*** In my experience here, I have observed the massive use of technology. The halls of the convention center were loaded with people tapping a mile a minute on their cell phones, iPads, and laptops. Gladly, the art of conversation is also still alive and well, but so much information comes through via the internet that people were constantly searching what the latest updates were. There are so many last minute changes and announcements at SXSW that the written programs and schedules are practically obsolete by the time the event starts. So, everyone is connected to Twitter, Tumblr, texting and phone calling, and truly get news hot off the press. There was so much information flying around, it made my head spin. Believe me, I was plenty busy with my own full schedule, but never failed to find out the next day how many things went on during any given day or night that I missed while I was out doing something else awesome! It was mind-boggling at first, but when you let go and realize that you can’t be two places at once, you begin to accept it! I came up with a little quip to explain each day at SXSW: “I did a million things yesterday, but I didn’t do two million!”
We’re getting to that place where websites are almost already obsolete. In a fast paced place like SXSW, things happen faster than lightning and you can’t possibly keep up, not to mention appear at everything. You never know who is going to fly into Austin unexpectedly and decide to perform. I think this is what 50 Cent and Eminem did, to name a few. I only found out through the shuttle driver who was bummed that he had just missed the pickup of 50 Cent from the airport. Decision time is crunch time….where do I go and what do I see? There are so many last minute changes it’s like a whirlwind of news flashes. But, the cool thing was that none of it (at least none that I encountered) was rumor. When someone reported a last minute show somewhere, it ended up being correct. I guess when everyone is getting the same information from one or two places, it’s not like playing the old game of ‘Telephone’ and getting the message garbled. It’s pretty accurate and everyone is hearing it. This is all wonderful stuff, but at SXSW, there definitely is too much music, and way too little time!! And, all you can do is be happy to just scratch the surface and see the tip of the iceberg!!
During the week, I popped into the Convention Center Ballroom as often as possible to catch whichever band happened to be performing. Bands were
showcasing here, by special invitation, as well as in a place or two in town. Every band I watched in the Ballroom was talented, very talented. In fact, there is so much talent in Austin during this week that it’s both heartwarming, and sad. I’m thrilled to see that live music will never die, that there is still a monumental love of the creative art of music. But, sad because it seems to me that there isn’t enough room for it all – not enough clubs, people, or money to sustain the vast numbers of musicians. During a discussion about this with one of the many, many musicians in Austin this week, she said very matter-of-factly, “It’s a labor of love.” She had the artist’s view of the situation, where I had the businesswoman’s view. She just wants to play and sing, whereas I want all the musicians out there to be able make a living at it! I guess we will all have to be satisfied with something in the middle.
***Friday came and I had another fully scheduled day at South By – today being panels titled, ‘Adult Rock Music,’ ‘Boys and Girls ‘N the Hood: Regional Music Scenes,’ ‘Then and Now,’ ‘Music in TV Pilots: Sales Tool or Strategy?’ ‘New Digs: A Rock and Roll Library and Archives.’ All were decent and informative to a degree, but nothing that will really change my world. I was much more impressed with yesterday’s panels. Being in the same room with famous musicians really floats my boat…
The standout today was when I was hurrying from one discussion to another, I passed by a man grabbing a coffee who looked awfully familiar to me. I did a double-take, (actually stared him down) but I couldn’t place him. Ten minutes later he came strolling into the room I was in, holding his coffee, and walked right up to the stage to join the rest of the panel. Son of a gun if it wasn’t Donovan Leach from ‘Sunshine Superman,’ and ‘ Hurdy Gurdy’ fame! What a riot! He was there to discuss the new library and archives division of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum. (He didn’t sing for us, though, unfortunately.) But, talk about a very cool, state of the art addition to the museum! It’s got everything from 45s and LPs, 8-tracks, cassettes, CDs to posters, handwritten songs, personal correspondences, and just about everything a comprehensive musical library should have. I’m looking forward to my visit there some day.
