As Bruce Springsteen delivered the keynote address at the 2012 South by Southwest (SXSW) music, film and interactive festival on Thursday, March 15, he hit on an apt descriptor for the music industry today: fragmentation. He repeated a comment made by influential music journalist Lester Bangs following the death of Elvis Presley in 1977: “Elvis was probably the last thing we were all going to agree on.” Springsteen expanded, “From here on in, you would have your heroes and I would have mine.”
The beauty of SXSW is that it takes that idea, one of a disjointed industry defined by genres and demographics, moved by sales patterns and celebrity gossip, and proves that real lovers of music can still unite under one banner, one goal: the never-ending search for brilliant artists making brilliant music.
In less than a week, thousands of music heads descended upon the self-proclaimed “weird” city of Austin, Texas, bringing along appetites hungry to discover the next big thing, to learn from the best and to hear from the legendary.
From the buzzing around breakout artist Alabama Shakes to the great expectations of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s exclusive performance, SXSW 2012 delivered heaping piles of steaming hot acts new, old and odd, but all gathering together to celebrate an art form that never fails to both unite people and recognize them as individuals apart.
Tuesday, March 13
There is usually a Syracuse stronghold present for the Austin fest each year. Stacey Waterman, owner of DMR Booking Agency, has attended for 17 years and Liz Nowak, director of the Syracuse Area Music Awards (Sammys) and Music Industry Conference (MIC), is also a frequent attendee among others who have come and gone each year. This time, five of us from Syracuse traveled with Waterman: Dan Mastronardi and Eric Binion of the Westcott Theater, on-air personality/programming assistant Candace Curby of WKRH-FM 106.5, her mother, Viola Galbiso, and I stayed together throughout the madness that was SXSW. Other Salt City natives, musicians, Syracuse University professors, students and alumni, and friends from around the country, all with a hand in the music industry, gathered throughout the event.
We drove north to Austin on Tuesday after flying into San Antonio the night before to avoid the chaotic mess of the Austin airport. The festival’s presence was obvious from the moment we made our way into the capital city of Texas, population 800,000. Traffic was thick and people were milling along every street, all centered around the main drag of the fest, 6th Street, and the Convention Center, just a few blocks away, which operated as a festival home base.
It was overwhelming from the start. Once we were all through the tedious registration process, the first night began with coaching from Waterman and Ulf Oesterle, an assistant professor of music and entertainment industries at SU, as well as another SXSW vet. Long days, comfortable shoes, steady supplies of free booze and food, late nights, some lines and on and on, the list of warnings and advice trailed as we walked to our first events.
First off, I checked out the Hype Hotel party with Oesterle, complete with free Taco Bell, but wasn’t impressed with the bash (although the Doritos taco shells were killer!). The venue was beautiful, but a massive line and less-than-intriguing bands dampened the mood. We moved on to meet up with others in the group and Oesterle laughed as my eyes lit up when we turned the corner of 6th Street.
It was like Mardi Gras had taken over Austin. Lasers, people, food, beer on the streets, music booming out of bars, strange street performers and overall chaos carpeted the concrete jungle. Oesterle told me to pick up my jaw: It was only Tuesday. By Saturday, it would be an even thicker, wilder jumble.
I decided to go see Miike (sic) Snow, an artist I knew of but was largely unfamiliar with. Press access made entrances relatively smooth and thanks to an official green tag on my camera, I was able to slither up to the pit of most venues without too much hassle (usually just a few spilled beers courtesy of drunk college kids partying at SXSW over their spring breaks). The band was energetic, but left me feeling empty. There’s something about watching a guy headbang while turning knobs to make effects noises that just doesn’t feel right. Get a guitar, slam some keys, wail on a drum, sure, but something about twisting tiny knobs with the tips of your fingers seems odd to me. It was also, amazingly, the youngest, drunkest crowd I would encounter throughout the week, making it harder to focus on the stage rather than the annoying girl shoving her iPhone in my face as she recorded the show and crowd reaction. I didn’t last long.
It was an underwhelming first night that left me wondering if the whole fest would be long lines and hipsters with scraggly beards, too-small clothes and unwashed hair twisting knobs. Would they all play “songs” that consisted more of swells of noise rather than written pieces of structure and verse?
