By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
That singer-guitarist George Benson is one of the most successful crossover artists of all time can be seen not only in the chart and sales data but in the caliber of fellow musicians who acclaim him. Fellow jazzbos like Herbie Hancock and Earl Klugh — you'd expect them to sing his praises, which both have done in interviews as recently as the last few months. But even rocker Lenny Kravitz gushed in a recent conversation: "Benson, please! He's unbelieeeeeeeevable! Have you heard 'The Other Side of Abbey Road'?"
Benson's come a long way since that 1970 album, a dreamy set of Beatles jazz translations — but not too far.
He began as a sought-after session guitarist in the early '60s, playing alongside rising luminaries like Hancock and Miles Davis, and by the late '70s he was singing, too, logging hits on the jazz charts, R&B charts and pop charts ("Breezin'," "Give Me the Night" and "On Broadway," respectively).
Today, he's still singing but back to spotlighting his first love, the subject of his latest album, "Guitar Man."
"'Guitar Man,' yeah, that's what I am," Benson chuckles during an interview from his home outside Phoenix. "This one's got a good selection of songs, not really connected to each other but just telling one story — about the guitar. It was the obvious title after hearing what we got. You know, I got a great band together, and we tried to pick songs we thought we could do well, things the public will believe. People have heard me do so many things, I've just got to find things that speak to my guitar."
Recorded with plenty of space for improvisation, "Guitar Man" features pop standards from various eras ("Paper Moon," "Since I Fell for You" and an intriguing "Danny Boy," as well as "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "My Cherie Amour" and the lightest "Tequila" you've ever heard). The focus is definitely on the fingers.
" 'Paper Moon' — I mean, c'mon, man!" Benson says. "I was supposed to sing it. I taught the guys, and I played it. We heard it back, and I thought, man, it doesn't need any vocals. It captures that '40s mood, the vibe I heard under Nat King Cole. That was a good era. Nat played it very simple, but he was quite sophisticated in his approach."
Even before he began recording as a player, a very young Benson began his showbiz career as a singer: Little Georgie Benson, age 9.
"I wasn't a guitar player till many years later," Benson recalls. "Guitar gigs were everywhere in the '50s, and I started diddling around so I could keep working. Playing honky-tonk, simple stuff. I took a few gigs with an organ band that put me out front. I was 19 and touring with Brother Jack McDuff. People would see me and shout, 'Sing something, Little Georgie!' Jack did not like singers, period. But by the time I left his band, I was a bona fide guitar player."
By 1970, Benson was the No. 1 jazz guitarist in America.
"But I wasn't making any money to prove I was No. 1 anything. I wasn't getting ahead. I was existing," Benson says. "So I started dabbling back into vocals. The club owners loved it. If I did one vocal in the first set, the house wouldn't change over; people would stay for the second set. So I started doing that, and one day [producer] Tommy LiPuma came to me and said, 'George, I heard you sing five years ago, and I've never understood why they don't use your voice.' I told my manager: 'That's my next producer.'"
After signing to Warner Bros. in 1976, the LiPuma-produced "Breezin'" album hit the Top 10 on the strength of Benson singing a ballad, Leon Russell's "This Masquerade." A surprise hit, Benson kept trotting out his silky smooth tenor, scoring more hits from the Quincy Jones-produced "Give Me the Night" two years later. The album sold 5 million copies.
In between, Benson sang a song for a 1977 film about boxer Muhammad Ali. "The Greatest Love of All" reached No. 2. Barely a decade later, a new singer named Whitney Houston would take the song to No. 1.
"I met her just before she recorded it," Benson says. "I met her on the street near the Empire State Bulding. She got her hair done at the same place I took my boys. She saw me on the sidewalk and fell backwards, saying, 'You're one of my favorite artists! I'm recording that song!' One day I heard it on the radio and said, 'I wonder if it's that kid.' Sure enough."
Benson's band in Chicago will include local native Oscar Seaton, an alumnus of Ramsey Lewis' pop-jazz trio in the '60s.
with Boney James
• 7:30 p.m. March 23
• Chicago Theatre, 175 N. State
• Tickets, $39.50-$250; (800) 745-3000; ticketmaster.com
This post contains my complete running coverage of this annual conference and festival ...
© Chicago Sun-Times
This SXSW post is not brought to you by an Austin homeless person
By Thomas Conner on March 13, 2012 6:09 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Perhaps you've heard that the zeitgeist at the annual South by Southwest culturefest is now located in the Interactive segment, rather than the conference's original Music portion. Must be true — the first real controversy of SXSW 2012 occurred before many music critics had landed in the Texas capital.
SXSW is now a 10-day event encompassing rollouts of films, digital ventures and new music. The movies and online jibber-jabber started March 9; the music blares on through March 18.
But it's a crowded event, with celebrities, journalists and industry types jamming the Austin Convention Center and venues throughout downtown. Last year, nearly 20,000 registrants attended the Interactive portion — which wraps up today, just as the Music showcases begin tonight. As you might imagine, mobile bandwidth comes at a premium.
So BBH Labs, the techie division of the marketing agency BBH, tried a little experiment.
They gathered 13 people from a local homeless shelter, gave them mobile 4G Wi-Fi devices and sent them into the throng. Each volunteer wore a T-shirt saying, "I'm [Homeless Person's Name], a 4G Hotspot."
Many have found the campaign insensitive. Wired.com wrote that it "sounds like something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia." Technology blog ReadWriteWeb called it a "blunt display of unselfconscious gall." In an online op-ed, The Washington Post wondered "Have we lost our humanity?"
The company paid the homeless workers $20 up front and a minimum of $50 a day for about six hours work, said Emma Cookson, chairwoman of BBH New York. They also were able to keep whatever customers donated in exchange for the wireless service.
When you log on to one of the Homeless Hot Spots sites, customers are introduced to the person providing the connection and are invited to make a donation. A statement on the page reads: "Homeless Hotspots is a charitable innovation initiative by BBH New York. It attempts to modernize the Street Newspaper model employed to support homeless populations."
