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To Texas and Back: SXSW 2010
by Donny Kutzbach
Our correspondent returns from Austin, reports on SXSW
As 19th-century, coonskin-cap-wearing statesman Davy Crockett once told his constituency, “You may all go to hell, and I will go to Texas.”
At least a little like Crockett, for one week annually I chuck everything in my world—job, family, etc.—and head to Texas. Unlike him, it’s not as brave and noble as a last stand at the Alamo. Instead, my week is filled with a lot of music along with more than my share of good things to eat and too much drink.
In trying to explain to the uninitiated the whole SXSW experience, the long and short is this: Imagine the opportunity to see thousands upon thousands of the best musical artists in the world all playing in one place.
SXSW annually serves up a giant festival that looks and sounds like a celebration and symposium on the past, present, and future of music, where the artists, music business-types, the media, and fans all converge.
A sad event cast a shadow was over this year’s SXSW: the death of Alex Chilton, which occurred just hours before the festival’s official start. Chilton was due to perform with his legendary outfit Big Star as one of the finales on Saturday.
In the wake of Chilton’s death, an all-star tribute was led by drummer Jody Stephens and long-time auxiliary Big Star members Jon Auer and Ken Stringfellow of the Posies. Among those who took part: M. Ward, Mike Mills of R.E.M., Evan Dando of the Lemonheads, and Chris Stamey, among a host of others. The biggest surprise at the Chilton tribute was the appearance of original Big Star bassist Andy Hummel, who hasn’t performed in more than 30 years.
R.I.P. Alex Chilton
To paraphrase a line from one of Alex Chilton’s many masterpieces: “Thank you friend/We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you.”
For the Box Tops, Big Star, and his long and terrifically varied solo catalog, Chilton deserves thanks from so many of us who ever really fell in love with rock and roll and the beauty of its left turns.
His voice could be rough and husky, as it was in his youth with the Box Tops; elegant and delicate; or coy, sharp, and snarky. He brought something special to every song, whether it was one of his own or from another’s pen.
As if his own incredible catalog weren’t enough, you could spend days poring over the music of the artists who were directly influenced by Chilton and Big Star: from the Replacements to Cheap Trick, from Wilco to the late Elliott Smith, from R.E.M. to Ryan Adams. These are tip of the iceberg.
AllMusic.com’s Jason Ankeny nailed it when he wrote, “Big Star remains one of the most mythic and influential cult acts in all of rock & roll.”
Cult artists may not be loved by great numbers of people, but the small cadre of fanatics who love them are vocalin their passion. For those of us in this particular cult, a perfect world would have been a place where Alex Chilton would be seen on equal footing to John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Or Bob Dylan. Or Brian Wilson.
Funny thing is this: Alex Chilton probably would not have wanted to live in that world. He never really seemed to care about all the trappings, and consistently played what he wanted to play and how he wanted to do it.
Ever the maverick, he did things on his own terms and in a way that others might consider at best stubborn or at worst a path of self-destruction. He never compromised. never did things the way others told him to.
The guy who always seemed to derail his own career unwillingly did it again:He passed away from heart-related problems on Wednesday, March 17. With the acclaim still coming in for 2009’s retrospective Big Star box-set Keep an Eye on the Sky (Rhino), he was due to play a showcase gig on Saturday that was anticipated to be a highlight of the SXSW festival.
The guy from Big Star may have never been a big star, but as time goes on, his legend will continue to ascend.
It’s worth noting that Chilton played a pair of his final performances in Niagara Falls and Buffalo in April. Earlier in the night, at Seneca Casino with the Box Tops, he performed their hits like “The Letter,” “Soul Deep,” and “Neon Rainbow.”
The magic came later, and I was lucky enough to see it all happen. That night at Buffalo’s Sportsmen’s Tavern, Chilton was urged to get up and join the house band. He did. On a postage-stamp size stage, he killed it with a band that didn’t even know his tune “Alligator Man.”
Chilton is survived by his wife Laura, a Western New York native who couldn’t have been more proud that he played with such ease and power that night last November.
He is additionally survived by one of popular music’s most enviable bodies of work, and a cult of fans who will continue to make his worthy legend grow.
I want to thank you again, Alex.
There were so many buzzing bands.
Few names were more bandied about than the XX, the darkly brooding, shoegazey West London band who dazzled an absolutely packed crowd at Mohawk Patio with a set culled from their acclaimed self-titled 2009 album. Although clearly the sort of band you want to see well after dusk, the XX shared a stage the following afternoon indoors at the Village Voice’s afternoon shindig at La Zona Rosa with the Pains of Being Pure at Heart and the reinvigorated, re-launched indie icons Superchunk, whose creamy, buzzing pop perfection was as sharp and as good as ever.