Luckily, it was an impulsive, and incorrect, assumption.
Wednesday, March 14
Whenever I attend a festival, I’m on a mission to see and hear as much as possible and my independence takes fierce hold. I had heard great things about Ruthie Foster, an Austin musician, and was set on seeing her although others decided to roam. It set the tone for the rest of the trip.
I went off on my own to find an unofficial showcase outside of the 6th Street cluster. It was a local joint, with music both inside and out and a perfect day for the sunbathed tunes. I fell upon the first act accidentally and was treated to the gritty rock of vocalist/guitarist/songwriter John Dee Graham, an older man with a sharp sense of humor and a killer slide guitar player at his side. The set was short but lively and the locals loved every second, especially when Graham gave a shout out to everyone without a SXSW badge. I didn’t tuck mine away, but for a minute I wanted to.
Foster came to the stage soon after with her female trio of bass, drums and guitar and those women rocked. Foster’s naturally powerful voice and calm over the guitar strings made her fun to watch and her rhythm section added a definite backbone to match her booming vocals. Her bassist, Tanya Richardson, got devastatingly funky with slap and her drummer, Samantha Banks, never flinched at keeping the set steady and driving. The trio finished up with a stunning a cappella piece off Foster’s new album, Let it Burn (Relativity Entertainment), something I’ve vowed to get ahold of.
I made the dash after Foster’s set to the Convention Center to catch a piece of Alabama Shakes’ daytime set and was just in time to slide right up near the stage for photos. I had listened to the group before departing for SXSW and had noticed the building buzz around them, but the raw energy coming from the stage took me by surprise.
Lead singer Brittany Howard didn’t just sing, she exploded with sincerity and force as her unlikely looking band of boys backed her up. Her curly hair flew back, her jaw opened wide and sweat was visible on her forehead as she worked to give an all-out performance, just like Springsteen would advise later in the week during his keynote address. “Stay hard. Stay hungry. Stay alive,” he would say. “And when you walk on stage tonight to bring the noise, treat it like it’s all you have.”
Mastronardi called the Shakes a mix of Janis Joplin, Amy Winehouse and The Black Keys, a description I’ve come to agree with, as we walked from their performance to the next show on the agenda, Fiona Apple. Although I’ve recently become a renewed fan of Apple’s work on 2005’s Extraordinary Machine (Epic/Clean Slate), I was unaware that she had just released a new album, The Idler Wheel is Wiser Than The Driver of the Screw, and Whipping Chords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do (Epic), which would comprise some of the evening’s show.
We waited in line for nearly two hours and watched Apple roll into the venue before listeners were allowed into the National Public Radio-sponsored showcase held at Stubb’s BBQ, something like the Austin version of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que, complete with a large, grassy venue behind the restaurant. Apple took the stage late, but came out fierce and feisty, whipping her long, reddish hair around her gaunt face and sunken eyes. She was an angry little storm of skinny flailing limbs and burning, painful lyrics that pushed through her tiny body. The band stayed tight behind her, but disappointingly, she only spent a few minutes at the piano, her feet in big, black stomping boots dangling beneath the scarf-draped instrument.
Apple emerged with a bitter, animated delivery and musically scattered melodies, with a style similar to PJ Harvey a la Uh Huh Her (Island). But as the set wore on, no more than about an hour, Apple seemed to fade. She became preoccupied with her stage manager as he brought her hot tea, and seemed uninterested with her own band during several songs. By the time she closed the set with “Criminal,” her distinctive voice was fading and all the strength she had begun with seemed to have seeped out of petite frame. The bright beauty she used to be has withered into a shadow of strained angst, toothpick arms bent to hold her hips and her neck, a little tube of bones that protruded as she tried to eke out the notes.
We took a brief break after seeing Apple, who we agreed needed to eat a hamburger or 75, and a few of us tried Stubb’s, which hardly compared to the Dinosaur. Once we finished, we went back into the venue and caught part of Dan Deacon’s set, a weird and wild performance of percussion-led jams. We were just in time to see the crowd morph into a giant circle of dancers before the set came to a vigorous end.
Alabama Shakes took the stage after Deacon, delivering a solid set, but not one quite as convincing as their earlier appearance. Springsteen would scold them if he knew.
