SXSW Day One: The Class, and the Craziness
AUSTIN – There is nothing gradual or tentative about the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference; you jump in and either start swimming madly or you just drown. We tried to make a schedule for Wednesday, the first full day of the music madness, but it stayed folded in a pocket for the duration. We saw more than one couple frantically flipping through the Austin Chronicle or an official SXSW book (like a large catalog, really) for guidance, and looking more and more drowned by the minute.
Just get the sneakers workin’, and we did – to discover a swell group, A Classic Education. With a swirling and darting style reminiscent of the Smiths, this unit charmed a small crowd in a small bar. People came in for the free booze, and they left with sweet melodies ringing in their ears.
We flitted from venue to venue until we decided to make a stand in the parking lot of the colorful San Jose Hotel, to enjoy a musical lineup and help launch the Gram Parsons Foundation. Organized by Gram’s daughter Polly, who is now an Austin resident, the Foundation aims to support musicians and artists worldwide with addiction and recovery services. Wednesday’s party at the ever-popular South by San Jose event was a swell way to announce the Foundation’s good work.
Gram, who envisioned a mix of rock, folk, blues and country as “Cosmic American Music,” surely smiled on the offerings of Poor Moon, comprising Christian Wargo and Casey Wescott (Fleet Foxes, Crystal Skulls) and brothers Ian and Peter Murray (The Christmas Cards). While certainly adept instrumentally – Wescott and one of the Murrays bounced continuously between xylophone, guitar, keyboards and various percussion – and vocally, Poor Moon’s songs lacked a bit of focus and foundation. While the Fleet Foxes’-styled harmonies were beautiful, we wanted a hook or two to hang our hats on.
Ask, and ye shall receive: in the form of Cory Chisel and the Wandering Sons, who came out blistering with a sweet blend of country and rock. Cory has it all: great songs, an engaging style and, in his own words, “the best-looking band anywhere.” From Wisconsin, Chisel’s heartland rock is best spotlighted on his debut album Death Won’t Send A Letter, which he recorded with members of the Raconteurs, the Dead Weather and My Morning Jacket. Cory promises a sophomore release this summer, but in the meantime he and his crack touring unit have captured many hearts early on at SXSW.
Brendan Benson, himself a part-time Raconteur, stepped up next and he delivered with some deft heartland rock. At one point he said “I can’t believe I’m saying this but, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Eric Burdon!” And there he was – former lead singer of the Animals, resplendent in black and white (hair), electrifying the crowd with “When I Was Young.” Burdon’s appearance was like a thumb in a light socket, but at two songs, all too brief.
We plunged ahead into the dark, and downtown Austin, only to stumble upon our old buddy and Houston homie Al Staehely and his band the Explosives. Staehely and his brother John (also present in the Explosives) were replacement members of the 1970s version of the seminal California prog/psychedelic rockers Spirit. At age 66, Al is in fine voice and John squeezed out some fiery leads on guitar. After working the crowd into a lather, Al said “let’s do a couple from Spirit” and launched into a rockin’ cover of Randy California’s “I Got A Line On You.”
Al Staehely, who in the daytime is an entertainment lawyer in Houston, told us he had virtually retired from performing in 1985 when his son Christian was born. “I figured I should be a full-time lawyer, and only played at home,” he said. “Really, it was Freddie Krc (former drummer for Jerry Jeff Walker and leader of the Freddie Steady 5) who got me started again. We would do a gig here and there and finally I just jumped back in all the way … it’s a lot of fun.”
What a way to rock us out of the evening. Today, we’re headed over to catch a keynote address by one Mr. Bruce Springsteen, who made his presence known Wednesday by jumping onstage with Alejandro Escovedo, Joe Ely and Garland Jeffreys for four songs. Later on this evening, Springsteen and the E Street Band will perform at the spankin’ new ACL Live venue, just across the river from the hallowed ground of the old Armadillo World Headquarters where Bruce made his first Austin splash back in 1974.