Saneel Radia, the BBH Labs director who oversaw the project, told the New York Times the company was not taking advantage of the homeless volunteers.
Other might want to get in on the action, though. My cab driver from the airport said, "Hell, they can load up my cab and I'll drive around with a hundred hotspots, long as I can keep the meter running."
SXSW dials down the digital, cranks up the music
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 9:00 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let the music begin. For days here in the Texas capital, tastemakers from digital ventures and the film industry have been unveiling their wares at the South by Southwest culture conference. Tuesday night, however, the programming shifted back to what built SXSW a quarter century ago: music.
More than 2,000 bands will roll their gear into Austin during the next few days, performing on more than 90 official stages. Last year, more than 16,000 registrants attended the music portion of the festival, including artists, publicists, industry scouts and a lot of media.
Music is a hot topic among digital pioneers, of course, so concert stages were under way earlier in the week. Hip-hop titan Jay-Z performed Monday night for an invitation crowd.
Tuesday night, as the Interactive sessions died down, the music showcases revved up. Last year was the first time music showcases started backing into the Tuesday of SXSW week, and there were more this year.
Chief among them was the return of Philly singer-rapper Santigold, acclaimed upon her 2008 debut and not heard from much since. Now she's out hyping her upcoming sophomore set, "Master of My Make-Believe," due May 1.
This being Austin, there was also a crowded fete for the loveable and quirky Daniel Johnston, a beloved area singer-songwriter.
The music programming starts in earnest today and continues through the weekend, with Bruce Springsteen giving the keynote address midday Thursday and performing later that night with the E Street Band, which launches its next tour this weekend.
Got a SiriusXM radio or a friend who does? The SiriusXMU channel is airing SXSW broadcasts all week, including the Friday night outdoor concert by the Shins.
SXSW: Alabama Shakes deserves the hype
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 5:06 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Buzz bands at the annual South by Southwest music conference have a lot in common with those who win best new artist at the Grammys. You tend to not hear much from them afterward. (Last year, conference attendees and wristband fans clawed over each other to get into showcases by London fuzz-rock band Yuck. Who? Exactly.)
Possibly the buzziest of the buzz bands at this year's SXSW (so far) is Alabama Shakes — but this is a band you're going to hear much more from.
Fresh out of the piney woods just an hour downriver from the legendary soul studios at Muscle Shoals — and with only a couple of EPs to their credit thus far — Alabama Shakes is a fiery quintet of youngsters playing country-soul that both Skynyrd and Otis could love.
The anticipation generated one of the largest crowds ever for a daytime showcase at the Austin Convention Center, with several hundred filling a ballroom for the group's Wednesday afternoon performance. The band just played a sold-out gig last weekend at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
For the most part, the hype is deserved. Lead singer Brittany Howard is a cool storm, one of those young singers exuding confidence beyond her years and presence possibly beyond this earthly realm. She pulls her accent back, often singing through rounded cheeks that add an extra dimension to her growls and wails. Her voice isn't a wide-ranging beast (her high notes are thin), but it's a beast nonetheless, purring like Macy Gray or exploding in very occasional fits of Janis Joplin.
The band supports her with remarkably restrained backing, controlling the dynamics of every song — slowing down when it wants to get fast, and vice versa — like making great love. Each player keeps things tuneful but spare — leaving huge spaces for Howard to snake through, then unleashing rare bursts of carefully timed fury. In that respect, they could use a songwriting mentor; at least half the set features rocking soul numbers that develop the same way, always ending with the band grinding hard while Howard wails something appropriately animalistic and urgent over and over ("Feels good!" or "Yes, he did!!" or "Well, all right!!!"). The band's ninth and final song, the dramatic groove of "You Ain't Alone," followed that template and resulted in their second standing ovation of the set.
SXSW: Little Steven on TV, Broadway, Springsteen tour
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 8:00 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Little Steven Van Zandt had a good chuckle about an alleged rumor reported this week during South by Southwest.
A writer at Magnet music magazine claimed he'd heard that, for their anticipated Thursday night performance during the annual music festival, Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band would be performing a version of the Broadway musical "The Music Man." (The writer later confessed, not surprisingly, "I made it up.")
"You never know, though," Van Zandt said during a chat Wednesday with the Sun-Times, laughing heartily at the idea. "[Springsteen] might have some Broadway up his sleeve."
Van Zandt is in Austin this week for a couple of reasons. In addition to the Thursday night show, he's also promoting something SXSW hardly deals with it all: a TV show.
Following his turn as a gangster in the HBO series "The Sopranos," Van Zandt is again playing a mobster -- this time in a series produced for Norwegian television, "Lilyhammer." The show was recently picked up by Netflix as the streaming service's first original programming.
"I was in Norway producing one of my bands there, the Cocktail Slippers [an all-girl rock band from Oslo]," Van Zandt said, "and these writers came and pitched this to me. I wasn't planning on playing a mobster again, but it's such a great idea. ... The Norwegians have gone crazy for it because they love America and rock and roll. They love the spirit of individualism, which is a bit of a contradiction for them and their community-based government. My character is someone who doesn't follow the rules, and they're very used to following the rules. Someone like me being a little naughty is exotic to them."
After the SXSW show, the E Street Band kicks off its tour this weekend. The band performed last Friday at New York's Apollo Theater, debuting the five-man horn section that replaces late saxophone legend Clarence Clemons on tour.
"We'll be featuring our soul music roots more on this tour," Van Zandt said. "And, you know, this year is a celebration of Woody Guthrie [the centennial of his birth]. Quite a bit of Bruce's music is a tribute to Woody Guthrie. ... It just never ceases to amaze me how Bruce continues to write in a way that is vital and very much of the moment. It always keeps us from even thinking about becoming a nostalgia band, because every tour is a whole new everything."
Springsteen is delivering the SXSW keynote address Thursday at noon. His latest solo album, "Wrecking Ball," was just released, and it debuted at No. 1 this week.