Thursday, March 15
Waterman offered to drive my early-bird being downtown since she was out and about, helping Syracuse native Maryjo Spillane transport a band she tour-manages, Gossip, during the festival. It was strange suddenly being crammed in a car with band members as they made their way to their showcase stage. SXSW was quickly becoming surreal.
After watching the stage get rigged up and Spillane wander through the setup, we drove back to the hotel to pick up the rest of the band, and I walked over to see the KUT-FM 90.5 live broadcast of the Punch Brothers. I wasn’t overwhelmed with the performance, as it’s slowly becoming more annoying than endearing to me to see one band of “brothers” after another play acoustic instruments and sing harmonies. It was fun at first, boys, but let’s branch out.
I hurried out so I could get a decent seat for the Springsteen keynote, scheduled to begin at noon. I wasn’t sure what the turnout would be like, but luckily arriving an hour early paid off as I managed to score a seat just a few feet away from Steve Van Zandt—yes, that Steven Van Zandt—bandanna and all. Surreality strikes again.
Various artists took the stage during the hour leading up to the address and all were sure to mention that this year would have marked the 100th birthday of Woody Guthrie—a major influence on so many of the SXSW artists, especially this year. SXSW co-founder Roland Swenson also took a moment to speak, mentioning the start of SXSW in 1987: with 12 clubs, 200 bands and 700 attendees, and noted the incredible difference in size and scope today.
Then, 30 minutes after his expected start time, The Boss entered to a ballroom filled with an echoing chorus of “BRUUUUUUCE.” As Springsteen would note, it was ridiculous to have the address so early anyway. “Every decent musician in town is still sleeping,” he explained. “And if they’re not, they will be by the time I’m done,” he added with a laugh.
The keynote was spot on. A consistently gracious Springsteen delivered an incredibly eloquent, sincere and pointed speech. As a New Jersey native, my fandom of Springsteen is a given, but I admit that I am fearful of his exposition at times. He’s passionate and often uses the stage to spout political ideas, which can feel out of place. And with his recent No. 1 album Wrecking Ball (Columbia) out, the podium could have easily been used as an advertisement. Instead, Springsteen made it a method to communicate to fans and musicians several ideas often lost in the glitz and glamour, marketing and madness of the industry.
First, he made the point that people disagree on music and that’s healthy and expected, for fans and the musicians themselves. Some consider The Beatles the greatest band ever; others say they suck. Some call Phish innovative masters of the jam band scene; other say they suck. Some call Springsteen “a natural-born genius off the streets of Monmouth County,” as he described in his address with a smirk. Others say, “You suck!”
Second, respect for those who came before and influenced what followed deserve that respect. Springsteen’s address turned into a history-of-music lesson as applied to his own music in the most humble way. At one point while describing the massive impact of Eric Burdon and The Animals on his music, he played a few chords from the band’s “Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood” and his own “Badlands,” as well as The Animals’ “We Gotta Get Out of This Place,” saying, “Listen up, youngsters! This is how successful theft is accomplished.”
He discussed James Brown, Bob Dylan, soul singers of Motown and Chess Records, Hank Williams and country and, of course, Woody Guthrie, in the end coming back to the idea that we all have our separate heroes, but we can all gather as music lovers to celebrate great art.
Following the keynote, I went to my only panel of the week. The panel, which Mastronardi had suggested, was called “2012: The Year Dance Music Killed Rock & Roll.” During discussion featuring CEOs, managers and agents invested in the dance, deejay and electronica scene I heard the most awful, gut-wrenching idea spoken seriously by anyone in the music industry. One of the panelists chimed in that the beauty of the electronic scene is that kids could get a computer program and master it within months, enabling them to be successful quickly and bypass all the practicing that creates virtuosos of instruments and songwriting, something all those silly musicians in all the clubs in Austin had apparently wasted so many years doing.
I almost threw up. To go from Springsteen’s eloquently spoken respect for what came before and the persistence it takes to succeed, to this throw-away mentality of getting rich quickly by spending a few months messing with Ableton Live in your basement was shocking and honestly disgusting to me. It’s hard enough for me to accept that genre, even while it’s growing in popularity with every light-up hula-hoop-filled show. I suppose Springsteen is right again: You have your heroes and I have mine.
