AUSTIN – One reason that an event like the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference/festival/whatever can even have a chance to be successful, is that Austin is actually built for music.
Over the past four days we’ve seen live music performed in just about any venue imaginable, and some not so likely. Visitors arriving at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, for example, were greeted by a band playing on a permanent stage in the airport terminal. Bands set up in the typical venues: theaters, bars and parks, but also in not-so-likely locales as the roof of the Whole Foods Market flagship store, the beautiful Central Presbyterian Church, even Lance Armstrong’s Mellow Johnny’s Bike Shop. Music has been played in restaurants, in back alleys, in parking garages, in little grocery stores and out on sidewalks and street corners.
We caught the raucous and melodic power trio Pujol in a little more traditional locale – an amphitheater surrounded by historic buildings with a creek running through the middle. From Nashville, the band has a sound that owes a lot to the Ramones and the Kinks but with lyrics filtered through frontman Daniel Pujol’s cracked sensibility and parched sense of humor. For example: the rockin’ “Black Bunny” is exactly what it says: a tribute to Pujol’s pet bunny rabbit. The trio has earned the attention of White Stripes/Raconteurs leader and entrepreneur Jack White, who produced “Too Late,” the B-side of the “Black Bunny” single that appears on White’s Third Man Records label.
Pujol’s garage rock sounded great bouncing off the limestone walls of the little Spanish-type square. If those walls could only talk, or sing.
Traipsing up and down the busy Sixth Street we had no luck – what was, just a few days before, the center of SXSW’s universe became St. Patrick’s Day party central, oozing with frat types and tourists decked up in their stupidest green getups. In the shadow of a big pop-up stadium sponsored by Nike where jocks and showoffs lined up in their shorts to kick around a soccer ball, we suddenly realized SXSW Saturday wasn’t going to be about the music at all.
Well, we couldn’t close out our festival like that. Stoked by the traditional garage rock of Pujol, we set out to find more meat-and-potatoes rock for grown-ups like you and me. We found it in the person of Californian Chuck Prophet, former guitarist and songwriter of the 1980s group Green On Red. Prophet’s a solo performer these days, and his little set in the parking lot of Waterloo Records Saturday leaned heavily on his new Temple Beautiful, a rockin’ song cycle that serves as a love letter to his hometown of San Francisco.
Prophet has been around the block a few times, but it was almost jarring to hear him perform “Always A Friend,” a song most closely associated with Texas rocker Alejandro Escovedo. But the truth is, that’s Prophet’s song too – he co-wrote many of the songs for Escovedo’s last two albums including 2008’s Real Animal, which has “Always A Friend.”
He dug deep into the new album with a great “The Left Hand and the Right Hand,” about two brothers who had different personalities but who went wrong anyway. “White Night, Big City” and Temple Beautiful‘s title track have hooks that will sink deep, and great guitar work from Prophet. Ah, we had to get away from the center of SXSW to find the good stuff!
And as night fell, as rumors swirled around about countless celebrities negotiating the crowds of Sixth Street, and as performers like Timbaland, the Roots and Norah Jones played showcases both official and unofficial, we decided to end the evening and our part of SXSW under the Texas stars. Sweating beer bullets, we trudged up a couple hills and stretched out in the grass near the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library on the University of Texas campus for a screening of the documentary Big Easy Express.
The movie premiered earlier in the day but this was a bigger screening for about 10,000 fans inside the venue (and many more, like me, on the grassy hills outside the fences). Big Easy Express is about a 2,500-mile train trip taken by performers Mumford and Sons, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Old Crow Medicine Show, playing concert stops along the way. Filmmaker Emmett Malloy introduced the film and explained that it reflects the artists’ love of music and the joy of collaboration which feeds that love.
Then, after the movie screened on an inflatable screen, Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros and Mumford and Sons rocked the campus with a full-bore concert that only underscored the film’s gentle message. The greatest moment came toward the end, when Marcus Mumford invited the Austin High School marching band to recreate the movie’s best sequence – a joyous performance of “The Cave” with swingin’ tubas and pounding big bass drums.
As the stage threatened to sag under the collective weight of the bands, and as many in the audience sang along with full-throated abandon, the utter happiness and innocent exuberance from these high schoolers brought it all back home. Marcus Mumford didn’t need to say it, but he did: “Ladies and gentlemen, that is real music from real people.”
These kids, many of whom will never again perform for such a large audience, made music for the love of it and washed away the green beer and the superstar posing. They reminded us why we keep coming to SXSW in the first place.
Here’s a little video we made of Sixth Street during SXSW: sometimes you think you’ve died and lost the directions to hell. And you have wound up in a real weird place.