SXSW: John Fullbright comes of age
By Thomas Conner on March 14, 2012 11:48 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Let me tell you my quick John Fullbright story before I go on about how mesmerizing and moving his Wednesday evening South by Southwest showcase was.
When I was writing about music in Oklahoma, I covered the annual Woody Guthrie Folk Festival each July in Guthrie's hometown of Okemah. Okemah has one motel, which is taken over by the artists and production crews during the festival. Folk singers, in my experience, don't sleep much, and every night after the shows wrapped up in town most of them would drag chairs into the motel parking lot and swap songs till dawn.
Every now and then, wide-eyed young buskers would stroll up and try to measure up. Few did — until, several years ago, a teenaged Johnny Fullbright strode into to the circle with a banjo over his shoulder. Tipping his cap, the Okemah native offered to play a couple of his own songs. Soon, Arlo Guthrie's eyebrows raised and he sat forward in his lawn chair, and we all knew we were hearing something special.
Since then, Fullbright has shared stages with Joe Ely and fellow Okie songwriter Jimmy Webb, among others, and he recorded a live album. "From the Ground Up," though, will be his studio debut, due May 8 (Blue Dirt/Thirty Tigers).
Fullbright's SXSW showcase — the first of eight gigs he has here this week — was as perfect as if it were a Jonathan Demme concert film. Taking the stage at St. David's Episcopal Church in downtown Austin, the unassuming young singer stepped to the mike with his guitar and harmonica rack. He appears meek and milquetoast in his flesh-colored collared shirt and flat, parted hair, but — sorta like Kelly Joe Phelps — the square look is deceiving. He started plucking and blowing and wailing a first-person account of God setting up humans for their inevitable fall, and suddenly another crowd knew it was going to hear something special.
Fullbright synthesizes the best songcraft from his home state — Webb, Leon Russell and, by default, Merle Haggard. Just in his 20s, he mournfully considers how "all my life I've tested truth / but truth's not always sound." I'll give him credit for the double entendre in that last line, because the caliber of the rest of his songwriting is so good. He's got a tune called "Forgotten Flower," a thoughtful country lament, that Tom Waits and Randy Newman could fight over.
Possibly unintentionally, Fullbright filled his set on that church chancel with familiar subjects. He opened with "God Above," a searing blues. He sang, "Glory, glory, hallelujah," then played "Satan and St. Paul" and "Jericho."
The last three songs were plunked out on an upright piano, swinging from his own slow ballad "Nowhere to Be Found" to the dancing blues of "Ain't Nobody's Business If I Do." The versatility was natural, authentic, untrained. Webb's oft-repeated endorsement predicts "that in a very short time John Fullbright will be a household name in American music." It may not be hyperbole.
SXSW: Ezra Furman, Sharon Van Etten, Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire, the great R. Stevie Moore
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 9:33 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Is that a dude in his underwear, just playing?" asked a guy who wandered into The Jr bar just off Sixth Street on Wednesday night. Why, yes, yes it is.
Ezra Furman, the mad Evanstonian who recently relocated to the Bay Area, stepped onto the bare stage for his SXSW 2012 showcase nearly bare-assed, wearing only socks and boxer briefs. The rest of him was just the same — wild eyes, spasmodic poses, a spitting earnestness so unnerving you pray he doesn't make eye contact.
Hurling a mixture of songs from his new solo album, "The Year of No Returning," and gems from "Mysterious Power" and his Chicago tenure with the Harpoons, the skinny folk-punk wunderkind bared his soul, as well, in songs alternating between naked desperation ("Bloodsucking Whore") and mournful reverie (a cover of Tom Waits' "Bottom of the World"). In a new song, "Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," he summed up his SXSW moment, singing, "I was hideous and handsome."
"I was supposed to be a wide-eyed sort of singer-songwriter, but I don't feel like that anymore," he said from the stage. "Too bad, marketing team."
• • •
Acclaimed singer-songwriter Sharon Van Etten played a demure set Wednesday night at Stubb's. Getting off to a late start, Van Etten plodded through several songs from her attention-getting 2010 debut, "Epic," and her new follow-up, "Tramp." I still don't quite get the slobbering reverence for her work. No doubt, it's encouraging to hear someone with a voice this lovely treading the well-worn road of dissonant strumming and oblique, soul-bearing poetry blazed by fellow New Jersey-raised Patti Smith. Most of the songs merely wear that path down deeper, though, warbling over organ and cymbal-shy drums until they reach big crescendos that stumble to clumsy halts. They're awfully passionate dirges for someone who seems so chipper and cheery during her brief stage banter.
• • •
Mr. Muthaf---in' eXquire and his red-hot New York rap crew continued their SXSW gigs Wednesday night at MI Annex on Sixth Street, and the crowd didn't want them to leave. "eXquire! eXquire!" they chanted, begging for one more freestyle, to no avail. MMeX is a weird, Wu-Tang-like mob of half a dozen rappers, and the group's namesake is a hulking, slurring nutjob with percolating flow. Wednesday night, he was spewing syllables so fast and without stopping that he began to slouch and collapse. At the climactic moment, he shot up as his mates punctuated the verse, shouting, "Breathe!" Huzzah!
• • •
Since the early 1970s, "singer"-songwriter R. Stevie Moore has been producing song after song after song — countless hours of tape — documenting the weird and wonderful corners of his mind. As the Trouser Press record guides have stated for years, "'Unsung hero' only touches on the injustice of obscurity for this wry, heartfelt artist whose limber genius." But he meandered into the SXSW spotlight this week for a few showcases, including a typically bewildering set of songs Wednesday afternoon in the middle of the SXSW trade show.
"Why would anyone come to South by Southwest to see Lionel Richie?" Moore sang in a seemingly off-the-cuff ditty about the preponderance of big-name bookings at this year's festival, which was born in the late '80s as a haven for spotlighting up-and-coming talent. "If I had to choose between Lionel Richie and Sufjan Stevens, it would be a dead heat."