My favorite meeting, though, was the Adult Rock Music one, where the audience participated in rating new songs that had been submitted for radio play. The panel was made up of radio producers, music directors, and other bigwigs that choose the songs we hear on the radio. We were all given numbered cards (from 1-10) which we held up to judge an anonymous song we listened to for about one minute. Then, we discussed briefly what it was that we liked, or didn’t like about each song. In one hour, we only got through about six songs, which was kind of disappointing, as I was really into this and could’ve done it for hours!
The other two panels, ‘Boys & Girls….’ and ‘TV Pilots…’ were just okay, but I was hoping to get more out of the TV Pilots one, since I know a number of bands whose songs I would like to get into television. But, after listening to this panel, and their confusing explanation of how random it is to manage getting a song into a pilot these days, I pretty much gave up hope. It’s such a hit and miss, luck of the draw, non-sensical procedure that it seemed to me to be similar to winning the State Lottery. Fuggetaboutit!
**Counting Crows concert at Auditorium Shores was a bit of a flashback – for me – to the days when concerts were small and intimate, and you could walk right up to the front of the stage. It had the feel of the free concerts in Golden Gate Park back in the ‘70s, with the dirt, dust and grime swirling in the air, and the long hours of standing around waiting for hours, but satisfied knowing that this is all a part of the concert going process.
I arrived early, not wanting to be turned away again like the Fiona fiasco, and got up front and center. Déjà vu from back in the day when that’s the only way I would do it. If I can, I want to be up close to see the band, their faces, instruments, and all. If I want to watch on a screen, I’d rent a DVD. I’m there to experience the concert, live and in person, seeing their expressions, fingers, details, and all.
I was pleased to experience three bands that evening, Tender Mercies, which are basically the Counting Crows, rearranged a bit, so they definitely had plenty of talent. Up next was the Diamond Rugs, a scrappy band consisting of past members of the Deer Ticks, Black Lips, Dead Confederate, and Los Lobos. Of course, the only band in this configuration that I had heard of was Los Lobos, but it didn’t matter. I appreciate good music, and talented musicians when I hear them. Just because I didn’t recognize a single one of their songs, doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy every minute of their show. Check ‘em out at: https://www.facebook.com/diamondrugs?sk=info.
By the time the Counting Crows came on, the dark of night had set in, but the weather was still perfect. I had been standing basically in the same spot, pretty close to the stage, for about three hours by then. Not a problem at all for me, who spent my entire teenage years (and beyond) waiting, waiting, and waiting in lines, in crowds, in concert halls, in stadiums, in a state of various substance enhancements, and in the glorious company of great music! So, this was very familiar territory for me, even though the vast majority of those around me were young enough to be my children!
This was my first time seeing the Crows, who happen to hail from Berkeley, which is about a 30 minute drive from me. I found it a little ridiculous that I saw them in Austin (same with another Bay Area band, who I will write about later) when they are a local (to me) San Francisco area band. Hmmmm……
They hit the stage with “Lean On Me” by Bill Withers, as strange selection, if you ask me (though, I like this song that happened to be a bit hit back in my junior high school days.) They then went into their own original songs, and the crowd went wild, singing along with them. Singer, Adam Duritz is such an unlikely frontman, with his wild dreadlocks unkempt appearance, but as he said, they were tired, hadn’t slept much while in Austin, and couldn’t really remember what they had done while there, thanks to all the parties and whirlwind of activities.
With the ‘Owl Building’ (the Frost Bank Tower) colorfully lit in the background, the Crows entertained the crowd by performing many of their familiar tunes, as well as a number of new songs coming up on an album to be released this April. The highlight for me, of course, was when they did “Mr. Jones,” which is my favorite of their’s, radio hit that it is. I know…typical…but, it is what it is….and I am what I am! And, it’s only rock and roll, but I LIKE IT!!
