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SXSW Review- Feeling the warmth at the South by Southwest Music Festival / LOS ANGELES DAILY NEWSBy Billy Altman, Correspondent
Granted, in many ways the two cities are as different from one another as porterhouse steaks are to po' boys, as enchiladas to etouffees. But Austin and New Orleans have one defining characteristic in common.
Their streets teem each and every day of the year with live music that, while certainly spiced differently, nonetheless originates from the same melting-pot base stock that ultimately defines American culture. That commonality was palpable all over the streets of Austin last week during the annual South by Southwest Music Festival, which celebrated its platinum anniversary with a welcoming tip of the Stetson to a host of Crescent City performers who helped make this ever-sprawling four-day rite-of-spring event one of the more distinguished in its 20-year history.
A shining example was the worldwide debut concert appearance of the all-star collective the New Orleans Social Club fittingly, at one of the festival's daily free outdoor shows along the shores of Austin's Town Lake.
The Social Club, whose eminent ranks include pianist Henry Butler, organist Ivan Neville and Meter-men Leo Nocentelli and George Porter, convened in an Austin recording studio just weeks after being displaced by Hurricane Katrina to record the just-released “Sing Me Back Home” a collection of songs celebrating not only their hometown's heritage-filled music, but also its indomitable spirit.
That spirit was typified by one the Social Club's featured performers, seventh-generation Creole New Orleanian John Boutte, a diminutive singer with an outsized voice whose rendition of Annie Lennox's "Why" filled the air with a fiery mix of pride and defiance. And it was pointedly underscored by Cyril Neville in the group's stirring versions of Curtis Mayfield's '60s-origined, yet (unfortunately) still-applicable underclass anthem, "This Is My Country." Then again, it's hard to consider New Orleans music without also thinking of its strutting syncopation and raucous, rock prefiguring rhythm 'n' blues and they were well represented, too.
Ever-dapper Allen Toussaint, the legendary pianist and songwriter who's been a veritable ambassador for his city since last summer, nonchalantly glided through a set of his decades-spanning hit compositions ("Mother in Law," "Working in a Coal Mine," "Yes We Can Can," etc.). And at the suitably steamy Continental Club, Gulf Coast-associated performers ranging from songstress Barbara Lynn to backflipping wildman Roy Head provided a taste of the infamous Ponderosa Stomp swampathon usually held at a New Orleans bowling alley during Jazzfest, but which will take place this year in another musical petri dish town, Memphis.
Of course, with better than 1,200 separate acts officially showcasing at over 50 venues over the course of its four-night 8 p.m.-to-2 a.m. schedule (and that's not counting the ever-mounting array of daytime and afterhours music-filled parties as well as countless non-festival performances at clubs and bars all over town), SXSW is always a grabbag for even the best time-managing listeners.
Wander up or down the wrong flight of stairs in any of the gazillion bars that dot East Sixth Street, or get stuck in line at any one place for more than fifteen minutes and with the usual spring-break-aided overflow crowds found on the two weekend nights, that's usually inevitable and you never know what you might wind up witnessing or discovering.
One night we accidentally stumbled into an unannounced set by college fave troublemakers the Flaming Lips, who left so much confetti, streamers and balloons in their chaotic wake that when the stage crew came out to clean up, it looked like the end of a Mr. Peabody cartoon. Twice we were stopped dead in our tracks on the street by the open-door sounds of off-the-beaten-path cover tunes.
First was a snarling note-for-note version of Love's "My Little Red Book" by Novillero, a Winnepeg quintet in matching suits that featured a tambourine-playing vocalist who wasn't the lead singer (very cool). And then there was a loud, snotty rendition of the Velvet Underground's drone-a-rama "Sister Ray" by Black Lipstick, an Austin outfit who, we found out when we got inside and actually saw them, had the VU sound nailed down to the point of a female drummer apparently schooled solely on the recorded ouevre of Maureen Tucker (even cooler). Borrowed, then, or blue (soul giant Sam Moore), old (country elder Bobby Bare) or new (Australian preteen punkers the Flairz), SXSW nobly continued its tradition of providing anyone with a badge (or a second-line wristband) the opportunity to renew their vows to whatever constitute their concept of popular music.
It could be the hyped, like this year's buzzboys from England, the Arctic Monkeys, whose leader Alex Turner, demonstrated his Knack-like grasp of the metal/punk/pop starmaking formula. Or the hip, like Chicago's OK GO, who finished their set with a hilarious lip synching, goofily choreographed take-that-MTV video sendup.
It could be the sound of the church, like the Bay City Texas-based Jones Family Singers, who hit the stage at full gospel throttle and barely stopped to breathe in the course of a set that had everyone on their feet testifying even the horn-rimmed, straight arrow fortysomething in front of us doing a wondrously unself conscious imitation of a Steve Martin happy dance. Or the sound of the street, as embodied by pugnacious New Yorker Garland Jeffreys, shifting his porkpie hat up and down his forehead while tilting at society's windmills with the blunt racial call-out "Don't Call Me Buckwheat."
Yet, after everything, South by Southwest '06 will probably remain defined, at least to these well-spent, still-ringing ears, by the long shadow stretching from Louisiana to deep within the heart of Texas. It's a shadow, though, that somehow has reflected light--the light of faith. You could feel its warmth while listening to Ray Davies, leader emeritus of those oh-so-British Kinks, talking passionately about his time in pre-Katrina New Orleans working on a piece of music for an inner city high school marching band, and his deep desire to return there and finish it.
You could sense it as well in the singing of Susan Cowsill (yes, of the '60s family group the Cowsills), a SXSW regular and longtime New Orleans citizen whose brother Barry got lost in the hurricane tragically, just weeks after moving there. Barry Cowsill's body wasn't found and identified until January; then last month another brother, Bill, passed away as well. Technically Bill lost his battle against several long-standing diseases, but the general consensus was that what ultimately killed him was his broken heart over Barry's death.
Trooper that she is, though, Susan Cowsill came to Austin as she always does. And on the festival's final night she performed her set, including the title track from a new CD an uptempo, life-affirming country-pop tune entitled "Just Believe It." "You can't stop sun and you can't stop trees," went one verse. "You can't stop hurricanes and you can't stop me." Susan Cowsill was smiling as she sang those words--and her brave, true-believer smile said it all.