AUSTIN, TX — I’m back in the press room at the Austin Convention Center filing this. There was no time this morning because I had to get downtown early for a speech my Little Steven Van Zandt. It was well worth getting up early because Steve gave a very intelligent, insightful speech on the state of the music business from the perspective of a musician.
He said from the outside that he didn’t want to talk about the business part of it, because that was just a wreck. What he did want to talk about is what he called the “ocean of mediocrity” that is the band scene today. The biggest problem in his eyes, and one that he hammered home several times, is that bands these days are missing a crucial part of their training, the bar scene years. Too many bands are going from the bedroom, to the garage, to the recording studio, without honing their skills in the local clubs. The E Street Band is a perfect example of the way it used to work, because they spent seven years in the bars before they ever got to recording studio, and when they did, they were ready.
There also seems to be a problem among bands with playing anything but original material. Steve said that you “learn greatness from greatness,” and that bands should master the classics and not be ashamed to include covers in their sets. He’d like to see a day when great writers like Barry Mann, Cynthia Weill, Carole King, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich are writing songs for bands again.
The record companies are being run by business people who have no interest in content. Steve pointed to to the era when business people like Berry Gordy, Leonard Chess, and Sam Phillips were not only running their companies, they were making records as well. We need more people like that, or at least people who can partner with the business interests. As far as the indies are concerned, they need to get back to basics, and introduce a renewed dedication to the craft of making records.
Steve now has a record label called Wicked Cool, and he’s been particularly impressed with the current wave of bands from Scandanavia. He’s signed a number of them already. According to him they have a real understanding and committment to the garage music that he has been the prime motivator in bringing to the forefront again.
Steve’s radio show, Underground Garage, is now going into its seventh year, and there’s a full time station for the genre of Sirius XM.
Now let me get back to yesterday’s events here in Austin. As you will recall, I filed my last post after seeing the keynote speech given by Quincy Jones. After that, I attended a panel discussion celebrating the 50th anniversary of the classic Miles Davis album, Kind of Blue. The panelists were led by writer Ashley Kahn, who’s written a book about the album, and included Vince Wilburn, Jr. who played drums for Miles in his later years, record company impresario George Avakian (90 years old this week!), who was very active in Miles’ career while at Columbia Records, Miles’ son Aaron Davis, and Rolling Stone writer David Fricke.
The panel, particularly Avakian and Fricke, provided some stellar insights into Miles and his artistic process. At one point, Quincy Jones appeared in the back of the room, and was invited onstage. He had a very close relationship with Miles, and provided some wonderful, and often humorous memories of the jazz great.
The best part of the day, the week, year so far for me was that after the panel ended, I got a chance to spend a precious few minutes in conversation with Mr. Jones. We talked about the problems of file-sharing, and possible solutions. He was extremely approachable, and completely genuine. He even gave me his business card!
Last night, after another dose of the amazing Tex-Mex food here (hey, I’m from NJ, and very proud of it, but we have nothing like this when it comes to that cuisine), I returned to Stubb’s where three more bands that were on my list were playing. I got there in time for a great old school cowpunk set from Arizona’s Meat Puppets. The band has reunited recently, and they are playing better than ever. It’s easy to hear the influence that they’ve had on so many bands, including Nirvana, Dinosaur, Jr., and Soundgarden.
Next up was the English band Gomez. I’ve admired them for quite awhile, but like many of their fans, I liked their earliest albums best. They do have a strong new album, A New Tide , coming out on March 31, so I was interested in seeing them. Gomez did not disappoint. They provided a little bit of everything from dance pop to My Bloody Valentine-like guitar squall. An interesting band to be sure.
I was hoping to catch some of Andrew Bird next, but the setup seemed to go on forever, and I had to get to another venue. I did catch a couple of songs, but I can’t tell you much about him. I do recall that there was some whistling involved, and a couple of interesting stage props. But I had to be on my way to the nearby Mohawk, where Brooklyn buzz band Akron/Family was playing.
Akron/Family is a force of nature. They’re sort of a completely crazed, psychedic alternative version of the Chili Peppers, but not. Their sound is loud, their energy is manic, and you can dance to it. Truly a band worth following.
I gave a brief thought to trying to catch one more band, but I was exhausted, and as I said, I had to be in town early today, so I caught the shuttle back to my hotel.