After I cooled off and regrouped with everyone I made a quick decision to trek to a more distant venue, Threadgills, to see Tom Morello, a.k.a.The Nightwatchman, with the Freedom Fighter Orchestra. When I worked for the School of Rock in New Jersey in both 2008 and 2010, one of my bosses, Mark Biondi, often talked about playing with Morello, which always made me green with envy, wanting to see a show. By chance, walking through the SXSW trade show, where various music-associated businesses set up booths, I came upon School of Rock. Biondi wasn’t there, but he got in touch to let me know he’d be playing a set with Morello at 5:30 p.m. I walked all the way there, saw Jack Black on the way (celebrities are everywhere), made it to the gate—and found the showcase was private. I couldn’t enter without an invitation.
To hell with that. I was getting in.
I waited outside hoping Biondi would come by, but knowing he wouldn’t. I saw someone I had met only briefly earlier in the week and thought he might help, but instead spotted the giant tour bus in the parking lot—with Morello standing outside. Biondi had to be on it. Now, how to approach a tour bus without getting arrested?
It was, again, only by chance that a man walking away from the bus just happened to be the CEO at School of Rock, Chris Catalano. Bingo. I reintroduced myself, explained the situation and within a few minutes met up with Biondi and become his “drum tech.” No problem.
Seeing Morello live, he was just as I had imagined: energetic, rebellious and loud, with nasty guitar solos and lyrical messages touting the power of the people. The band played a roaring version of Springsteen’s “The Ghost of Tom Joad” (foreshadowing the night ahead) and Biondi proved why Morello prefers him behind the set, providing a flawless backbone to the set, something I had never had the chance to see before.
By the end of the performance, the entire crowd was jumping up and down, and following that was invited to join Morello on the stage for “This Land is Your Land.”
Then, it was time for the main event of my week: Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band’s exclusive performance. The concert, at the intimate 2,700-seat Moody Theater, was accessible only by winning a lottery. Waterman, Curby and I were all lucky enough to be selected, but I was the only one to get a floor ticket as opposed to balcony seating. It was the best show I’ve ever seen. Period.
Just like when I saw Springsteen at Giants Stadium in 2008, when the show was heavy on newer material from 2007’s Magic (Columbia), the SXSW show emphasized tracks from the just-released Wrecking Ball. The Boss’ latest record makes for some powerful arena-style anthems and Springsteen’s ever-energetic delivery was even more endearingly genuine than usual, perhaps because I was close enough at times to touch him. A group of lucky ones really did get to touch him and I don’t just mean a high-five from the stage—he might be 62, but Springsteen still crowd-surfs.
The show was smooth, the band obviously extremely well-rehearsed and the music so thick with horns, strings, voices, keys, percussion, drums and overall energy that the audience buzzed right back. There was an infectious power to it that grew throughout the performance, especially bursting with songs like “Badlands,” “Thunder Road,” “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” and “The Ghost of Tom Joad,” where Morello joined to deliver an absolutely blistering guitar solo.
Morello made several appearances throughout the night, but wasn’t the only guest that came to the stage. By the end of the show, Eric Burdon, who Springsteen had talked about only hours earlier, jumped up for a few songs, something arranged after Springsteen was told Burdon was in the city following the keynote. Reggae master Jimmy Cliff made his way as well as members from Arcade Fire, Joe Ely, Alejandro Escovedo and Garland Jeffreys for the final, rousing anthem, “This Land is Your Land,” providing an appropriate conclusion to an explosive two-hour, 40-minute show.
The performance was completely electrifying, though marred by the ignorance of a chance-picked audience. Two (excuse me) assholes behind me talked throughout nearly the entire show (until another man and I yelled at them) and two women leaning as close to the stage as possible looked like they were going to fall asleep. It’s hard to imagine how, as the show was near-gospel levels—with rising background vocals, a massive, horn-driven sound and powerful moments of silence for the departed, most notably, The Big Man, Clarence Clemons, whose nephew Jake stepped up to fill in saxophone licks during this tour.
When the line in “Tenth Avenue Freeze-Out” came, “And the Big Man
joined the band,” traditionally followed by Clemons’ signature sax
sound, the band stopped and the entire theater erupted with a long
minute of loud cheering, clapping and whistling in honor of the icon.