***As cool as it was to see Arlo Guthrie, and learn about his father, Woody, I was excited to get to the next panel on my agenda, that of Ann & Nancy Wilson of ‘Heart.’ I’ve always loved their music, and admired their ability to survive and succeed in the music business during a period of intense chauvanism, sexism, and male dominance. Leading the interview on this panel was rock critic, Ann Powers, who began the session by revving up the audience by saying, “You should be thanking these women for a lifetime of amazing rock & roll!” to which we all cheered and applauded. According to Ann Wilson, Heart’s trademark sound came from their hearts as songwriters, whatever they were into at the time of writing, and that they wrote from the perspective of ‘people in the
world, not specifically women.’ Admittedly, I was expecting more talk about the difficulties of forging a career in music in the 1970s and 80s, when sex, drugs and hedonism were the norm. Ann did admit that they encountered plenty of men who were crude and awful, but she kept her comments pretty surface and straight forward. It almost seemed like she was carefully censoring her experiences, or is just plain sick of talking about a topic that she has, no doubt, covered umpteen millions of times over the years.
The Sisters Heart mentioned that their early musical influences were the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton. Interestingly, they said that they came to the blues via the British Invasion, where so many of the bands sang, transformed, and re-delivered American blues. They shared with the audience that, “The consistent thing is our songwriting. The songs are the through line: the sounds can come and go and change, but the songs speak loudest.” When questions were opened up to the audience, first up were women who thanked them for empowering women in rock. They expressed their gratitude for clearing the rock & roll path for female musicians. Then came the men, who were equally as impressed and thankful for what these ladies brought to rock and roll. And, I agree…Thank you, Heart sisters for what you did for women in rock!!
Next up was a night with Fiona Apple, a singer who enthralled me back in her early, and younger, days. I’ve been wondering for awhile where she disappeared to, and even searched for her a few months back. Her website gave no explanation or information, so I figured she either couldn’t hack the limelight and/or was having babies. I was happily surprised to see her reemerge at South By and was excited to see her. She would be singing on 8thStreet at the Central Presbyterian Church. Weird venue, I know, but what the heck. I thought I had left myself plenty of time to get there, and not stressing very much because, after all, who besides me and maybe a few other oddballs were into Fiona Apple, of all people? Ends up, a LOT of people are because the line was wrapped around the corner when I arrived, but I was feeling secure because once the doors opened they were letting us in by the droves. And, being that I was one person, they could easily squeeze me in somewhere, right? Wrong. The church holds 1600 people, and I got within ten people of the door when they shut it and announced that they were filled to capacity! No way! I was bummed! My first South By Disappointment! I waited until fifteen minutes passed starting time, just in case of a miracle, but…it never happened. Oh, so sad…and minus a backup plan, I was left fumbling for what to do. The problem is that there is TOO MUCH TO DO, so if you don’t have a scheduled plan, you’re lost.
Wanting to avoid 6th Street tonight, I meandered down to a place that looked less complicated to deal with, the Cedar Door/Hard Rock Café. Don’t ask me how it could be both, but I think the Hard Rock bit was just borrowed for SXSW. There was no music this night, and I was perfectly content with having a relaxing evening on their outdoor deck enjoying a cocktail – this place makes a mean Mexican Margarita!
Starting a conversation with another lone soul at the table next to me proved educational. The guy was a lighting technician who worked on numerous shows, particularly a well-known (in certain circles) American flamenco guitarist, Benise. He was at SXSW for a different show, however – the opening act for Lionel Richie. We shared stories for a time, and then he was off to work and I headed back to my hotel to document my latest adventures.
***I’ve got the shuttle transportation down, and luckily there was a Starbucks directly across the street from my hotel. So, I got into the routine of walking over for my morning mocha before hopping the shuttle to the Austin Convention Center.
