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South By Southwest
A Blues and Roots Music Lover’s Paradise
Austin, TX

By Richard Skelly / Photos by Richard Skelly
Like the rest of central Texas, the annual South by Southwest Music conference and festival, held every March in Austin, just keeps expanding. The Austin area has seen explosive growth through the 1990s and into the last decade, but one hopes that good musicians are not driven out of Austin by unaffordable rents. It would not be the first time or place such gentrification has happened.

The 2012 edition of SxSW included about 2,000 bands and solo musicians and 90 venues, both record-shattering numbers. What does all this mean for fans of blues, Americana, folk music, rockabilly, garage and roots-rock?

It means more of these bands, not only from Texas, but from all corners of the U.S., Canada, England, Europe and the rest of the world. There were dozens of good blues and soul-blues bands performing at South by Southwest, and once again this year, the state of Mississippi presented a night of Mississippi music Saturday night at a unique venue, the 18th floor of the Hilton Garden Inn. The venue affords a panoramic view of Austin at night and is ballroom-sized, with plenty of places from which to view the performers. Last year, the venue hosted legendary blues pianist Joe Willie “PineTop” Perkins, who came by to hear the music two days before he passed away at 97. This year, Mississippi tourism authorities presented music by Johnny Rawls, Shannon McNally, Johnny Mars, Eden Brent, Jimmy “Duck” Holmes and Wooden Finger on Saturday night.

Here are some other highlights from my seven-day trip to Austin from March 12-19. I stayed at the LaQuinta Capitol on E. 11th Street in Austin, a mere five blocks from action in the club district on E. 6th Street and a short walk to the Austin Convention Center, which hosted all manner of educational panels, mentor sessions and film screenings by day. As one who has attended this event nearly every year since 1993 − when all events were held at the Hyatt Hotel on Congress Avenue and there were perhaps 12 musical venues to choose from at night − I can honestly say Bruce Springsteen was the most compelling speaker I’ve heard at South by Southwest since former Gov. Anne Richards [an avid live music fan] delivered her keynote speech at the Hyatt in ’93 or ’94.

Springsteen offered up some well thought-out advice, geared to up-and-coming musicians as well as signed and unsigned bands. Springsteen pointed out with his keynote speech slated for noon on Thursday, “every decent musician in town is still asleep,” and also pointed out the subjective nature of musical tastes and how one person’s favorite band is not his friend’s cup of tea at all. He picked up an acoustic guitar on several occasions to show younger musicians in the audience how he borrowed riffs from the likes of Eric Burdon and the Animals and applied them to songs by the E Street Band.

“It is the power and purpose of your music that matters most,” he told a hushed crowd of several thousand, and his speech, which included a few well-chosen expletives to make his points, was also carried live on Austin’s public radio outlet KUT, as well as a number of other National Public Radio outlets around the country.

He regaled the audience with stories from his youth in Freehold, NJ and how the radio on top of the fridge in the kitchen fascinated him from the time he was a toddler. He recalled going to J.J. Newberry’s department store in Freehold − there weren’t record stores then − to get a copy of Meet the Beatles, and how Eric Burdon and the Animals were a revelation, because they weren’t particularly handsome guys. He also revealed how black classic R&B and soul stars like Sam Moore and James Brown were influences. He pointed out, at the time of his 1972 deal with Columbia Records, when executives there and other industry types were touting him as “the next Bob Dylan,” Dylan himself was only 30 years old and far from retiring from his own musical career. Suitably, the end of his engaging talk, which lasted nearly an hour, brought a rousing, standing ovation.

Other highlights included a Thursday night “Woody Guthrie at 100 Celebration” organized by representatives from the Grammy Museum in Los Angeles. Held in a church a few blocks from E 6th Street, Ruthie Foster, Shannon McNally, Ray Benson, Jimmy LaFave and dozens of others offered up their takes on Woody Guthrie songs to an attentive audience. Suitably, Arlo Guthrie closed the show by joining LaFave and his band for a rousing version of “This Land Is Your Land,” with the original, unedited lyrics.

Springsteen’s unscheduled performance at the Austin Music Awards Wednesday night was also a high point, as he joined Austin-based musicians Alejandro Escovedo and Joe Ely for perfect sounding takes on “Midnight Train” and “Always a Friend.” He joined Brooklyn native Garland Jeffreys and Escovedo to deliver a raw, spur-of-the moment take on “Beast of Burden.”

Private parties are always part of the deal for journalists and DJs at SxSW, and Friday afternoon, Jimmie Vaughan and his soul-jazz trio played a set of groove-based, organ-based instrumentals at a party thrown by Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top. Gibbons, a quiet, thoughtful, self-effacing personality, threw the party to launch his own BFG brand of barbecue sauce. Naturally, drinks were on the house and there was plenty of beef brisket to sample both the mild and spicy versions of Gibbons’ new sauce.

As big as the annual SxSW music conference and festival has grown, the reality is this: no matter if you’re a fan of reggae or blues, Americana or pure Texas country music, you can pick your spots among the dozens of local and national showcasing acts and still have time to stray from your set schedule and see some other inspiring music, too. For me, that came Friday night at the Saxon Pub, where Ray Wylie Hubbard and Billy Jo Shaver and their respective bands delivered stirring sets of blues-inflected real country music, topped by headliner Shooter Jennings and his New York-based band.

A last bit of inspiring music came about Sunday night at the Continental Club with Escovedo’s annual jam-packed closing party, where I heard San Antonio garage rockers the Krayolas as well as veteran rock guitarist Lenny Kaye [Patti Smith] in entirely new contexts.

Patrons of SxSW can purchase wrist bands for the afternoon and evening club showcases. More information on the 2013 edition of SxSW is available online at SXSW.com, or call the office (512) 467-7979 for a brochure.

Richard Skelly hosts “The Low-Budget Blues Program” on Thursday nights from 8-10 p.m. on 88.7, WRSU-FM, the radio station of Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J. Now in its 30th year, it can be heard online at www.nj.com/wrsu.

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