A large fella, in shades and with a wild Santa Claus-white beard and hair fluttering every which way, Moore plunked out his crafty lyrics and bent tunes on acoustic guitar. From his bottomless repository of material, he plucked a remarkable cache of quirky love songs, such as "Traded My Heart for Your Parts" and, uh, "I Wanna Hit You" (which he punctuated with, "Pow! To the moon, Alice!"). Looking at him, a deranged Wilford Brimley gargling his notes and strumming herky-jerky chords, the song "Goodbye Piano" took on new resonance: "You're so out of tune / I assume you're dead."
SXSW keynote: Bruce Springsteen gives musical history lesson, celebrates Woody Guthrie centennial
By Thomas Conner on March 15, 2012 3:22 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Marveling at the breadth of contemporary pop music, Bruce Springsteen name-checked his own lengthy list of milestone influences during a funny and enlightening keynote address Thursday at the South by Southwest music conference.
The king of this particular musical Mardi Gras, Springsteen hit town Wednesday night and showed up to jam with Joe Ely and Alejandro Escovedo at the Austin Music Awards. In addition to his keynote speech, the Springsteen blitz continues tonight in concert with the E Street Band, a preview of the tour kicking off this weekend. His latest album, "Wrecking Ball," was released last week and debuted at No. 1 in 14 countries.
"No one hardly agrees on anything in pop anymore," Springsteen said in his opening remarks. He expressed awe at the number of bands booked at SXSW.
"There are so many subgenres and factions," he continued — and then amused the standing-room crowd by listing as many as he could name, dozens of hyphenated musical classifications and creations, from melodic death metal and sadcore to rap-rock and Nintendocore. He ended the list with a slight slump, saying, "And folk music."
"This is all going on in this town right now," he said.
Citing rock critic Lester Bangs' assertion that Elvis Presley was the last thing Americans would agree on, Springsteen said each of the thousands of bands booked during SXSW "has the belief to turn Bangs' prophecy around.
"The one thing that's been consistent over the years is the genesis and the power of creativity. It's all about how you're putting what you do together. The elements you're using don't matter. It's not confined to guitars, tubes, turntables or microchips. There's no right way, no pure way of doing it — there's just doing it."
Springsteen then took the rapt audience on a tour through his own musical upbringing, noting each notable inspiration that molded him — from Presley's appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" in 1956 through poetic descriptions of the power he felt coming from doo-wop, Roy Obison, Phil Spector, British Invasion bands, the Beatles, country, soul, Stax, Motown and Dylan.
He spent extra time on the Animals. "For me, the Animals were a revelation," he said. "That was the first full-blown class-consciousness I'd ever heard."
He sang and strummed most of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place," a song the Animals made famous, and declared, "That's every song I've ever written! That's all of them, I'm not kidding. That's 'Born to Run,' 'Born in the U.S.A.,' even the new ones." He played the riff from "Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood," then the riff from his own "Badlands": "Same f---ing riff, man."
Acknowledging that this is the centennial year of Woody Guthrie's birth, Springsteen concluded with how he's been inspired by the American folk legend to keep his own lyrical focus on the issues of working people. He was also honest about their differences.
"I knew I was never going to be Woody Guthrie. I liked the pink Cadillac too much. I liked the luxuries and comforts of being a star. I'd already gone a long way down a pretty different road," Springsteen said.
In the end, Springsteen tried to bring it back to music's colorful mass, the overwhelming amount of it, the dizzying scope of its styles as evidenced in SXSW itself. The thread fans and artists must needle out of the experience, he said, has always been the same no matter how many subgenres there are.
"Here we are in this town celebrating a sense of freedom that was Woody's legacy," Springsteen said. "We live in a post-authentic world. Authenticity today is just a house of mirrors. It's all about what you're bringing when the lights go down. At the end of the day, it's power and purpose that matters."
• • •
The Woody Guthrie connection bookended Springsteen's keynote.
Immediately before the speech on the same stage, American singer-songwriters Jimmy LaFave and Eliza Gilkyson strummed Guthrie songs, such as "Oklahoma Hills," "I Ain't Got No Home in This World" and "Deportee." Colombia's Juanes played a couple of his own songs, spirited tunes in Spanish he said were inspired by Guthrie. All three lead the sleepy SXSW crowd in a singalong of "This Land Is Your Land."
A panel session followed the keynote, titled "Woody at 100." Moderated by Bob Santelli, executive director at the Grammy Museum and a Guthrie scholar himself, the panel featured journalist Dave Marsh, scholar Doug Brinkley, songwriters LaFave and Joel Rafael, and two of Guthrie's children: singer-songwriter Arlo Guthrie and head of the Woody Guthrie Foundation & Archives, Nora Guthrie.
Nora discussed the pending move of her father's archives — thousands of original lyrics, poems, notebooks, journals, artwork and more — from its current New York home to a new facility in Tulsa, Okla. She also highlighted a theme from Springsteen's keynote about music's many styles, noting that Woody wrote all kinds of music, including love songs and Jewish music.
Arlo made some important distinctions about his dad's legacy amid all the discussion of it in this centennial year.
"There are a lot of different Woodys," he said. "Even having known him along with my sister, I don't know that anybody has the capacity to have fully understand anyone. ... He really had the ability to distill all of us and put it into a way so that we recognize our own voice coming back to us. He said, 'Let me be known as a man who told you something you already knew.' ... Everybody in this room has a little voice they count on that they recognize as being them. My father recognized that voice in him and reflected it back on you so you recognize something that rings true to you. I don't think we're actually celebrating Woody — we're celebrating us. That's the genius of the man."
For a complete list of the numerous Guthrie centennial events around the country, see woody100.com.
