This year’s American Songwriter SXSW coverage is presented by D’addario.
Austin, Texas’ annual March transformation into the sensory riot known as South By Southwest now occurs over 10 days and nights, inundating interactive, film and music purveyors and consumers with hundreds — maybe thousands — of options for panels, parties, performances and other presentations in all manner of venues large and small. Attendees tend to alternate moments of awe and euphoria with exhaustion and logistical frustration (and writers might even find themselves lapsing into occasional over-alliteration).
But for the most part, it’s grand. And too much to process at once. So here’s a bit of catch-up on previously unreported moments worth mentioning.
Los Super 7’s performance at the Recording Academy Texas Grammy Block Party Thursday actually heralded their return to recording after a too-long hiatus. Ruben Ramos (El Gato Negro, to those familiar with his oh-so-smooth Tejano music and classy style), said after performing at the event, held on the Four Seasons lawn, that the band is at work on a follow-up to its Grammy-winning album series. The third and last entry from the revolving-door entity known by that name, Heard It On the X, was released in 2005. It was recorded mostly in Austin with co-production b Charlie Sexton, Rick Clark and Dan Goodman. Legal wrangling over the name supposedly delayed efforts to release a fourth edition. The party performance featured Steve Berlin (Los Lobos); Rick Treviño; Ramos; Milton Walters; Chris Rivera; and Max and Josh Baca and Noel Hernandez (Los Texmaniacs).
Ryan Adams canceled his scheduled BMI showcase headlining performance at ACL Live at the Moody Theater Friday due to illness, but a few blocks away at Cooper’s Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que on Congress Avenue, New West Records offered a night of musical delights featuring Sammy Brue, the Secret Sisters, Sara Watkins and David Garza, the Deslondes, Andrew Combs and Aaron Lee Tasjan.
Brue, of Odgen, Utah, is only 15 (with a high-pitched voice not unlike Brett Dennen’s) but he exemplifies New West’s efforts to invigorate the label with promising young talent. Discovered busking at the Sundance Film Festival, he’s about to release an album titled I Am Nice, produced by John Paul White and Alabama Shakes’ Ben Tanner.
The Secret Sisters — Alabama siblings Laura and Lydia Rogers — had never planned on performing professionally, but after attending an open audition in Nashville in 2009, they landed a major-label deal and began working with T Bone Burnett and Dave Cobb. The close-harmony Americana duo found themselves opening for Paul Simon, Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan, appearing on late-night talk shows and recording with Jack White before the rug got pulled out from under them in 2015. Friend and mentor Brandi Carlile came to the rescue, encouraging them not to give up and offering to produce their next album with the Twins (her bandmates Tim and Phil Hanseroth). New West has since signed the sisters and plans to announce a release date soon for the still-untitled album.
Fiddler and singer Watkins, who was even younger when she began performing bluegrass with her brother Sean and Chris Thile in Nickel Creek, only gets more sublime with age (she’s all of 35 now). In 2016, just two months after releasing her first New West album, Young in All the Wrong Ways, she became the first woman to be voted Instrumentalist of the Year by the Americana Music Association. (The album not only reached No. 7 on Billboard’s Ameriana/Folk chart, but hit No. 19 on its Top Rock Albums chart.) Friday night, with singer and guitarist David Garza, the Los Angeles resident soared on a set of gorgeous songs from that release and her previous albums.
Dallas, Texas native Andrew Combs offered a series of beguiling songs from Canyons of My Mind, releasing April 7, including “Dirty Rain,” a melancholy indictment of the gentrification occurring in his adopted home of Nashville.
While his set offered confirmation of his evolution as a songwriter and performer (his new album will be his third); Tasjan’s set conveyed an even more rapid evolution. The up-and-comer, who discussed his dandy sartorial leanings the day before at Willie Nelson’s Luck Reunion, delivered a phenomenal set focused on tracks from his October release, Silver Tears. When he performed at his label’s AmericanaFest party in September; the album was weeks away from release. In the months since, he’s become even more adept at stealing audiences’ hearts with his sly humor and rockin’ attitude — not to mention guitar chops.
