Final Musings On SXSW


OK, I can believe that it’s been 25 years of SXSW music and 20 years for its film Ffestival, but 20 for the Interactive component as well? Damn! It’s a long way from the advent of CD-ROMs to Twitter and Foursquare, and the formal attendance for Interactive has ballooned from 4,000 to 25,000 in the last decade alone. Would you believe that the interactive conference had more than 800 panels? I personally found more solace in the film fest, where the 24 Beats Per Second category premiered several worthwhile music documentaries including Muscle Shoals, 20 Feet From Stardom, A Band Called Death and Bayou Maharajah: The Tragic Genius Of James Booker.

Muscle Shoals illuminates the role of producer Rick Hall and his FAME Studios, which in turn begat the Swampers, a group of white Southern musicians who played on classic soul tracks by Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Percy Sledge and many others. Much like the Funk Brothers in Detroit and the Wrecking Crew in L.A., the Swampers—from the little town of Muscle Shoals, Ala.—played on umpteen radio hits during the 1960s and 1970s. Hell, the Swampers even toured as part of Steve Winwood’s band Traffic, but were best known for being world-class studio guys. This is history, people!

A Band Called Death is a heartwarming tale about an obscure Detroit group from the 1970s comprised of the three Hackney brothers—black, religious and playing unconventional, uncompromising proto-punk/black rock that had remained obscure until a recent Death revival and reunion, mostly spurred by geeky record collectors and Drag City’s release of the band’s original 1974 demos. Check out those killer recordings!

The Tragic Genius Of James Booker speaks for itself. A brilliant, erratic New Orleans musician of the highest order, James Booker was the best drug-addicted, one-eyed, homosexual piano player to ever come out of the Crescent City. Testimonials from Dr. John, Allen Toussaint and even Harry Connick Jr. will convince you, if the extended footage of Booker playing like a goddamned Black Liberace doesn’t grab you first.

Ironically, I found the most inspiration from Good Vibrations, a dramatic film depicting the ups and downs of a real-life character, Terri Hooley. Hooley was a rough-and-tumble music fanatic in Ireland who opened a freaking record store in strife-ridden 1970s Belfast. When kids started coming in asking for the punk records they heard on John Peel’s radio show, Hooley was quickly reborn, releasing the first punk singles in Ireland (including the Outcasts and the Undertones) on his Good Vibrations label. Discovered by the likes of Peel and then Seymour Stein and Sire Records, Hooley did well for the punk community but not always himself. Don’t miss the big benefit concert scene where Hooley’s character (played by Richard Dormer) comes out to lead the hall full of punks in a rousing, beer-drinking version of Sonny Bono’s 1965 solo single, “Laugh At Me.” Although unrecognized at the time, Bono’s contrived, Dylan-esque song of counterculture alienation had somehow been transformed into a true punk anthem, and has remained so ever since—check out the brooding, bruising version on Mott The Hoople’s first LP if you don’t believe me. Or Terri Hooley.

—Mitch Myers

SXSW Report: The Film Festival, Part Two

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a third and final round of notes from SXSW.

SXSW 2012 has concluded, and there were some films that stayed with me—narratives and documentaries with magical, elusive qualities. Filmmaker Rebecca Thomas’ debut, Electrick Children, is the tale of a 15-year-old Utah girl in a fundamentalist community who claims to have been impregnated immaculately after listening to a forbidden cassette tape of rock ‘n’ roll. The mysterious song in the film is actually power-pop trio the Nerves’ version of “Hanging On The Telephone” (later covered by Blondie), but the movie is about truth and freedom, and Rory Culkin is superb as the disaffected Las Vegas thrasher who helps resolve the mystery. Another piece of magical realism is Safety Not Guaranteed, starring Parks And Recreation’s Aubrey Piaza as a junior reporter assigned to answer a personal ad from an odd man looking for someone to go back in time with. Obviously, safety is not guaranteed, but there is soft humor, gentle romance, and an appropriately dramatic ending.

Documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing focuses on visual artist Wayne White, who’s built sets for Pee-wee’s Playhouse and props for Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel videos. Odds are you’ve never heard of White, but know (and love) his insane contributions to popular culture. Sadly, the new Sunset Strip documentary provides a limp historical arc on this infamous L.A. roadway, and the legendary rock excess, glamour, influence and decadence of the mile-and-a-half Strip is captured better elsewhere.