Power pop @ SXSW: Big Star tribute, dB's reunion
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 10:32 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — At the 2010 South by Southwest music conference, critics and fans were eager for a scheduled celebration of the '70s band Big Star. The influential pop-rock band was at the height of a popular resurgence, fueled in part by a stellar box set ("Keep an Eye on the Sky") released the previous year. A panel session was planned, a hotly anticipated concert, too. But on the first day of the festival, bandleader and power-pop icon Alex Chilton died.
The pieces of those plans were reassembled in earnest Thursday night at SXSW 2012. In a star-studded concert — featuring a pantheon of alt-rock greats including R.E.M.'s Peter Buck, Wilco's Pat Sansone, Tommy Stinson, Peter Case, Chris Stamey, Ken Stringfellow, Jon Auer, M. Ward and many more, plus Big Star's lone survivor, drummer Jody Stephens — musicians inspired by the band, complete with a 12-piece orchestra, performed the whole of Big Star's "Third," their emotionally tangled and rightly acclaimed album recorded in 1974 and released by 1978.
Stamey — also appearing several times at SXSW this week with the reunited dB's (see below) — has made these "Third" gigs into something of a pet project, performing them a few times ahead of the festival. But Thursday's gig, back in something of an emotional center for the band and its fans, resonated with obvious love from the musicians, especially a smiling Stamey, who never sang but acted as bandleader.
Mixing up the album's various sequences, the show opened with M. Ward on piano meandering through Eden Ahbez's "Nature Boy," an outtake from "Third." Players and singers then started cycling behind the microphone. British pub band the Dunwells delivered "Take Care" with Irish balladry and an accordion. The Mayflies' Matt McMichaels lead a steady "Jesus Christ." Auer, who had joined a revived lineup of Big Star, drove slowly through "Black Car," fueled by the string quartet.
Standouts included Stinson, formerly of the Replacements, redeeming himself with a solid version of "Nightime." Watching him in his skinny plaid suit and hipster hat, one could almost forget he now slums in the reconstituted Guns N' Roses. Peter Case, once a svelte New Wave rocker in the Plimsouls, appeared shaggy and bearded and did his best Van Morrison impression through "Stroke It Noel" (Stamey's smile was a thousand watts through that one). Sansone's "You Can't Have Me" was powerful even without the wailing saxophone and the two drum solos from Stephens.
Stephens himself stepped out from behind the kit to sang a couple of songs, including a string-laden "Blue Moon" beautifully arranged with a Pachelbel's Canon sway.
R.E.M.'s Mike Mills originally was scheduled to be on stage for the show, but he canceled due to illness. The former band's guitarist, Buck, appeared instead. He merely lurked in the background for two songs, the cover of the Velvet Underground's "Femme Fatale" and "You Can't Have Me."
The show closed with "Thank You Friends," featuring most of the cast back on stage, like a traditional "This Land Is Your Land" folk finale.
The Big Star concert followed a screening of a documentary, still in progress, called "Big Star: Nothing Can Hurt Me" from director Drew DeNicola.
• • •
Stamey's a busy boy at SXSW 2012. In addition to corralling that large cast of players for the Big Star tribute, he's got his own showcase on Saturday, plus he and the reunited dB's are scheduled six times here this week.
Wednesday afternoon was their first showcase, on the Dogwood patio on West Sixth Street. Featuring originals Stamey, singer-guitarist Peter Holsapple and drummer Will Rigby, plus acclaimed Southern producer and artist Mitch Easter on bass, this latest revival of the beloved '80s power-pop group is hawking a new album, "Falling Off the Sky," due in June.
They utilized their showcase to show off many of the new tracks — as jangly and tuneful as ever. Holsapple insists the new album is "a great summertime record," and as he sang the new "World to Cry," a wind-blown tree in the courtyard approved by showering the tightly packed audience with new buds.
It's not all sunshine and tanlines. Another new song jangled over a martial rhythm and lyrics of lament and paralysis. Stamey remarked, "On my tombstone, I want, 'He wrote one great riff.'" Then he added, "Plus a lot of depressing songs." He then ripped a scary, dissonant solo from the heart of "Happenstance," which the band balanced with the gentle waves of melody in "Love Is for Lovers."
Their official showcase is tonight.
• • •
Fast forward to the 21st century: Power-pop rocker Brendan Benson was back on stage as a solo act Thursday night. Jack White's partner in the Raconteurs, Benson funnels most of his melodic talents into his solo albums. He has yet to make a bad one, and his next, "What Kind of World," is due in April on his new independent label Readymade.
His Thursday showcase wasn't as flawless as his records. Stringy-haired and a little adrift, Benson charged gamely through some new songs, though one had to be abandoned after the first verse; he tried to restart it, but flubbed something again and moved on into a duo of the Raconteurs' "Hands" and his own "Cold Hands (Warm Heart)" (in which he laments, "Why does it always happen...?").
SXSW: Fiona Apple's splendid case of nerves
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 12:05 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Alabama Shakes might be one of the buzziest new bands at this year's South by Southwest music conference, but Fiona Apple is the one of the hottest returning-act tickets. After not having been seen outside of Los Angeles in years, and with her last record of emotionally taut pop-cabaret released in 2005, two lines for her second showcase Thursday night snaked around the block in different directions.
Performing in a Presbyterian church, Apple strode purposefully onto a candlelit stage with a four-piece band and launched into "Fast as You Can." Still a frenetic ball of anxiety, when Apple stands at a microphone without a piano to occupy her hands her nervous energy nearly flings her limbs apart. Thursday night she wore a white shawl over her shoulders, which she immediately took to flipping and waving about like a manic Stevie Nicks. Banging fists against her body, flailing her arms, pounding the piano — one senses that without the music to focus her energy she'd go utterly mad. Then again, she can rein herself and become the perfect picture of Marlene Dietrich smolder, as she did during "Paper Bag."
Apple's voice is not a smooth or delicate instrument. It's guttural and trembling and sounds ravaged by a prior hour of sobbing; midway through her Thursday concert, she made a brief show of spraying some salve into the back of her throat. The songs fit the sound — lyric after lyric of man after man who doesn't understand her (the dolt who won't even kiss her in the right place in the new "Anything We Want") and heaps of self-doubt ("I'm gonna f--- it up" from "Mistake"). "Not that I go to church or anything," Apple said, gazing up at the shadowy altar, "but I'd like to apologize to the building itself for my cursing."
