked off an Austin-themed bill with a powerful set that featured “Hot Smoke & Sasafrass” in the middle — and the songs that came before and after were not inferior.
Lots to see and hear at the Mohawk
On some nights, you really need to hustle to venues far away from each other in order to catch artists of interest.
That wasn’t the case for fans of Americana music on March 15, as the Mohawk had top-shelf talent, all connected to the New West Records label, on its outdoor stage and adjacent indoor stage.
Outside, Austin’s own Robert Ellis played songs from his new album, Texas Piano Man, three nights after doing the same at the BMI-presented Ray Benson Birthday Bash, which serves as a fundraiser for the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Not quite Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis in terms of theatrics, the tux-wearing Ellis does get up often from his piano bench while performing his buoyant, sometimes-humorous material.
Whigs frontman Parker Gispert remained seated inside during his set, which featured songs from his solo debut, Sunlight Tonight — among them the Neil Young-esque “Too Dumb to Love Anyone” — and a cover of the Frank Sinatra hit “That’s Life.”
As Gispert played, Steve Earle and the Dukes rocked the outdoor stage with material from the forthcoming Guy (a tribute album to Guy Clark) and closed their set with the Earle-penned “Copperhead Road.”
It’s hard to beat the Austin Convention Center’s Radio Day Stage room when it comes to sound, lighting and sightlines. And this year, three great new artists made the space even better.
Yola, a country-soul singer from the United Kingdom with emotional depth in the neighborhood of Adele and Dusty Springfield, on March 13 showcased her debut, Walk Through Fire, which was produced by Black Keys singer Dan Auerbach.
J.S. Ondara, who six years ago moved from Kenya to Minnesota to pursue music, supported his limber voice and intimate material with steady acoustic strumming on March 14. Tales of America, his debut, arrived in February.
Black Pumas, winner of the Best New Austin Band honor at this year’s Austin Music Awards, finished off a busy schedule of official SXSW showcases with a March 15 set on the Radio Day Stage. Right now, the group — led by singer Eric Burton and guitarist Adrian Quesada — has more apparel and stickers available for purchase than it does music (the catalog to date consists of the songs “Fire” and “Black Moon Rising”). Even so, Burton’s constant motion and the band’s tight, soulful grooves hooked the audience right away. Fingers are crossed that the debut Black Pumas album — recorded at Quesada’s studio and due last summer, according to multiple online sources — soon sees the light of day.