Two of the most powerful films I saw were about teenaged girls compelled to go against their better judgments; Compliance is a disturbing “true” story about a naive fast-food cashier accused of stealing by a mysterious caller who claims to be a police detective and conducts his “investigation” over the phone, directing the cashier and her fellow employees from afar. On the flip side, and filmed on completely camera phones, King Kelly is about a nasty girl with a highly sexualized presence on YouTube who webcams everything and manipulates everybody until a bad drug deal leads to an even more dubious and dangerous scenario—and, of course, she’s the one who ends up being manipulated.

Booster is a story of sacrifice and loyalty on the part of a goodhearted guy who shoplifts for a living, doing everything for others until his no-good brother get arrested and raises the stakes of the game right when he’s met a decent girl and can see a way out. And finally, The Do-Deca Pentathlon is a saga of two estranged brothers whose childhood rivalry is revived in 30-something adulthood and can only be settled with a ridiculous series of skill competitions—all done in not-so-total secrecy during a convoluted family reunion. See it!

SXSW Report: The Film Festival, Part One

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a second round of notes from SXSW.

For some folks, SXSW is considered the frat boy of film fests: loud, raucous and unruly with midnight showings of action, horror and other genre flicks as well as music movies, indie narratives and obscure documentaries. Of course, there’s also insider deals with big-budget production companies and famous filmmakers, resulting in high-profile premieres of mainstream movies like 21 Jump Street or the super-scary Cabin In The Woods.

Anytime local hero Richard Linklater is ready to debut a new film, the SXSW team is happy to oblige. This year that film was Bernie, an East Texas tale starring Jack Black, Shirley MacLaine and Matthew McConaughey. This “true story” revolves around a small-town killing in which the self-confessed murderer is so well liked and the victim so reviled that the townsfolk root actually for an acquittal. Black is extraordinarily well cast in a role where he’s required to both sing and act dramatically as the dark comedic nature of this excellent film slowly unfolds around him.

And please don’t believe the negative reviews of the new Will Farrell movie, Casa De Mi Padre, which was made to look as cheesy and absurd as possible and is spoken completely in Spanish. Farrell doesn’t even speak the language, so his lines were all learned and acted by rote. The filmmakers are subversive Saturday Night Live writers, and their high camp farce allows the likes of Diego Luna and Gael García Bernal to completely indulge in their stereotypical roles. This hilarious parody is clearly destined to achieve cult status. Too bad it’s going to lose a lot of money first.

Paul Williams Is Still Alive and Beware Of Mr. Baker are both music documentaries created by young filmmakers overly enamored with their subjects: ’70s songwriter/performer Paul Williams and legendary rock drummer Ginger Baker, respectively. Drug and alcohol addictions notwithstanding, the two musicians couldn’t be more different, but these films are strangely similar. If you like these artists you’ll probably like these films, but even if you don’t, you shouldn’t miss the amazing footage of Baker in Africa playing drums with Fela Anikulapo Kuti’s band in 1970. (As opposed to Williams schmoozing Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show or appearing on an episode of The Love Boat.)

The action-packed The Raid: Redemption isn’t based on a video game, but it should be. A small group of law officers are compelled to storm a big apartment building completely occupied by violent bad guys—fighting their way in and then out of the massive structure floor-by-floor. Good thing one of the heroes happens to be a martial-arts expert! With dizzying choreography and increasingly dramatic fight scenes, this is one nonstop thrill ride and, the grand finale battle royale is almost as cool as Bruce Lee facing off against Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in The Game Of Death.

SXSW Report: 76 Guitars (Is The Boss Performing “The Music Man” In Austin?)

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files a round of notes from SXSW.

It’s day six in Austin, and synergy at SXSW is off the scale as the film, music and interactive conferences are blending into one immense industry party. Jay-Z’s exclusive gig at Austin City Limits is just another memory, and SXSW attendees are already looking for the next big surprise gig. The hottest rumor is now focusing on Bruce Springsteen, who will be giving the music fest’s keynote address on Thursday.

Springsteen’s publicity machine is in high gear, as the Jersey rocker has been ubiquitous, appearing at the Grammys, pushing new album Wrecking Ball and touring with the E Street Band. It’s already been confirmed that the Boss and his band had a private rehearsal in Asbury Park and a surprise show in Austin is in the works.

What has the Bruce fans (and everyone else) all a-twitter about his keynote speech is the possibility of yet another announcement: that Springsteen and the E Street Band are preparing to perform a version of 1961 musical film The Music Man, with Springsteen reprising the role of Harold Hill, Patty Sciafa playing Marian the librarian and Little Steven as Hill’s sidekick, Marcellus Washburn.

Based on the 1957 Broadway musical of the same name, this classic American music fable seems made to order for the Boss, and people are getting excited. “It’s Bruce’s way of helping to bring the country back together,” says one longtime fan.