My first goal of the day (besides getting caffeinated) was to get to the Center to see this year’s keynote speaker, Bruce Springsteen. I got there nice and early, scored a decent seat, and waited for the Boss. He was half an hour late, and the crowd was getting a little antsy, but once he appeared, everything was rosey. He looked great, freshly showered and decked out in a blue collared shirt and tight jeans – very hip, fit, and studly for a 63 year old. He started off with humor, threaded it through his talk, and kept the whole thing light and fun. Bruce took us on a biographical journey of his life in music, from picking up his first guitar in 1964, after seeing Elvis Presley on the Ed Sullivan Show. He was fascinated by the broken stereotypes from that appearance – the raw sexual force of Elvis’s hips, what was obviously in his pants, and that a white man could deliver the sound of a black singer. The young Bruce was hooked on rock & roll, even though at that time it was only about five years old. In those days the music scene was nothing like what we are seeing in Austin right now, with thousands of bands and over a hundred different types and styles of music. It is simply overwhelming, and he mentioned that there is nothing consistent in music anymore, except for one thing: Creativity.
During his speech, he communicated by picking up a guitar and interspersing bits of songs in order to emphasize his points. He mentioned those musicians that formed his core, from the Beatles, to Roy Orbison, James Brown, Bob Dylan to the British Invasion, Motown, Soul and even Country. He made a point to express his fascination with the Animals, saying that he identified with their raunchiness, rebelliousness, and ugliness. Bruce felt like he was ‘just an average guy with an slightly above average talent’ and was inspired by Eric Burdon’s ability to overcome ‘ordinary-ness’ and be a big success. Strumming his guitar, he played a bit of the Animals ‘Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood,’ saying that he lifted the riff for his own composition, ‘Badlands.’ “Listen up, youngsters,” he hooted. “This is how successful theft is accomplished!”
The Boss Man ended his talk with encouragement to the musicians in the audience. He told them to ‘stay hard, stay honest and stay true’ to themselves and to their music. Have a message and….tell it!
**Next on my agenda was a panel titled, ‘Woody Guthrie at 100,’ as apparently, this was the theme for this year’s SXSW. Also, thanks to a group of Woody’s friends and fans (and two of his children, Nora and Arlo,) his birthday celebration will be a yearlong event honoring his contribution to music, political views, and humanity. According to his ‘kids,’ their mother kept all of Woody’s archives, organized and detailed. The intention is to replant the seeds of his legacy and stress why he was important then, now, and in the future. This is the man who wrote ‘This Land is Your Land,’ an iconic American anthem. One of Woody’s main messages in life was about ‘how are we going to be treated, and allowed to be treated, as Americans?’ His songs were political, told stories, and expressed humanity. According to Arlo, his father and good friend, Pete Seeger remain important in the 21st century because “They were links on a chain. They weren’t singing in the key of ‘me.’ They were singing in the key of ‘us.”
The celebration of Woody Guthrie’s 100th birthday will be a yearlong event that kicked off in his hometown of Tulsa, Oklahoma on March 11th and will culminate in Washington, DC in October, before venturing off for festivals in Europe.
***As the confusingly annoying website suggested, I got myself down to the Austin Convention Center, checked in, got all tagged up with my Music Badge and R & R Transportation wristband, then took myself on a tour of the grounds. It all went smoothly, I fit right into the crowd (who wouldn’t – there are people of all ages, sizes, shapes and fashion) and immediately strolled around the Trade Show floor. All the booths and displays were high tech, over my head and beyond my interest types of rigamorole. I know, I should probably make an effort to learn some of this multi-media-techno-appie-state of the art computer braniacal information, but nah….I don’t feel like it. Not today, at least. The one and only booth that stopped me in my tracks, and held my interest for more than a minute, was the vinyl record one, (http://www.vinylrecorder.com/index-e.html) where they were imprinting a record album before our very eyes. Now this was cool!