For fans craving a super, all-star soul review—the likes of which hasn’t been seen since Motown was putting their acts in bus tours in the 1960s—you needed to be at Austin Music Hall on Friday night. Just how close to Motown and the classic era of Atlantic and Stax Records? How about Motown’s sweetest voice and premier songwriter, Smokey Robinson? Oh, yeah, Smoke was there, and while his set was a little too schmaltz and casino-ready for a SXSW, the entire room was singing along, and the man still has that voice. Meanwhile, the ghost of Marvin Gaye seemed to enter the body Raphael Saadiq. The truly amazing Saadiq—clad in his Marvin-like specs and a slick red suit—and with his note-perfect band put on an unstoppable show that was a lot closer to the way Smokey and the gang used to do it. The evening there was closed out by current first lady of soul, Sharon Jones, and her band, the Dap Kings.
While the Los Angeles quartet Dawes was making new fans at every turn of their show-packed week, they clearly already had a strong cadre of followers singing along to their warm brand of West Coast folk rock.
Also from LA, duo No Age were in effect with their fuzzy, dissonant, and stripped DIY punk. Pound for pound, however, I would name Vancouver, BC’s irrepressible Japandroids the best of the bunch in the strings-and-drums category, as they fired through the fiery blasts of their 2009 record Post-Nothing. Honorable mention to Toronto’s heavier than heck bass-and-drums powerhouse Lullabye Arkestra.
While we’re taking a turn toward the regional, let’s keep talking about Canadian acts. As always, so many great acts from the land of the maple leaf. While Broken Social Scene made their usual scene of fractured and beautiful jams at a few SXSW shows, Holy Fuck brought on the next-wave of krautrock with NEU!-like awesomeness. The angelic-voxed Basia Bulat mesmerized with a set at the day party presented by Paste Magazine. Another Ontario-based band, Quest for Fire, brought their heaviest riffs with them and did some perfect and punishing aural damage. And not to leave out the other corners of the True North, Saskatchewan’s Deep Dark Woods showed that Saskatonians know how to bring the wistful, cabin-door soul.
Always being keen to see the best of Britain, I caught a couple of acts shining at the British Music Embassy’s Yorkshire Party: Sheffield bands Slow Club and the Crookes. Likewise from England, London-based singer/songwriter Peter Molinari hooked up with a Nashville band to back him for his modern and excellent take on skiffle and trad rock and roll. Glasgow’s Codeine Velvet Club might be Jon Lawler of the Fratellis’ side project but their cool, widescreen, boy/girl pop might be even better than his regular gig.
And we were in Texas, so Texas talent brought their best. Denton’s Midlake made a lot of noise quietly with their homespun psych-folk, while the boys from across town, Centro-matic, brought their blurry-eyed indie melodies with great reults.
SXSW’s hometown, Austin, was represented by superstars like Spoon, psych legend Roky Erickson getting freaky with Okkervil River, and the feted White Denim. But my all-time favorite, this year and every year, was Pink Nasty. Ms. Nasty (a.k.a. Sara Beck) made three appearances through the week. With crafty, often randy songs and a voice that bounces from ebullient to sultry, she and her band (think Strokes meets Pavement) tore through much of her long-anticipated third album, You Make Me Mad, which is due this later year.
And it would be impossible not to mention the appearance of Buffalo’s own Chylde, who performed a number of non-SXSW shows throughout the week and fried off many faces with their technical, ecstatic, and brutally beautiful blues-metal. Chylde continues to conquer all in their path.
The one thing I always love about SXSW is the access. You get to see amazing shows in small venues. You are also constantly rubbing elbows with the musicians on the street and at the gigs.
You never know when you are going to be ordering coffee next to a geniuslike the Kinks’ Ray Davies—or get the chance to convince the singer of one of your favorite bands—like the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn—to come see one of your other favorite bands—like the Murfreesboro, Tennessee quintet Glossary. (Finn did come and check out Glossary.)
I figured my week was probably made, however, by my chat with Billy Bragg early in the week, shortly before he performed his esteemed ballads of love and protest to a full house in the cool basement bar Prague. But that was arguably bested when, in the final hours of the festival, I approached Buffalo music maven and SXSW super-vet Marty Boratin to find him in conversation with the Undertones’ legendary frontman Feargal Sharkey. I apologized to Sharkey for what I was about to do and proceeded to hug him. Luckily, Sharkey laughed and embraced me back. I explained I was just getting my “Teenage Kicks” another way.blog comments powered by Disqus
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