Here are some random impressions and memories from SXSW 2011. This thing is so big and multi-faceted that it’s really hard to get your head around more than a fraction of it. In addition to the live shows there are bunches of panel discussions, day parties, films, a trade-interactive show, a poster show and way way more. I’m focusing strictly on the highlights of the music I saw.
For sheer, soul-shaking righteousness my favorite show this year was the Brooklyn-based soul singer Charles Bradley and the Menhanan Street Band. Playing to a huge, fully engaged crowd at Stubb’s, Bradley went several extra miles, pouring more sweat and soul into his performance than I’ve seen at SXSW in years. There’s a real back-story to this: now in his mid-50s, he’s finally getting a break (a huge one) after decades of struggling and scuffling around and living hard. Charles Bradley clearly knows that he could have just as easily NOT been there and not gotten a break, and it showed in the very real emotion of his performance; no hipster irony or faux-emoting from this man. I’m willing to bet that no-one was happier or more grateful to be at SXSW this year than Charles Bradley, and seeing him living the dream was moving and inspiring. Having key players from the Dap-Kings/Budos Band/Daptone Records crew as his band obviously doesn’t hurt, either.
TV On The Radio followed Charles Bradley and played a hypnotic set of dance and trance inducing grooves with all sorts of off the wall stuff mixed into the undercurrents. This was another real highlight, and the crowd was pretty much deep into the bliss at this point.
Bobby Rush still brings it - strong - at 78. The old blues-funk hound-dog is still randy and raunchy, breaking out radio unfriendly numbers like “Night Fishin’ (at the Catfish Hole)” and keeping up a steady stream of cheerfully blue patter. I picked up a copy of his 2009 CD Blind Snake earlier in the day from him in the Austin Convention Center and he was as animated and eager as a teenager to talk shop w/a total stranger. What a guy.
As Bobby was just kicking in to his set later that night, an elderly gentlemen in a wheel chair slid in beside me to watch his set. He kept up some patter of his own during the show (“I’m a smoker, not a drinker”! was his response to an offer for a drink) and extruded classy, elder status. This was Pinetop Perkins, the legendary blues piano master. I shook his hand and thanked him for what he did. 48 hours later he passed away.
Also on the same showcase of Mississippi talent was country-rock singer/songwriter Shannon McNally. Strikingly but accessibly beautiful (I was ten feet away) she extruded such down to earth charm and understated style that it was hard not to become a fan boy for an hour. I’m willing to bet that close to 100% of the men (and probably some of the women) in that room would have stopped whatever they were doing and married her in a heart-beat. And boy can she sing, write a great song and had a killer band, including Blue Mountain guitar player Cary Hudson. Her reminiscing about recording with the late, legendary producer Jim Dickinson was a sobering and touching moment, something that doesn’t happen all that often in the beer-soaked hoo-rah of SXSW.
For sheer joyousness, I’ll go on the record as saying I’ve never seen anyone have more fun on stage - ever - than the Chilean electro cumbia wizard Chico Trujillo and his killer band. Like a huge, floppy puppy dog w/red glasses skanking and bouncing around with a grin that stretched from Austin all the way back to Santiago, Chico embodies the random genius that you occasionally encounter at SXSW when a tip (thanks Duncan) on what could be a hot show turns into a mind-blower. The crowd knew him, loved him, sang along and were quite literally ecstatic, bringing a level of energy to the show that was electrifying. Note to snotty hipster bands: your level of cool reflects your level of distance from the crowd. Be less cool, have more fun.
I caught two sets by the Detroit guitar legend Dennis Coffey, currently in a career renaissance with a new CD and new label after laying relatively low for awhile. This is the man who not only played in Motown’s house band the Funk Brothers, but introduced psychedelic guitar into soul music with “War,” “Ball of Confusion,” “Psychedelic Shack” and “Scorpio” and other early 70s barn-burners, thereby initiating a sea-change in soul and funk music that is still reverberating today. In other words, Dennis Coffey fundamentally helped shape and super-charge modern music into what it is today. Classy and patriarchal in a black suit and hat, Coffey was low-key but you could sense that he was probably pretty happy to be playing for crowds who were soaking it up. The presence of a fire-ball by the name of Kendra Morris singing several numbers upped the sex and soul appeal dramatically whenever she hit the stage. Who is this Kendra Morris? Where did she come from? More SXSW surprises. She and her band played a fine, funky set earlier in the festival at at Wax Poetics magazine showcase, a show that also featured excellent performances by Chico Mann and Austin’s rapper Chalie Boy.
The music side of the festival ended for me, fittingly enough, with a totally over the top performance by legendary Pittsburgh garage rockers The Cynics, who would have torn the roof off the joint if it had a roof. All 50 year old teenagers should be so great.
I also caught memorable sets by Austin heros Black Joe Lewis & The Honeybears and Black Angels, the Kinks-ish Pete & The Pirates, some of the crew at the always-a-blast Bloodshot Records afternoon party (including Exene Cervenka), a newly expanded version of The Silos, the Baseball Project and Tucson’s own Marianne Dissard. Especially notable: a sweaty set by Steve Wynn and the Miracle Three, a band that seems incapable of playing a show that’s less than incendiary. A final tip of the hat to the Mexican combo Adanowsky, looking peachy-loungy in all red get-ups while playing a set of tongue in cheek garage-Tex Mex-rock-n-whatever in Spanish and some French to a bewildered, hung-over but game crowd at noon in the convention center. Oh yea, bring the strange, one snare snap and finger pop at a time. Perfect.