AUSTIN – Perhaps at this junction it might be helpful to briefly summarize the physical nature of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music festival, so it can serve as a road map of sorts for the stories that will follow today.
SXSW is a four-day (or five, depending on who is doing the counting) conference for anyone interested in music: industry insiders, artists, publicists and fans. “Official” participants have purchased a badge or a wristband that allows one access to various panels, speeches, keynote addresses (like Bruce Springsteen’s talk on Thursday) and exhibits in the Austin Convention Center.
Once each day’s events are complete in the convention center, the night begins as participants spill out onto the streets of Austin to attend music performance “showcases” held in venues in and around the downtown area. This year more than 2,000 bands and acts are participating in the official SXSW, but there’s more.
Non-official events, employing at least another 2,000 acts, spill out from downtown and reach south on Congress Avenue, one of the city’s top drags; into the neighborhoods of the east side and west into the shopping district. These venues can be miles apart, and because many of these non-official events are free and do not require an official badge or wristband, they attract what could be as many as 200,000 people a day.
So we tell you all this because it’s important to note that Austin is not that big a city (population less than 800,000). So all of these people crawling around this urban anthill not only get in each others’ way, but also into each others’ faces. It’s real life bleeding over into the music, and it’s an experience you cannot have with any other type of festival. You can participate as little or as much as you want; you can act like it’s spring break and it’s all here for your personal entertainment. Or you can get into the movie, and live and walk around in the music.
The other night we walked into the Lucky Lounge in downtown Austin, where many weeks one can experience what we like to call the “World’s Greatest Happy Hour.” That is because there is no cover, and the entertainment just happens to be Ian McLagan and the Bump Band. McLagan, who in a few weeks will become a new member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame with his bands Small Faces and the Faces, is not only a terrific entertainer but a great, friendly guy.
At one point during our visit McLagan announced the next song as a number from the Faces. “And we’ll dedicate it to … is there anyone named Cindy in the house?” McLagan asked. When no ladies spoke up, we volunteered to be Cindy. McLagan looked over and chuckled, “Ha ha, it’s always a geezer. So this bloke is our Cindy tonight!” And he launched into “Cindy Incidentally.”
A few minutes later, as the Bumpsters stepped off for a smoke break, Mac picked up his pint and said to me, “Thanks, friend, for being part of the show.”
Part of the show … that’s what I’m talking about.
Last night we wandered around and harassed celebrities. The only one worth noting, really, was Mike Judge, the creator and voice behind animated characters like Beavis and Butthead and Hank of “King of the Hill.” We’re doing a short video for your entertainment on our wrapup day, so we asked Judge if he’d like to speak to us briefly.
He and his companion paused, and in the time it would have taken to speak to our Flip camera, he told us sincerely, “Sorry, brother.” Then he went to yet another party where he was turned away at the door.
We’re here for the music so let’s get some of that in. We encountered reggae great Jimmy Cliff at the excellent Waterloo Records store – with a two-piece-acoustic-guitar-and-bongo-drum backup, he simply shined with “You Can Get It If You Really Want,” “Sitting In Limbo” and “Wonderful World, Beautiful People.” He updated his classic “Vietnam” into “Afghanistan” and offered up a shimmering cover of “I Can See Clearly Now.” He wrapped the short set with “The Harder They Come” and a singalong “One More.”
A few minutes later we spoke with Jimmy, and asked how he felt helping Bruce Springsteen wreck Austin the night before. “Fantastic,” Cliff said, his voice starting to give way after numerous gigs this week. “I have sung with him before and it has always been fantastic.”
From one legend to another: so we’re leaving the Jimmy Cliff gig to drive a few miles and pick up one of our party. At a stop light, we happen to glance sideways and see at a bus stop none other than Eric Burdon, the now white-haired leader of the Animals! Whoa! So we whip into a parking lot and walk up to him and his wife, Marianna.
We exchange pleasantries and in his inimitable accent, Burdon asks “Do you know where is the mall?” Wha? He needs some new shoes. “Sure, we know where a mall is!” (We didn’t.) But seconds later, one of rock music’s legends and finest voices climbs into the back seat of our car for a trip to the shoe store.
Burdon brought down the house with Bruce Springsteen on Thursday night as he sang a rousing “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.” He told us Springsteen learned he was in town, and tweeted Burdon to invite him to sing. He was thoroughly impressed with the organization of Springsteen’s backstage production crew.
Now living in Joshua Tree, California, Burdon said he is working on a book and has completed a new album that was mixed in Texas. He’s shopping around for a distributor. He also gave us a card with a free download of a new song, “An Invitation To the White House (It Was A Dream).” We asked if he ever wanted to visit the White House, and Burdon replied, “No f**ing way! I already have enough aliens in my life!”
Burdon also said he loves Austin, “’cause you don’t see too many f**kin’ cops.” As we waved him into the shoe store, Eric waved back and said he’d see us again. And we’re pretty sure that will happen.
We got around to catching a set by the heavily hyped Alabama Shakes, led by singer/guitarist Brittany Howard. We can understand why the Shakes are this year’s “buzz” band – Howard is a great singer who howls, growls and purrs her way through some thick and tasty slabs of Southern soul and rock. The songs are simple but tuneful, and the band displays virtuosity without being showy. Although the Shakes’ debut album doesn’t see the light of day until April 10, you can go to their website and download “Hold On,” which is a good representation of their sound.
Our only complaint with the Alabama Shakes: not once did any member of the band speak to the crowd, or even toss a smile in the audience’s direction. Maybe it’s the grueling gig schedule they have during SXSW, or maybe they are just a little overwhelmed by the craziness. But if the Shakes want to graduate from the bars, they may want to work on their bedside manner.
Later in the night, two members of our party found ourselves without a badge or band or any hope of getting into the more-exclusive-than-exclusive showcase by Jack White and members of his Third Man Records roster. We moped around outdoors for what seemed like hours, working every angle we could to get waved inside. We even made friends with members of different bands, some of whom were not performing. Finally a couple members of the band Pujol came out for a smoke, and one of them took a shine to us.
We’re in! We had to promise Pujol we’d do an interview; you can read it tomorrow maybe here or at our home blog 30 Days Out. Jack White was phenomenal, he played with two different bands – one all-girl, the other all-boy. He rocked material from his new solo album Blunderbuss and touched on every aspect of his career, with songs from the White Stripes, the Raconteurs and the Dead Weather among others. Mid-set, the junior member of our team texted her terse review: “Holy motherf***ing shit.” (Which means it was incredible.)
They wouldn’t let anyone take photos, even with a cell phone. Because we surely would have shared a picture of this: so the music’s over, and we spot this gray-haired gentleman in the back. We walk up, grab him by the shoulder, and Bill Murray turns to face us. “Ghostbusters forever!” is all we could say. He started laughing hysterically, then turned away and left.
There you have it – SXSW with music and a bit of face time with our fellow occupants of Planet Austin. When we leave tomorrow, we’re going to have a swag bag of memories and a pocketful of stories nobody will ever believe.