(Jessica Lea Mayfield plays the Shindig)
It’s so easy to hate on South By Southwest… Too big, too corporate, too much, too too too… And it’s true, kind of. But not really…
The energy in the streets of Austin is palpable. Music everywhere. Aging hipsters not nearly as hip as they used to be tragically dressed and not necessarily checking the mirror to realize the sartorial joke’s on them as they cling to some sense of “still cool.”
That desperation extends to the young and hungry, the blurry mass of bands yearning to make their mark… Even the midlevelers, who have their people clamoring to bask in the we’re-so-cool-here-we-ARE of being somewhere where someone knows their name.
Yeah, whatever. It’s pretty obvious.
But in the obvious, there’s a lot of what you miss: the brightness of the people here to enjoy the moment… the shining charm of people making music… the pop and country and screamo sounds wafting through the not too hot (yet) air.
You can hear it down Congress… escaping the exhibition hall at the Convention Center… creating an almost nervous cacophony all over Austin’s storied 6th Street.
There are the VVIP events, where you have to know somebody to get in, those spaces fairly clogged like arteries with the hipnocracy clamoring to bask in their sangfroidliciousness, the undead of cool affecting a disaffecting sense of ennui. Which is fine if you don’t miss missing the thrill of it all.
But that’s not how I – a professed cynic — choose to roll. You can’t game me, because I’ve seen it all… a buncha times. But knowing all that, I still choose to embrace the arc of live performance, the heart of a song that reaches a little further into the emotional core of being human, a band that’s not afraid to explode or a singer to tear the flesh off their most vulnerable places.
Down on Red River Road, American Songwriter has joined forces with progressive Americana/prep designer Billy Reid have set up shop in an industrial/faded luxe outpost called Swan Dive. It’s about vast potential of what songwriting can mean – and cold beer. And whether you’ve come to experience the magic, or just hang out on the fringe of what’s happening… the music is being played, and it’s alive with possibility.
Heck, The Civil Wars, an unlikely duo who plays an organic, atmospheric set of songs that butterfly net the range of desire, decay of same and devastation, are everything American Songwriter stands for. Smart songwriting, true performances. The little DIY pair managed to debut at #1 on Billboard’s Top 200 Albums chart, proving the potency of this away-from-the-mainstream, emphasis on taltent and execution approach.
So it is with the magazine devoted to where the songs come from. So it is at South By Southwest if you get beyond the obvious. Look around, especially at Swan Dive and the artists assembled, and see the collected yearning to be good.
Jessica Lee Mayfield is here, and Caitlin Rose – both neo-queens of the alt-roots, near-rock realities, who write songs that peel back the cuticle and let it bleed. Jason Isbell working the reigning superstar for the oeuvre tip. Apache Relay drums thumping like hearts aflame with the overwhelming force of lust first encountered.
Mike Grimes, purveyor of Nashville’s killer indie/used record store and underground venue The Basement is standing in the back, watching artists he’s been booking and selling local product on for over a decade. He’s smiling, recognizing that it may not be the elephant dollars of the great big music business, “but we’re making enough to get by… and we’re doing music that hits me.”
Grimey knows of what he speaks. A journeyman musician, a color outside the lines businessman, he’s harnessed his passions and let it fuel an almost holy war against the machine. And he’s not a jihadist, but more a live and let liver… give him room to breathe and he won’t tread on you.
Over the years, baby acts like the Black Keys and the Civil Wars set up shop at his room when no one knew who they were – and they come back now that they’re topping the sales charts and playing meaningful dates. The Civil Wars – for what it’s worth – will be closing this show for American Songwriter.
“I just wanted to have a record store that was a continual party,” Grimey says in his quiet downplay way. “Somewhere people could come and the music was happening.”
Happening enough that when Metallica headlined Bonnaroo, they set up shop to do an unannounced micro-club gig at The Basement. Happening enough that the sonically pulverizing Hall of Famers opted to turn the game tapes into Live from The Basement, an unadorned article of faith that demonstrated just why James Hetfield & Co. are the heaviest band in the land.
Hayes Carll, all lanky slouch in fleece-lined demin, haunts the back of the room, taking in the music. It’s his fourth stop in a day that included the breakfast cast KGSR fields, a long interview with The Philadelphia Enquirer’s Dan DeLuca, a lunchtime show at an advertising agency – and now being one of American Songwriter’s big acts.
He smiles that cockeyed smile, tilts at little about the ambitiousness of it all, but shrugs it off at the same time. He’s a craftsman, someone dedicated to the notion of quality of songwriting and forging a path that’s his own. It’s why he’s more kin to Ray Wylie Hubbard – a sometime songwriter – than a huckster pitching horse shoe hooks at the glistening fame machine.
Another songwriter – who shall remain nameless – casts a sideways look. He’s part of the continuum of an off-roading kind of frat boy country, that’s good for hooking in bumper crops of ball cap-backwards boys who lean towards husky, and the pretty young things who show up to hurl their hormones at these bards of their way of life.
“It’s about teenage girls,” sneers the songwriter who shall remain nameless. “It’s about piles and piles of teenage girls – and the guys who chase’em. Hook when when they’re young, let a beer company use you to brand loyal them… and there you go. It’s the ‘Jersey Shore’ of Texas.”
If I were drinking I’d’ve spit my beer out. Thankfully, I’m just dry and leaning in to hear in the dun of small talk bouncing off concrete floors and brick floors.
If you’re into how important you are, a place like this could be a drag. If you’re looking for the life force of music made to matter – and musicians who’re striving to have a little quality conrol, albeit in an unfiltered form, this is a good place to be.
(The Civil Wars play the Shindig. Photo by Zach McNair)