Twenty hours, 1,500 miles and a few hundred dollars in gas brought me to four days of 1,300 bands, 60 clubs and immeasurable gallons of free beer and pounds of barbeque. It’s called South By Southwest (SXSW), the time of year in which the entire music industry descends on Austin, Texas. Converging around the Austin Convention Center and Sixth Street’s 15-block strip of bars and pizza joints, critics, executives, artists and fans basically become the same animal, prowling through the night in search of undiscovered talent, the next great hype or the future big bust.
Here is a sampling of some of the most notable bands and musicians I saw.
Cody Chesnutt @ Exodus
When Chesnutt (missing in action since discovering God and abandoning his Next Big Thing status five years ago) stepped onstage draped in a red velvet cape and told the audience not to applaud until the end of his set (because it’s one long piece, you see), the crowd could be forgiven for feeling a bit nervous. After all, the guy had already displayed signs of schizophrenia on his brilliant but manic super lo-fi, rock and soul debut, The Headphone Masterpiece. Now, here he was, in one of his few gigs of recent years, starting off by essentially disavowing his last record and announcing he would instead be playing its as-yet-recorded follow-up, The Live Release, in its entirety.
A treat? Possibly. But it could just as easily have been a room-clearing disaster.
As it turned out, Chesnutt proved why artists from the Roots to the Strokes embraced him the first time around. With nothing but an electric guitar, his velveteen voice and the occasional trumpet solo, Chesnutt held the club rapt as he floated and stomped through an unbroken chain of bluesy riffs and lyrics about the trappings of fame, the prostitution of black culture by white media and, of course, religion. Was it meandering? A bit. But Chesnutt’s genius on The Headphone Masterpiece was in taking varying strands of music, tying them together and having it make impossible sense. And as he showed here, he’s still got the madness for it to work.
Forro In The Dark @ Club 115
Forró is the popular dance music of Northeastern Brazil. New York’s Forró in the Dark, four Brazilian émigrés plus one American, play what they call “forró on acid.” That is, the music’s traditional percussion instruments — the zambumba (a bass drum hit with a mallet), conga and triangle — cross-bred with baritone sax, trombone, flute and sizzling fuzztone guitar from Beck’s onetime axeman, Smokey Hormel. Their show at the packed, narrow Club 115 was a trip indeed, sweaty and woozy, starting late and ending late, with the only slowdown in the rhythm being the band’s endless complaints about the sound. Still, one of the best sets of the week.
Amy Winehouse @ Bourbon Rocks
Slightly disappointing. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that Ms. Winehouse did not live up to the hype granted her as one of the conference’s most buzzed-about artists. By all accounts, she killed at her official showcase, and she kinda did here, at a free 2 p.m. party thrown by her label, Island Records. But if her already legendary imbibing is any indication, she’s probably not much of a morning person — or a mid-afternoon person, for that matter. Rail thin, in a tight, slightly stained black shirt, with cat-eye makeup and a towering beehive hairdo, Winehouse delivered vocally. Her voice is a thing of wonder, the sound of a black Southern gospel singer coming out of a frail 23-year-old Jewish girl from Enfield, England.
Unfortunately, that’s all she came prepared to deliver so early in the day. She only brought along her guitarist, for one. And she only performed four songs. Winehouse stayed planted behind the mic stand, hands in her pockets and staring at the ground. She seemed like she’d rather be in bed nursing her hangover. And, really, who can fault her for that?
SXSW Interview w/ the Stooges
Anyone who has read Please Kill Me: An Oral History of Punk knows the members of the Stooges have lived lives that would kill the rest of us. Drugs, blood, broken glass, peanut butter, drugs, glitter, more drugs — that is the legacy the proto-punk miscreants left behind when they “went on hiatus” some 30 years ago, at least as much as, if not more than, the two alt-rock blueprints they recorded in their lifetime. (Raw Power doesn’t exactly count as a true Stooges record.)
But the conversation between interviewer David Fricke of Rolling Stone, Iggy Pop and the Ashetons, Ron and Scott, was surprisingly free of any discussion of past debauchery, instead focusing on how drastically the band’s reputation has changed over the last three decades, what the expectations are for this reformed version, and how they work as a group. And the interview was better for it.
Iggy, dressed casually in a tank top, jeans and flip-flops, relished the opportunity to finally talk about his songwriting process — even if it is, well, let’s say “simpler” than most. On creating “No Fun”: “One of my favorite parts of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Satisfaction’ is when Mick goes ‘No, no, no.’ And then, on the other hand, you had the Beach Boys, another great band, who had this song where they kept repeating ‘Fun, fun, fun.’ So I thought to myself, ‘Well, there you go.’ ”
Effusive as always, Iggy, as well as Ron Asheton (Scott was near-silent the entire time), shared stories about the old Detroit scene, about the pre-Stooges days and, most amusingly, about recording their first album: “There was John Cale, looking like the antagonist in Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, wearing a Vincent Price type of Dracula cape, and he would come in the studio with Nico, who would sit there and knit. That sets quite an atmosphere, to say the least.”