The band supports the crackling tension with herky-jerky soul-jazz phrases, as if Elvis Costello's "Spike" is drowning his sorrows at L.A.'s Largo club (home of the acclaimed residencies curated by Apple producer and compatriot Jon Brion). Prone to lengthy vamps and calliope-like refrains, the music's drunken gentility was often pierced by tinny, edgy solos from her guitarist. Every song was a suspense thriller, and as Woody Allen said, "I hope it lasts."
Briefly, anyway — her SXSW showcases kick off a tiny tour, just a few dates including two sold-out shows Sunday and Monday at Chicago's Lincoln Hall.
Apple's new album returns to her penchant for lengthy titles — (inhale) it's "The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do" — is scheduled for a June release.
SXSW hip-hop fusion: K. Flay, Idle Warship, Robert Glasper
By Thomas Conner on March 16, 2012 5:51 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — Kristine Flaherty grew up in Wilmette. She went to Stanford. She's also a helluva rapper.
With frenetic flow and live-wire, chicken-dance moves, K. Flay barreled through a Friday showcase at Austin's Red Eyed Fly, crumpling labels and defying genres. Backed by an excellent live drummer, Nicholas Suhr, she crafted loops and samples with real finesse, utilizing grinding guitar sounds and squawky electronic noises for melody and music more than mere beats and punctuation. "We're going to go to a fun place in our minds," she said by way of introducing one song. It was less invitation than advisory — she picked up drumsticks and attacked her own percussion pad, and she and Suhr lost themselves momentarily in a rhythmic freakout of ecstatic proportions.
K. Flay's sharpest weapon, though, is her fast-talking tongue. Her words-per-minute reached the red line almost every time. One song began with a slow, easygoing beat (no drummer), as she started rapping along. The beat kept modulating, faster and faster, and for three or four minutes she kept slinging syllables without a single flub or nonsense gibberish. Who knows what she wound up saying? But given the rest of her wisecracking, hard-hearted material -- all that's out thus far is an EP, "Eyes Shut," available free on her web site -- it's worth hearing at any speed.
• • •
Idle Warship — a new collaboration between acclaimed rapper Talib Kweli and Philly soul singer Res — released an album last fall that was mostly great, a fizzy mix of hip-hop, R&B and rock with just the right balance between all three. The group's SXSW showcases were highly anticipated — but, alas, their Friday afternoon show was ho-hum.
Backed by a live quartet, Kweli and Res ping-ponged their vocal duties and spent an inordinate amount of time asking the crowd for cheers instead of earning them. Kweli turned the word "soul" in one song into a falsetto, drawn-out "Soul Train" nod, but the music, which is buoyant and bouncy on record, lurched and lagged live. Even the synth underpinning of Corey Hart's "Sunglasses at Night" in the song "Steady," which eventually morphed into the whole band singing the Eurhythmics' "Sweet Dreams," failed to brighten the desperate energy on stage. The term "rap-rock" has certain negative connotations; this isn't really rap-rock, but it's close. A 21st-century Digable Planets, unfortunately, they ain't.
• • •
In one sense, I'd like to thank the sound engineers who had difficulty getting things in gear for the Robert Glasper Experiment showcase late Thursday night at the Elephant Room. Without their delay, some room in the tiny, dank club might not have opened up and I'd have missed the whole show standing on queue. The sound was substandard even when the show got under way, but those who made it in heard enough to justify the hype that brought us there.
Glasper is a hip-hop wunderkind. Glasper is a jazz juggernaut. A pianist, a Texas native, he seems to be knitting a new kind of fusion. A set that opens with Coltrane (sax player Casey Benjamin is pretty wicked, see video below) and nearly winds up with Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit" might only turn the head of zeitgeist interpreters like Brad Mehldau, but Glasper's quartet followed their open-minded explorations through the jazz tones, hip-hop beats and raucous rock with more ferocity than irony. His latest album, "Black Radio" (Blue Note), does the same thing and features guests like Mos Def and Chicago's Lupe Fiasco.
Occupy SXSW: Tom Morello carries Woody Guthrie torch through protest showcase, street party
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 10:20 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — During his keynote speech at this year's South by Southwest music conference, Bruce Springsteen referred to folksinger Woody Guthrie as "a ghost in the machine." In the centennial year of his birth, Guthrie has certainly haunted SXSW 2012. Springsteen and many others have sung his songs. "Woody at 100," a panel session featuring his children, Nora and Arlo Guthrie, considered his legacy.
Then Friday night, Chicago-area native Tom Morello capped off his showcase in the middle of the street, leading a throng of Occupy Austin demonstrators in a sing-along of "This Land Is Your Land."
"I am the Nightwatchman and this is a one man revolution!" said Morello (who performs solo under the moniker The Nightwatchman) at the beginning of his SXSW showcase, scheduled inside the Swan Dive bar near Sixth Street and Red River in downtown Austin.
But days earlier, Morello began reorganizing what the festival had programmed for him. His showcase, he declared, would become Occupy SXSW — all 99 percenters welcome. "SXSW has a lot of specialty shows — record companies, vodka companies, promoters and things like that," he told Rolling Stone on Tuesday. "I thought it was important that at a music gathering of that size, to have a place where the rebels, revolutionaries, rockers, rappers and the 99 percent could gather and have a mighty SXSW throw down."
Via social media and online networks, Occupy Austin spread the word and gathered Friday at the state capitol three hours before Morello's midnight showcase. The group of nearly 100 began marching toward the downtown streets already crowded with SXSW registrants and hopeful music fans.