While prospects of Springsteen embodying this slice of weird old Americana are enticing—singing songs like “Ya Got Trouble (Right Here In River City)” and the epic “76 Trombones”—it’s the special-guest component that’s made to order here in Austin. State favorites like the Dixie Chicks would be well cast to sing “Pick-A-Little, Talk-A-Little,” and Springsteen’s old No Nukes buddies Crosby Stills And Nash, along with Jackson Browne, could take on the Barbershop Quartet duties singing “Goodnight Ladies.” Springsteen’s touring pal Alejandro Escovedo has his entire Austin orchestra available, and actor Jack Black, who’s in town pushing new movie Bernie, may make a cameo as Mayor George Shinn. One Springsteen insider insists that “the whole idea came from Bruce really wanting to hear Little Steven sing ‘Shipoopi,’ and it just grew from there.”

There’s even a possibility of the event being filmed, and Little Steven’s Underground Garage would be likely to simulcast the show on Sirius Radio. It’s unclear whether the Boss will be changing the musical’s setting from River City to Jersey City, but there’s definitely a push to change the big finale to “76 Guitars.”

SXSW Report: Dennis Coffey, Roky Erickson & Meat Puppets, Bubble Puppy And More

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his eighth round of notes from SXSW.

SXSW Saturday started out slow for me, but I managed to get down to the Austin Convention Center for a panel devoted to the life of late pianist Nicky Hopkins. Moderated by writer Dave Marsh, the panel was inspired by Julian Dawson’s new book, And On Piano…Nicky Hopkins, which documents Hopkins’ amazing career playing on prime recordings with the likes of the Beatles, Rolling Stones,Kinks, Who, Jeff Beck Group, Quicksilver Messenger Service and many, many other top-notch musical artists of the ’60s and ’70s.

It is a fascinating résumé, and the Hopkins panel included two world-class pianists, Ian McLagan and Chuck Leavell. The high point came at the end, when Dawson and Leavell performed a moving version of the song “No Expectations.” Leavell, who played with the Stones after Hopkins, brought great sensitivity to the performance and emulated Hopkins’ playing on the original recording to great effect.

With a retro mindset, I followed my muse into the Austin Music Hall to see forgotten Texas rock group Bubble Puppy. Bubble Puppy, who moved from San Antonio to Austin in 1967, can be considered psychedelic peers of Roky Erickson’s 13th Floor Elevators and Billy (ZZ Top) Gibbons’ Moving Sidewalks. The group, reformed for this one performance, opened with an absolutely crazed version of “Beginning,” then played its infamous “hit” tune, “Hot Smoke And Sassafras.” It was killer Texas psychedelia and even featured an extended drum solo. After that, the reconstituted Meat Puppets took the stage to play with Erickson himself. Their very brief set included “You’re Gonna Miss Me” and “Starry Eyes,” but it was over in a flash.

After that, I had just one more mission and trekked across town to catch guitarist Dennis Coffey backed by the Adrian Younge Sound Orchestra. Coffey is an old-school Detroit session man who played guitar on funky Motown tunes like “Psychedelic Shack” by the Temptations. He had his own classic, million-selling instrumental track in 1971 called “Scorpio,” which has been sampled dozens of times since. Coffey also has a solid new album coming out in April, and his funky SXSW performance was totally off the hook, featuring killer versions of Wilson Pickett’s “Don’t Knock My Love” and Funkadelic’s “I Bet You” as well as the inevitable “Scorpio.” It was basically nonstop scorching guitar for about 45 minutes—and the hottest performance that I experienced all week.

And that’s the kind of thing that I personally like about going to SXSW.

SXSW Report: Lucinda Williams, Exene Cervenka, Waco Brothers, Susan Cowsill, Hobart Brothers And More

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his seventh round of notes from SXSW.

SXSW overload—it happens (to me) every year. After eight days of pursuing all manner of celebrity, entertainment, news, gossip, special screenings, private parties and record-label showcases, I was burnt out from chasing the brass ring, and toxic levels had been achieved. I tried to get excited about watching Yoko Ono do an interview with Austin radio DJ Jody Denberg at the Convention Center, but Mrs. Lennon’s version of the past seemed a bit too sanitized, however sincere and well-intentioned.

That’s when I remembered: South Austin, a perfect hippie antidote to offset the downtown invasion of SXSW freaks and drunken college students on spring break. The music party scene there is reminiscent of what SXSW used to be like in the old days. You don’t need a badge and you don’t need a wristband, which means you aren’t paying money to wait in line and get treated like cattle. You can walk from places like Yard Dog to the Continental Club to Jo’s Coffee and see a number of hardworking artists who helped build SXSW from the bottom up.