Fresh from his first national TV appearance on Conan O’Brien’s show last month, the artist —whose colorful history includes stints in the latter-day New York Dolls and Semi Precious Weapons — strolled onstage wearing a pale-lime suit, a peacock-feather-print cape and his nearly flat-brimmed beige cowboy hat, with the same fancy-handled walking stick he’d sported at Luck. Though he wisely failed to replicate James Brown’s cape routine, he eventually removed it, the better to wield his Loar electric on some truly impressive riffs.
A gorgeous Saturday in Austin produced a perfect excuse to stop at Lustre Pearl on Austin’s bar-loaded Rainey Street for the now-annual Puppy Party, sponsored by Tito’s Vodka. The Austin-based brand, a major sponsor of many musical events in Austin and elsewhere, has developed a line of Vodka for Dog People products to raise funds for animal rescue and welfare causes, including spay/neutering and adoption. The party was a benefit for Austin Pets Alive!
Many face baths later, it was on to Threadgill’s for the annual Rebels & Renegades party hosted by Conqueroo and Jenni Finlay Promotions, which featured top folk and Americana artists performing on two stages. The daylong lineup, headlined by James McMurtry, Ray Wylie Hubbard, Owen Temple and David Olney, alternated among veteran crowd-pleasers and newer talents. The former included Guy Forsyth, Kinky Friedman, Mando Saenz, Mike Stinson, Troy Campbell, Jeff Plankenhorn and the Robert Kraft Trio. The latter included Bonnie Whitmore, the Grahams, Blackfoot Gypsies, Curtis McMurtry, Whitney Rose, High Plains Jamboree and Charlie Faye & the Fayettes. Somewhere in-between were Carrie Elkin, Shinyribs and Sunny Sweeney, who opened for Garth Brooks’ massive Auditorium Shores show just a few hours later. High Plains Jamboree (with Brennen Leigh, Noel McKay and Simon Flory), a standout at February’s Folk Alliance International conference in Kansas City, will release its Voxhall Records debut this summer.
Winding up Saturday at Rachael Ray’s Feedback House led to the joyous discovery of 22-year-old Emily Estefan, the daughter of Gloria and Emilio Estefan, who just released her debut album, Take Whatever You Want, in February. A 2016 Berklee College of Music grad, the percussionist and singer is like a young Sheila E., but her original songs and covers (including Chaka Khan’s “I’m Every Woman”) contained strong messages about empowerment. With a frenetically energized stage presence and full band including a horn section, she displayed confidence — and more talent than she knew she had until a few years ago. Her drum, guitar and piano skills and Latino jazz-pop-soul sound got her into college, but she hadn’t even sung for her parents until after she’d enrolled. Fortunately, she got around to it, because her vocals are as dynamic as her other skills.
The thrill of hearing a new — or new-to-you — talent is, at its essence, what Southby is still really about. This year, Emily Estefan delivered it. In a few more years, maybe she’ll be one of the stars fans are lining up to see.
That’s the spirit behind SXSW’s annual Grulke Prize, named for the event’s longtime creative director, who passed away in 2012. The prizes were announced Monday, March 20.
The Developing Act Prize, awarded to U.S. and non-U.S. acts, is for artists “who are breaking new ground with their creativity and show the most promise in achieving their career goals,” according to a press release. The Career Act is awarded to an established artist “who appeared at SXSW to reinvent themselves or launch a new project.”
This year’s U.S. developing act prize went to the Lemon Twigs, the New York power-pop duo of young brothers Brian and Michael D’Addario. The non-U.S. prize went to French singer-songwriter Jain. And the Career Act Prize went to Robyn Hitchcock, whose history includes the Soft Boys and Robyn Hitchcock & the Egyptians. Referring to the self-titled Yep Roc album he’s releasing in April, he said, with characteristic wit, “Think of me as a new act — I’m only 63.”
On Sunday, he’d tweeted, “Rock ‘n’ roll is the highest form of madness an old man can practice.”
Young or “old,” there’s always room to grow, and that, too, is the spirit of SXSW.