As for the reunion, Iggy insisted the band won’t be allowed to coast on its legacy. “I don’t think people will like us if we’re not as good as history.”
The Good, the Bad & the Queen @ Stubb’s
Damon Albarn is looking a lot like Joe Strummer these days. Not the young, idealistic punk amped up on revolution, but the older, more refined musical journeyman who, in his latter years, was obsessed with exploring global cultures and filtering them through his particularly British perspective.
It’s natural, then, that Albarn would eventually hook up with a Clash alumnus himself and create something special. The Good, the Bad & the Queen, featuring Albarn, bassist Paul Simonon, guitarist Pete Tong of the Verve and Afrobeat drummer Tony Allen — as well as a string quartet and an additional keyboardist — headlined Stubb’s on Friday night in one of their first American appearances. Without being too showy about it, the so-called “supergroup” justified its billing at the top of Austin’s biggest club on the conference’s second-busiest night.
Wearing a top hat, Albarn took on the image of a ringmaster, but, as on his other recent post-Blur projects, the Britpop icon shrank from being the center of attention. He mostly hid behind a Rhodes keyboard and ceded the spotlight to Simonon. A dead-ringer for Steve McQueen, Simonon shuffled across the stage, stoically thumb-picking rumbling, dub-style basslines on an instrument he held more like a shotgun than a guitar. He propelled the set, while Tong’s guitar and Allen’s drumming — subdued, live as on record, compared to his incomparably funky work with Fela Kuti — added texture.
It was Albarn’s beautifully plaintive, low-key voice, however, that lifted the tunes above mere atmosphere to actual songs. But the only time he came alive physically was during the polyrhythmic stutterstep of “Three Chances.” Gripping the mic with two hands, shaking his leg uncontrollably, and with Simonon standing next to him, both gazing out at the crowd, it was an oddly familiar sight.
Meat Puppets @ Emo’s
Cris and Curt Kirkwood walked out at Emo’s looking like two dudes who just stumbled out of the Star Lounge. Then they plugged in and sounded like the most righteous bar band ever. The founding brothers of the Meat Puppets have had their problems since they last recorded together — bassist Cris battled drug addiction, guitarist Curt played with Krist Novoselic in the thankfully short-lived Eyes Adrift — but here, at the first official gig of their reunion tour, the pair just wanted to rock.
Hair in their faces, the trio, including drummer Ted Marcus (replacing Derrick Bostrom, who did not want to take part in the reunion), powered through scorchers like “Sam,” “Attacked by Monsters” and “Touchdown King.” They also played “hits” (courtesy of Nirvana’s covers on their Unplugged performance) “Plateau” and the closing “Lake of Fire,” with the same furious blend of hardcore bombast, country twang and acid-fried classic rock that made them an anomaly on the1980s indie scene and still peerless today.
Lee “Scratch” Perry @ Flamingo Cantina
In some ways, it was a fitting end to a week of barely controlled chaos. In another, more accurate way, it was an epic waste of the conference’s final hours.
Perry, the legendary (and legendarily weird) Jamaican producer of everyone from Bob Marley to the Beastie Boys, was scheduled to play at 1 a.m. Saturday inside the tiny Flamingo Cantina. The place was sure to be packed, so I grabbed a spot early and waited. Through Lethal Bizzle, a so-so UK grime artist. Through Brother Ali, an albino indie rapper. Through the Mau Mau Chaplains, a gimmicky but decent troupe of local middle-aged self-described “rednecks” who dress like country hicks but play surprisingly authentic roots reggae. Through Grimy Styles, a dull instrumental dub band from Austin. And through Dub is a Weapon, another vocal-less dub act from New York that also doubles as Perry’s backing band. They were going to do a few of their own compositions, then bring out the frontman.
At least, that’s what I assumed.
After about their fifth or sixth endless jam, my eye caught the wall clock: 2:45 a.m. No sign of Perry. The door guys were getting nervous. Every other club on Sixth Street had closed 30 minutes prior; cops and tickets and possible arrests were imminent. The band continued to stall, promising Perry would be there.
Eventually, at about five minutes to 3 a.m., the Upsetter appeared from nowhere, as if he crawled out of the ground. He did not disappoint visually. Dressed in beige cargo pants with a shirt boasting patches of Africa and the Jamaican flag and sporting hundreds of bracelets, rings and necklaces and a personalized microphone that appeared to have a translucent disco ball attached to it, he looked as nutty as advertised. The band quickly launched into a song, after which a voice came over the speakers, pleading for them to stop because “the owner is seconds away from being placed in handcuffs.” So, of course, they did one more, with Perry holding up a lighter and chanting down Babylon.
Before they could cut the power, Perry had one last message for the audience: “Music lovers, you need a new government.”
Definitely so. But, Scratch, what you need is a new watch.