After catching some of the Bloodshot Records gang, like Exene Cervenka and the notorious Waco Brothers, at Yard Dog, I strolled down the street to catch Susan Cowsill, then the notorious Hobart Brothers, featuring Cowsill, Jon Dee Graham and Freedy Johnston. I ate boiled crawfish (for free) to my heart’s content in back of the Continental Club, and crossed the street to Jo’s Coffee, where a massive outdoor crowd was enjoying the North Mississippi Allstars and waiting patiently for Alejandro Escovedo and his orchestra.

Rejuvenated and emotionally grounded, I gathered my courage and headed back downtown for the Lost Highway Records 10th Anniversary Concert at the newly built Austin City Limits temple: ACL Live At The Moody Theater. The ACL was freezing cold inside and the show featured much-hyped Americana artists Hayes Carll and Ryan Bingham, road veterans Robert Earl Keen and Dan Tyminski, as well as the absolute queen of them all, Lucinda Williams. Actually, the Lost Highway show was a complete bore except for Williams, who played songs from her new CD, Blessed, and a number of familiar songs from her past recordings. Williams remains an artist true to her craft, and her band was smoking hot, as usual.

So, rule number one at SXSW is wherever you are, that’s where it’s at—but especially in South Austin. ¿Comprende?

SXSW Report: “Live At Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale,” North Mississippi Allstars

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his sixth round of notes from SXSW.

SXSW is reigning down with full force now. The crowds are massive, and the density of party action is almost beyond reason. So, what else is there to do in Texas but celebrate New Orleans-style? Director Danny Clinch ensured a little bit of the French Quarter was delivered to Austin on Thursday with the screening of his new documentary film Live At Preservation Hall: Louisiana Fairytale. Clinch’s movie focuses on New Orleans jazz traditions, specifically the guys in the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, who have been playing music at 726 St. Peter Street in the French Quarter since the early ’60s.

Part of the New Orleans jazz tradition is to collaborate while moving forward; in this case, it meant the Preservation Hall group joined forces with Jim James and his band, My Morning Jacket. This pairing isn’t as unlikely as it first sounds, and Clinch did an expert job capturing the meeting of the two ensembles and their exciting, intimate performance down on St Peter Street. We also learn the history of the Preservation Hall and its members, gain insights into their musical lifestyle and watch the visiting members of My Morning Jacket absorb some of their enchantment.

To set the tone just before the film’s screening, Clinch wisely summoned the spirit of New Orleans down in Austin as the Preservation Hall Jazz Band suddenly appeared and circled the street in front of the Paramount Theater, playing a moving, grooving second-line parade for the waiting moviegoers and passers-by. The parade then continued inside the theater, which led to a dynamic performance of “St James Infirmary,” with a suit-clad James singing and moaning and throwing himself up against the theater seats and along the front of the stage. It’s clear that the musicians from the two groups had a great deal of respect for one another, and this movie is more of a celebration of the summit than anything else. Photographer Clinch is certainly growing as a director—he’s made concert films showcasing bands like Pearl Jam and John Mayer—and this might be his best yet.

After watching Louisiana Fairytale, there wasn’t anything else to do that made sense except go see live music, so I did. North Mississippi Allstars played a semi-private gig at the indoor room at Stubb’s, and it was burning. Guitarist Luther Dickinson, drummer/brother Cody Dickinson and big, bad bassist Chris Chew played an uncompromising set of retro-styled psychedelic blues rock to a dancing crowd of revelers. Luther, fresh from his stint in the now-retired Black Crowes, put on an exhibition—picking leads, blazing on his slide guitar and leaning hard on the distortion pedals. Luther also mentioned something to the effect of, “Screw those SXSW showcases,” and the band played an authentic 70-minute set instead of the standard 40-minute time slot. Luther even invited G. Love to get up and perform “Mean Old World” with the band. The amazing gig was over by 7:15, and the SXSW night was only beginning.

SXSW Report: “Love Shines”

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his fifth round of notes from SXSW.

As mid-week SXSX shifts from film to music, there are multiple opportunities for conceptual overlap with music-themed movies like the new Ron Sexsmith documentary, Love Shines. Canadian singer/songwriter Sexsmith has made numerous albums to varying degrees of success. He’s acknowledged as a melancholy songwriting master by his peers and fans, but he has never enjoyed that one breakthrough hit to catapult him into the upper echelons of showbiz fame.