But even more moving was when Springsteen made it a point to discuss the
gaps on the stage (in addition to Clemons’ 2011 death, fellow E
Streeter Danny Federici also passed away in 2008), reassuring that the E
Street Band would continue because, “If you’re here and we’re here—then
Friday, March 16
It’s amazing how noon suddenly becomes “early” during SXSW when you’re moving around literally all day, standing at shows, in the sun constantly, and running on a few tacos and some Starbucks. Regardless, I got myself together for a set I had been waiting for all week, an intimate live radio broadcast with Gary Clark Jr., a budding guitarist I began following about eight months ago.
Having the “early” set time made it easy to snuggle up to the stage and get in close to see the mild, acoustic set of sincere emotion, starkly different than Clark’s driving live shows filled with howling distorted guitar. “When My Train Pulls In” and the acoustic version of “Bright Lights,” two beautiful songs, showcased Clark’s smooth vocals and gave his playing new dimension.
I stuck around the radio broadcast stage to catch some of the Austin indie band Shearwater, whose set seemed to blur, one song after another, with the front man wailing away on the microphone while the rest of the band stayed in the background. The Punch Brothers were up next, but I opted instead to catch the Waterloo Records Store Parking Lot Party, where I caught Jimmy Cliff, Oakland, Calif., rock group Howlin’ Rain and Clark’s plugged-in set.
The music was fantastic, but as usual with unofficial (non-badge) free events, it was a mob scene. The crowd crammed in for the talent, pushing their way in for a view, something annoying in the moment, but encouraging in afterthought. Love of great music still lives!
I took a break before setting out for the rest of the night, still exhausted from the marathon of the previous day, and met up with several others to see a showcase organized by Greg Allis, Syracuse-based manager of musician Charley Orlando. Mike Ryan, a resident of San Antonio, but one with many Syracuse ties, was set to perform with Jose Alvarez, but the former Los Blancos guitarist was delayed at the Phoenix airport. Ryan still played a short set with bassist Greg Goodman and had the crowd laughing when he broke for Alvarez’s guitar solo, promising that if Alvarez had been there it would have been killer, and delivering his clever lyrics in his addicting Irish cowboy songs. (A new genre in Springsteen’s fragmented world?)
Afterward, we moved on to catch another artist I’ve had on my list
for months: Willie Nelson’s son, Lukas Nelson. His voice might sound
like his dad’s, with that distinct Nelson twang, but Lukas Nelson plays
like a blues rock machine. The Kevin Bacon-faced, short-haired, barefoot
guitarist and vocalist played with his group, Promise of the Real, in
the corner of a bar that felt like Shifty’s—authentic to the community.
Adding to the homey feel, Nelson was joined by his brother, who was
painting on a canvas to the side of the stage, and his two sisters, who
sang. Nelson’s originals, including “Four Letter Word,” were wild
blues/country party-starters and his take on The Rolling Stones’
“Sympathy for the Devil” had the whole place jumping with every “Woo
Saturday, March 17
The brakes started hitting on St. Patrick’s Day, a holiday that basically goes unnoticed in the South. Green was spattered about the crowds, but nothing like the green beer Syracuse guzzlers were no doubt sporting. We went to a nearby showcase and caught The Pimps of Joytime, a group that reminded me of Syracuse’s own Sophistafunk, but with bigger instrumentation and a female touch. The group’s funky rhythms threw back to days of Parliament Funkadelic and the lead singer’s getup, complete with pimp hat and pinstriped suit, sold the vibe completely.
The rest of Saturday was slow compared to the relentless paces of the days before, but was filled with just as much, or more, laughter than the others as everyone relaxed into the end of the fest. We wound the day down with another set from Mike Ryan and 4 Fox Ache, an Irish-themed band complete with squeezebox, pennywhistle, two backup singers, a better-late-than-never Alvarez, bass, drums and Ryan on acoustic guitar.
Following their festive tunes, finally giving us our St. Pat’s fix, we caught a piece of Ian McGlagan’s show, a player who has rocked with the likes of the Stones, Faces and Small Faces. Now approaching his 70s, McLagan’s set was completely solid with all the payoff provided by years of serious performance. Guitarist Jon Notarthomas, brother of Syracuse’s Jamie Notarthomas, also held his own beside the accomplished keys player, giving the night a satisfying end.