How do you get a mob to move through a mob? By dancing. The benevolent Occupiers rolled a sound system with them, blaring mostly disco and dance tunes but also raising a ruckus with "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine, Morello's former hard rock band. About every block, they'd stop and dance, as well as wave some signs and hand out fliers. At Sixth and Brazos, the assembly inadvertently blocked traffic, which laid on the horns. The honking, however, simply raised more cheers and whoops.
Slowly, the demonstrators made their way down Sixth Street toward Morello's venue. One large banner reading "F--- the Police" was its own crowd control issue, because gawking passers-by insisted the bearers stop -- so they could take their picture with it. Irony of ironies: Midway down the street the group had to detour slightly after being blocked by a drum circle.
Morello started his official showcase about half an hour late, playing a few songs by himself before bringing on his latest band, the Freedom Fighter Orchestra — and, later, special guest Wayne Kramer from Detroit punk legend the MC5 — to tear through typically fiery Nightwatchman songs, including "Save the Hammer for the Man" and "Union Town," as well as Rage's "Bulls on Parade." The previous night, Morello had joined Springsteen on stage during his SXSW concert; Friday, Morello played Springsteen's "The Ghost of Tom Joad," dedicating it to "the only Boss worth listening to."
As his official timeslot ended, Morello told the crowd — primarily SXSW badge-holders inside — to follow him outside. There, the largely uncredentialed Occupy crowd had been watching the showcase on a video projected on the wall. Morello proceeded to start a second showcase in the middle of the street, which he called "the people's venue" — carrying his acoustic guitar, which has "Whatever It Takes" scrawled on it (Guthrie's guitar famously sported the slogan "This Machine Kills Fascists") — and leading the crowd in a rollicking sing-along of "This Land."
Lack of a PA didn't stop him — not when you have the "human microphone."
"Mic check!" Morello called, and the crowd began repeating him. In a very Obama-like delivery, he went on: "They can turn off the PA, but they can't shut this party down!"
He told a tale about guitar factory workers in South Korea who were fired because they formed a union. Using the human mic, he taught the crowd the chorus to his "World Wide Rebel Songs" and lead another sing-along.
He then ended the event with yet another Guthrie quip: "Take it easy," he shouted, "but take it!"
Catch Morello when he leads a Woody Guthrie tribute concert May 19 at Chicago's Metro, featuring Holly Near, the Klezmatics, Jon Langford, Bucky Halker and more.
SXSW: Hospitality, Ava Luna, Joe Pug
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 11:55 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — There's buzz, and there's buzz. When people insist you see a band at South by Southwest, it's usually dicey. When people recommend a band like this — "Aw, Hospitality. They're really good. I'd like to see them again" — that you take a little more seriously.
The buzzy Brooklyn band's Friday night showcase at Frank was definitely worth the recommendations, and then some. Unassuming and sometimes unobtrusive, Hospitality segued from sound check to set without any fanfare or introduction; the snugly packed crowd in the small bar simply enjoyed the revelation that, hey, that beautiful music is the room's centerpiece now.
Hospitality, like its namesake, creeps up like that, anyway.
Creating a sound way bigger than the sum of its basic quartet lineup, this is indie-pop with bright colors, effervescent arrangements and, most importantly, real swing. Underneath the big, fat, chiming guitar chords and singer-guitarist Amber Papini's conversational patter is usually a firm beat, certainly a supple groove thanks to left-handed bassist Brian Betancourt. They could probably go toe-to-toe with most dance-rockers from the first wave (Franz Ferdinand, etc.), but they'd also have a calming effect on them. "The Right Profession," from this year's self-titled debut, certainly moves, and "Friends of Friends" enjoys a groovy dance break, but other songs sometimes noodle, sometimes vamp, sometimes slip into a positively Pink Floyd reverie.
• • •
If Steely Dan worked to sound like the actual future, rather than Donald Fagen's nostalgic 1950s Worlds Fair perspective on it, they might sound something like Brooklyn's Ava Luna. A thrilling, lurching, bewildering, surprising frenzy of genre-splicing, this sextet's Friday night return to SXSW at the Iron Bear club rocked and grooved and glitched.
Driven by rhythms that stutter and fray, Ava Luna's 21st-century rock 'n' soul is humanized by no-nonsense vocals. Becca Kauffman and Felicia Douglass bring seriousness and sass, when called for, but it's singer-guitarist Carlos Hernandez that embodies the band's schizophrenic joy. Playing with an ADD tic justifying lyrics like, "If I could focus," Hernandez sings like a less-somnambulant James Blake — all heady methol and melancholy. It's headbanging dubstep, it's postmodern soul, full of sound and fury, and when some feedback began ebbing and flowing between songs — hey, some of us thought it was just part of the band's space-age sound.
• • •
Chicago's Joe Pug sounds like a native down here in Texas. Biting his lip, chewing his accent, flashing his winsome smile or sometimes wincing with emotion, Pug is the picture of down-home earnestness.
Squeezing in just five songs for the Folk Alliance showcase on Saturday at Threadgill's, Pug played a handful of thoughtful country-folk tunes from his second album, "The Great Despiser," due next month. That's after he broke a guitar string — on the first strum of the first chord in the first song -- which was surprising given how tender and delicate most of the material is, augmented here with only an occasional electric guitarist and a stand-up bassist. But the new album features guests such as the Hold Steady's Craig Finn, so it's gonna roll. To close, Pug was joined by Austin music legend Harvey Thomas Young for his song, previously covered by Pug, "Start Again."
SXSW: Don Cornelius, 'Soul Train' celebrated
By Thomas Conner on March 17, 2012 4:54 PM
AUSTIN, Texas — "Soul Train" creator and host Don Cornelius was left out of the Grammys' "in memorium" slide show last month, barely two weeks after the Chicago television pioneer was found dead of an apparent suicide, but he was celebrated Saturday at the annual South by Southwest music conference in the Texas capital.
At an event called "'Soul Train' Tribute to Don Cornelius," NPR's Dan Charnas conducted an amiable onstage chat with Don's son Tony Cornelius about the TV music show's history and legacy.
