American Songwriter Goes To South By Southwest: A Special Report

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Videos by American Songwriter

American Songwriter’s first day of panels and parties in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest music conference proved to be a monster. Almost getting kicked off the overbooked redeye flight out of Nashville, Tennessee and narrowly avoiding a hotel cancellation, we finally made it to Texas, and in high spirits.

American Songwriter’s first day of panels and parties in Austin, Texas for the annual South by Southwest music conference proved to be a monster. Almost getting kicked off the overbooked red eye flight out of Nashville, Tennessee and narrowly avoiding a hotel cancellation, we finally made it to Texas, and in high spirits.

The overcast morning turned into another Texas scorcher by noon. We jumped through a quick round of early panels. The Brabec brothers (Todd and Jeff, co-authors of the massive and indispensable Music, Money and Success) spouted their music biz legalese while predicting the future of music to be contained in a singing Sammy Hagar doll that one of the brothers grabbed in the Fort Worth airport. (Such toys would require two contracts negotiations, for the master recording as well as the publishing, and bring in rolls of dough, apparently.) Skipping out on the Brabecs, we caught the end of an indie label panel, with folks from Touch and Go, Bloodshot Records in Chicago and Rounder Records, as well as others. The label heads discussed the importance of signing hard-touring artists, the continuing nightmare of physical distribution, and their ideas for their own futures in the digital world.

Deciding it was time to get some of that ‘shine, we stepped out into the heat and walked up to the party on Sixth Street. The New West Records people were just getting their day party started over at the Club DeVille. We caught the last few songs from real-deal Canadian cowboy Corb Lund. The band was rocking in the outside tent, so we grabbed a beer and leaned up against the limestone wall in the shade and talked Chapel Hill, North Carolina music scene with American Songwriter staff writer Jay Steele. Before Jay ran off to shoot photos for Dead Confederate, we got through discussing an up and coming Athens, Georgia band Futurebirds and the Merge Score! compilations. (Look for Jay’s review of Alela Diane in the next issue of American Songwriter.)

Starting to feel the heat, we headed back indoors for the last round of panels for the day. (During our afternoon sojourn into the wilds of Sixth Street, we missed keynote speaker Quincy Jones, who, from what we’ve heard, went on for an extra two hours and blew everybody’s mind. 60 years of music business knowledge, sorry we missed it.) We were able to make an interesting panel that explored Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue at age 50. The panelists discussed how Kind of Blue makes the perfect entry point into jazz for new listeners. Part of Miles’ genius also was in assembling a band that could explore the stripped-down arrangements in remarkable first takes. Rolling Stone’s David Fricke was particularly insightful on the “information” that Miles was delivering on Kind of Blue.

As the sun was going down we headed over to the Secretly Canadian/Jagjaguwar/Dead Oceans party, where Phosphorescent and his fellow bearded Brooklynites were unpacking the van out front. Inside Richard Swift was exploding with his final song “Lady Luck.” It might have been the highlight of the day: high-pitched harmonies and old school keyboards building up to a total freakout. We had a good spot on the deck above the stage for Phosphorescent, who brought about five songs to the table, none of which were off his excellent To Willie LP, the recent Willie Nelson tribute album. One brand new song sounded a lot (unsurprisingly) like a Willie tune. We caught a second wind for the just-before midnight set of Akron/Family. Akron lit the place on fire with pure unbridled wildness: tribal rhythms, chanting, funky musicianship and shifting arrangements. It reminded us of the Byrne/Eno influence which seems to have informed the work of newer bands like Yeasayer and Akron.

Swift, Phosphorescent and Akron made really good examples of how to amp up a crowd. The sheer amount of music going down this week in Austin makes it hard for some acts to break through the noise. Bands that sound somewhat derivative of early rock and roll are never as exciting as groups that are exploring new sounds. Towards the end of the night, after a long day of musical mind expansion, the crowds seemed to wane for acts that weren’t doing something remarkably new (or weird).



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