As the flat, smooth disc revolved on the turntable, the needle carved the grooves…and was turning it into a record album! Now, this spoke to me! I immediately dug out my camera and took a few shots in fascination, as did another, professional, photographer, who was as mesmerized by the process as I was. We chatted it up about the good ol’ days of albums and 45s, and how clueless we were to how this process was possible, but how thankful and grateful we were to whomever came up with it! It was music to our ears!
After wandering around a little more, and not being enticed by much of the newfound interactive web tech stuff, I decided to hit the streets. 6tth Street, Austin’s wild and crazy street scene, was right around the corner….and I heard it calling me. So, like a good girl, I went! It was broad dayight on a Wednesday afternoon, and the joint was jumpin’! There are bars upon bars on 6th, and each and every one had live music pouring out of it. It was insane! Musicians, college students, SXSW attendees, visitors, locals, etc, filled the streets partying, playing, and performing. It’s a haven for creative souls and those who love them!
I cruised in and out of a number of clubs, getting a large helping of music – at places called the ‘Chuggin Monkey,’ ‘Blind Pig,’ ‘Thirsty Nickel,’ ‘Darwin’s Pub,’ ‘Dizzy Rooster,’ ‘Whiskey & Ink,’ ‘Friends,’ and the ‘Rooftop Bar’ to name a few. There seemed to be one heavy metal/death metal band after another at these places and I thought that if this is what I’m in store for all week, please shoot me now! I do not consider this music. When each band member seems to be competing to make the most noise as fast as possible, I call it ‘Music on Crack’ or ‘Speed Playing.’ There is no talent involved, as for as I’m concerned. Riding the cymbals at 100 mph is simple….any speed freak can do it.
I continued on until I came across a band that had some talent and weren’t trying to blow peoples’ eardrums out. Granted, I’m no spring chicken, so I like music from, or at least similar to, what I call ‘back in the day.’ I was raised on the Beatles, Stones, Led Zeppelin and the Who, so I prefer music by musicians who also were. These guys, the Kris Bell Band (http://www.krisbellmusic.com/BIO.html) obviously were. They played original music that had a beat, groove, vocals, melody, and came together in coherent songs.
They’re from Tennessee, were straight up musicians (didn’t rely on fluff and sparkle to entertain. They just played….and I stayed around to listen. All their tunes were catchy, and for their grand finale they played Lynyrd Skynyrd’s ‘Free Bird,’ which is a classically iconic tune that transcends generations of music lovers, tastes, styles and interests. It’s an anthem!! I walked out of Darwin’s with a smile on my face and the name of the band in my hand.
A block down the street I came across another intriguing band – LA Velvet (http://www.lavelvetband.com/). The first thing that catches your eye is the gimmick – girl leads, pink hair, short school girl skirts, big boobs. But then, you stop and take a listen and get hooked. The front man is a woman, who plays the guitar, sings, and is appealing to the eye. Up front with her, and not to be outshown, is a fiddler who strutted her stuff and rocked the strings! The other three – bass, guitar, and drums – were guys who brought their own wiley ways to the stage. This band may look glitzy, but if you saw their schedule (they played five times in five days in Austin) you’d see that they are a hard working group.
Ok, as you can see, I’m not a critic, reviewer, or journalist…I’m just a music appreciator. I can size up a band in a matter of minutes, and a few songs. If they don’t keep my interest, I’m off to the next one. This is what makes South By Southwest so much fun. It’s like being a kid in a candy factory. When one doesn’t please your palate, go take a taste of the next one. I think I said it earlier, but I’ll say it again….SXSW is a music lovers haven! Today was great…but tomorrow is another day!