Discouraged and perennially insecure, Sexsmith was at a crossroads artistically and professionally. In an effort to shake things up and take his career to the next level, Sexsmith decided to take a risk and hire producer Bob Rock, best known for his bombastic work with artists like Metallica and Bon Jovi. Filmmaker Douglas Arrowsmith, who filmed the men in the studio recording Sexsmith’s new album, Long Player Late Bloomer, artfully captured the unlikely pairing as well as the personal pressures that spawned Sexsmith’s desperate gesture. The ironic thing here is that Sexsmith was initially drawn to Rock after seeing the producer in the Metallica documentary Some Kind Of Monster, another cinematic/psychological exploration of musicians in transition.

The film also goes back into Sexsmith’s past, charting his early life, troubled family dynamics and slow-burning career. Arrowsmith’s first intention was to document Sexsmith’s highlight performance at the world-famous Massey Hall, but the film is most interesting when it focuses on the interpersonal dynamics between the insecure artist and the confident producer. Not surprisingly, Rock helps turn Sexsmith’s folksy ruminations into bigger, more dynamic performances. Thankfully, these radio-friendly gestures accentuate Sexsmith’s songwriting and do not overwhelm the insightful nature of his gentle art.

This movie is clearly a love letter to Sexsmith, as well as an unsubtle effort to shake him from his constant self-doubt. There are several adoring testimonials from fast-talking musical hustlers like Elvis Costello and Steve Earle, who strike the perfect contrast from the retiring, modest Sexsmith, who has always been quite meek in his quest for fame.

Supported by the WEA label up in Canada, Sexsmith couldn’t even get a record deal in the United States after going to all this trouble (and expense) to work with Rock. Forced to put out the new album on his own little label, he seems to have worked though much of his insecurity, appearing at the SXSW screenings and playing some gigs while here in Texas. As the world of show business evolves and presses forward, so does Sexsmith—however painfully—and not without artistic rewards.

SXSW Report: “Win Win” And “Cave Of Forgotten Dreams”

MAGNET’s Mitch Myers files his fourth round of notes from SXSW.

The new Thomas McCarthy film, Win Win, opens in theaters this weekend. Not only that, you can already download the thing directly from the Internet. SXSW often shows mainstream movies as part of its programming, and this film will definitely have that wide appeal. This is due especially to the presence of actor Paul Giamatti, who consciously underplays his role as a hardworking family guy having trouble making ends meet who makes a morally ambiguous choice in effort to pay the bills.

This is a subtle film, where attorney Mike Flaherty (Giamatti), takes over the guardianship of an elderly client for the money and ends up dealing with a lot more than he bargained for. He’s also a wrestling coach for a losing high-school team, and when his client’s wayward grandson Kyle (first-time actor Alex Shaffer) shows up and happens to be a wrestling whiz, it looks like this is going to be The Blind Side all the way. It isn’t a sports story of winning in the traditional sense—rather it’s a tale of trust, honesty and love emerging as the true motivators in life.

Jeffrey Tambor and Bobby Cannavale provide some comic relief as Flaherty’s assistant coaches, and Shaffer is remarkably low key in his role as the neglected teen. Amy Ryan brings much-needed intensity to the film as Mike’s New Jersey wife with a strong sense of right and wrong, but this is a slow-moving film that unfolds gradually until the final resolution. So don’t be fooled by the trailers with Giamatti shouting encouragement to his protégé on the wrestling mat. This is about people learning to live together—and also how to live with yourself.

More to my own liking was Werner Herzog’s new documentary, Cave Of Forgotten Dreams. A mesmerizing 3D film where Herzog and his four-person crew take us into the Chauvet caves in France, where there are cave paintings made by early man approximately 35,000 years ago. A rockslide enclosed this area about 20,000 years ago, and the insides were hermetically sealed, preserving the amazing contents so they look like they were created just last week. The interesting thing is that the more one examines the fascinating cave drawings and their vast implications, the more unbelievable it is.

The ancient artist responsible for these drawings of lions, mammoths, rhinoceros and bison had an amazing aesthetic, providing a sense of movement and depth with a sophistication that is hard to fathom. By interviewing archeologists and other people of science, Herzog helps us imagine what possible circumstance would have led to such an artistic gesture so long ago. We’re even given a sense of the caveman, how tall he was and the type of environmental experience he was trying to evoke. Herzog himself is obviously quite inspired and waxes philosophically as to the nature of ancient man and existence in the world at that time.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is educational and inspirational, and it has a meditative film score that accentuates the mystical nature of Herzog’s private tour. The epilogue features some “radioactive albino crocodiles” living in a nearby greenhouse next to a nuclear reactor, making his cinematic sojourn even more surreal. You don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy this, and the pristine cinematography is a trip unto itself. So strap on the 3D glasses and head back in time with Werner Herzog, you won’t be sorry.