Sunday, March 18
We all hit the wall. Everyone was later to rise and slower to prepare for the day. Waterman, as usual, was on top of the best thing happening and clued me into a set featuring The Stone Foxes, a San Francisco band with all the dirty hard rock sensibility of classic groups like Led Zeppelin and the Stones. The stage was tucked into a funky vintage camera store and the four-piece played like it was a garage rehearsal—albeit a really awesome garage rehearsal—but one with all the comfort of being in a low-key, familiar environment.
The Foxes are a tight band to watch. Bassist Aaron Mort bounces around as he plays, jumps on the stage, teeters off and swings himself around constantly, while guitarist Spence Koehler lets his long hair dangle as he rips deft riff after riff. Keys/Rhodes player Elliott Peltzman stays more in the background, bound to the black-and-whites, but adds a new layer to the band’s makeup absent on their first album Bears and Bulls (independent). But it’s drummer Shannon Koehler (brother of Spence) who adds the fuel to the already red-hot fire of the band. He runs the show from behind the kit with all the personality and charisma of the best bandleader. And when he and Mort switch, freeing him from the sticks and enabling him to melt a harmonica in true Stones fashion, the band morphs into yet another killer version of itself.
The rest of the day was filled with local flavor, from the fried chicken livers and oysters of Lucy’s Fried Chicken to chicken shit bingo at the most local Texas bar you can imagine, Ginny’s Saloon. Country music played as the old Texas gents swung the young ladies (yes, of course, including me), two-stepping their way around the tiny dance floor.
Luckily, throughout most of the trip, vegetarian (I’m actually pescetarian because I eat fish) options had been easy to come by. Much of Tex Mex food is based on beans, rice and various vegetables and Austin is doubtlessly a much hipper-to-vegans city than Syracuse. Avocado seemed to be included in every meal and options like shrimp quesadillas and spinach enchiladas kept me fat and happy, although I admit, I’m a sucker for trying new things and I did have a bite of fried chicken liver. (Never again!)
We didn’t make our way out of the Lone Star State until Tuesday afternoon, March 20, leaving from San Antonio just as we came in, and although the rest of the group missed kids, wives, dogs, boyfriends and home in general, I had no desire to leave the warm weather, big skies and crazy days. The nonstop lifestyle is addicting even if it can be expensive financially and taxing physically.
For my first time out, I’d call my run through SXSW successful. I hit nearly every band I had most wanted to see and managed to actually sleep (a little). The fest is much larger attendance-wise than others I’ve gone to, currently hitting numbers that even I could tell have now surpassed the festival and city’s capacity. Those who have gone for years, including Waterman, noted it’s never been as unbearably crowded as this year.
SXSW may be a victim of its own success. Attendees of the Interactive portion, March 9 to 13, of the fest have grown exponentially and the Music portion, March 13 to 18, seems confused between a valuable trip for industry professionals and a fun getaway for young spring-breakers, while Film, March 9 to 17, flounders somewhere in-between. Venues fill up faster and, by Saturday, we were all avoiding 6th Street rather than flocking to it.
I also thought frequently about the idea in Springsteen’s keynote that struck me most: separate heroes but a common love and appreciation for art and music. There were times I questioned that idea as applied to the attendees of SXSW. With bands filling rooms, sounds of new ideas and youthful creation spilling into streets, it angered me to look around at some of the audiences, more concerned with waxing their mustaches than listening to the music. Fashion has always been a part of the industry, but at times that, along with other superficial qualities, leaves me fearful—not that pure, real musicians and artists will disappear, but that they’ll continue to be swept under the rug as electronic knob-twisters and hipster fashion freaks continue to take over.
I still have faith that artists like Springsteen, The Stone Foxes and Alabama Shakes, the hard workers and real musicmakers, will continue doing what they love and pushing their way through the obstacles to deliver what they create to the people that are longing to hear it. You keep your heroes and I’ll keep mine, but I hope the common ground of appreciation for the real, the true and the brilliant ones that paved the way for those to come, will still hold a place in people’s heads, hearts and the hands of future sound-scapers.
Keep making music, musicmakers. And keep playing every show like it’s all you’ve got.