***Planning, packing, and just trying to get my head on straight for South By Southwest (http://sxsw.com/) is a bit overwhelming. If you check out their website you will see what I’m talking about. There is so much to do, tons going on, and I can hardly navigate my way through their site to find an easy solution to hitting this event without feeling like I’ve been thrown into a blender. Good thing I ‘Liked’ SXSW on Facebook because now I know that John Mayer has cancelled. I would hate to have gone all the way to Austin only to find out that I missed him, seeing that I didn’t even know he was going to be playing!! I know Bruce Springsteen is supposed to be doing a show there, but Lord knows if I can find out when or where! I keep hoping that they’re keeping this stuff a secret until you get there. I think I’m just going to have to face the fact that I’m going to be thrown to the wolves and see what happens. Sometimes that’s the best way to experience things….just go with the flow. The craziest things happen that way, as truth can be stranger than fiction!
SXSW has something on their website for newcomers, and/or people who want to meet up with others. It’s called ‘SXsocial’ and, as I would like to give it a try to meet other music enthusiasts like myself, I signed up for it a few months ago. Not a single person contacted me, so I guess it’s not as easy as it seemed. Or, maybe I’m just not enough of a computer wizard to figure out the damned thing. I managed to upload a picture of myself and write a personal little blurb, but again, maybe I’m just not the rocket scientist you’ve got to be these days in order to attend a concert of this size. (You can take the girl outta Winterland, but I guess you can’t take Winterland outta the girl.) Sheesh….what happened to the good ol’ days of getting stoned, hitching a ride, and charging the doors to run to the front of the stage with other hippie freeloaders? Sometimes things just don’t change for the better.
Well, the countdown to SXSW has begun, as I am leaving in two days. So, I had better spend some more time on that site meandering my way around so I won’t miss out on all the best action while I’m there. I’m not one that will be satisfied if I miss something good on this adventure. Oh no…I’m the type that will give myself one big kick in the ass if I find out that I didn’t get my ‘money’s worth!’ Money is time. Time is money. Let’s see what happens….
**San Francisco has hosted a pretty terrific Bluegrass festival every year since 2001 called ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass.’
(http://www.strictlybluegrass.com/) Sure, The City (this is what we locals have always called our city. We do NOT call it Frisco or San Fran) is known for old hippies, rock & roll, the Summer of Love, and Gay Pride, but we do have a very diverse musical interest in this area. I am focusing this post on bluegrass because we recently lost our founder, Warren Hellman, (aka.The Billionaire Who Loved Bluegrass, (http://www.baycitizen.org/obituaries/story/warren-hellman-dies-77/1/) and held a special memorial service for him. The event took place on Sunday, February 19, 2012 on a mile stretch of SF’s Great Highway, adjacent to Ocean Beach and the beautiful Pacific Ocean. The lineup included a star-filled roster of Hardly Strictly veterans, including Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Boz Scaggs and Hellman’s own band, the Wronglers. The weather was beautiful, the crowd peaceful, and the day was filled with love and gratitude for a man who shared his love of bluegrass with the city he also loved.
SF’s ‘Hardly Striclty Bluegrass’ festival came about from Hellman’s desire to indulge his musical fantasy by inviting some of his favorite artists to play at Golden Gate Park. Killing two birds with one stone, he was able to hang out with his favorite musicians, as well as share his love of bluegrass with others. The first year there were only two stages, nine acts, and around 13,000 people in the crowd. No one could imagine how quickly it would grow, or how popular it would become!
Within a few years, it became a three-day event, with an attendance of more than 600,000 fans coming to see world-renowned acts like Emmylou Harris, Elvis Costello, and Steve Earle — for free. Hellman’s gathering became a place where the musicians and professionals enjoyed it as much as the crowd did. He also called the festival “the single most fulfilling thing” that he had done.
‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass’ also gave Hellman the opportunity to fulfill his desire to play in a band, where he showed his talents as an accomplished banjo player. His band, The Wronglers, came together at the same time as the festival, and he once joked that he’d gone to a lot of time and expense just to ensure he’d get to play his music.
Warren Hellman gifted San Francisco and its people many years of great music…and just because he is gone, it is not the end. He has requested to is family that the festival continue for at least fifteen more years. His ‘Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival, Hellman has said, “is as close to heaven as I’m gonna get.”