"If he'd come back here and see the love from those who miss him so much, I wonder, would he decide to stay?" Tony Cornelius asked during the session. "He had so much love to live for. It hurts me that he's not here."
"Soul Train" was one of TV's longest-running syndicated shows, airing for 36 years. Launched at Chicago's WCIU in 1970, the music performance and dance program went national the following year and was crucial in showcasing black soul and R&B artists to a wider audience, including Stevie Wonder, James Brown, Gladys Knight, Aretha Franklin and Michael Jackson.
"Dad talked about that quite often," Cornelius said. "He found a need, and he served it. There was a need to allow not only the music of black Americans but kids an opportunity to express themselves."
Charnas showed numerous video clips -- "Soul Train" performances, dancers, pivotal moments, Afro Sheen commercials (the sponsorship of Chicago-based Johnson Products was important to the show's early survival) -- and Cornelius commented.
"When I watch these clips, what comes to mind that people don't understand is these performances were about relationships. It wasn't, 'I want to do "Soul Train,"' it was friendships that developed over time," Cornelius said.
Many of those relationships began early in Chicago, where Don Cornelius negotiated complete ownership of "Soul Train" at WCIU because "no one believed" in the show, Tony Cornelius said.
Tony Cornelius was around age 12 when "Soul Train" premiered. He worked as a runner, cable mover, lighting operator and more throughout the years, eventually becoming an executive producer. From the start, he recalled, "Soul Train" was a family affair.
"My most vivid memory is my mother writing out cards of all the kids who wanted to dance on the show from high schools around the area," he said.
"The groundswell in Chicago was so exciting that [Don] decided Los Angeles would be the place to take it. That's where the stars were, where the acts were."
He took one thing with him, though: the Scramble Board.
Members of the audience were often selected for the Scramble Board, where they would reorder a jumbled set of letters to spell the name of a prominent black American. Don Cornelius later admitted that the gimmick was always fixed.
"It's funny, but it's true," Tony Cornelius said. "It's something he felt extremely strong about. We were speaking to the world, not just the dancers, and informing anyone who didn't know Stevie Wonder's name or Thurgood Marshall's name how to spell it and who they were."
Cornelius said years later he suggested to his father that they update the Scramble Board to something digital or more contemporary. Don refused, saying he wanted to maintain that set piece — the one piece of the Chicago set that traveled to L.A.
In honor of his father, Cornelius said the family has created the Don Cornelius Foundation to raise awareness, prevention and support for those contemplating suicide and aid for its survivors.
SXSW global: K-pop, Juanes, Bensh, Noa Margalit
By Thomas Conner on March 18, 2012 12:14 AM
AUSTIN, Texas — This year's South by Southwest features music acts from every continent except Antarctica (those penguins aren't as musical as you've been lead to believe). Here's some of the international flavor I sampled this week:
• • •
The panel session at SXSW 2012 was titled with a question — "Do Music Moguls Know a Secret About K-Pop?" — but the non-insider query is simpler: Do you know what K-pop is?
It's a genre of hyper-produced, often sugary sweet pop music mostly out of South Korea. It's got its own Billboard chart, and in December launched its own festival (K-Pop World, Dec. 7 in Seoul). According to the moderator of this industry panel, it's "a huge thing across Asia and other parts of the world," and it's about to invade the states.
Earlier in the year, I suggested 2012 might have a more worldly sound, including more K-pop. Already in the United States, South Korean idol Kim Hyun-a has attracted media attention, and when K-pop acts tour this country it's not just their music that turns American heads.
"People often are stopping because of how many people show up" to these concerts, said Flowsion Shekar, founder of Koreaboo, a Korean news blog.
David Zedeck, a booking agent at Creative Artists Agency, said he's selling out 1,700 to 2,500-capacity venues with K-pop, even in interior cities like Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver. The group Girls Generation announced via Twitter that they would premiering a new video at a New York Best Buy. "We had 1,500 kids show up on a school day — from a tweet," he marveled. "This is bigger than anyone thinks it is."
Other prominent K-pop acts include Bigbang, JYP, the Wonder Girls and SMTown.
"Even though it comes from Korea, it's not of or for Korea anymore," said Jeff Yang, the Tao Jones columnist for the Wall Street Journal ("It wasn't my idea," he said sheepishly of his column's name). "It's become a world music. There are more people who don't understand Korean listening to K-pop than in Korea."
Yang predicted K-pop could develop in America one of two ways: It could become like Latin music, a cultural identifier for Asian-American communities, or it could establish itself as a platform like hip-hop, inviting collaboration and eventual evolution into something larger.
Some of the latter already is happening. Kanye West previously worked with the trio JYJ (rapping on the single "Ayyy Girl") and has said he plans to do more with the group. Snoop Dogg recently appeared on a track by Girls Generation, and DJ Swizz Beatz says he's hoping to help bring K-pop acts like Bigbang (currently atop the K-pop charts, No. 1 and 2) to America.
• • •
In addition to performing his own and Woody Guthrie's song immediately before Bruce Springsteen's keynote address at SXSW 2012 — one of his first English-language performances — Colombian singer Juanes has been making multiple appearances at the festival all week. He discussed his upcoming May album, "Juanes MTV Unplugged," during a Friday panel session, then performed during the Latin rock showcase later that night.
In an AP interview, he celebrated the cultural smorgasbord that is SXSW: "It's such a great opportunity to interact together and exchange culture. I just feel the world now and the world is absolutely sick, you know, so I just see music and culture and art in general as a great idea to change at least our own environment and just connect people to the music. You can just go and walk around the street and you can see bands from I don't know, wherever, and they can sing in Chinese if you want. You just have the opportunity to connect with somebody else you didn't know, and that's good."
• • •
The sheer volume of music at SXSW makes random discoveries possible, probable and the payoff is often good. Thursday night I stopped for stir-fry at one of Austin's better food trucks downtown near Fifth and Brazos. On the corner a trio of Austrian vagabonds was playing to anyone who'd stop and listen. They're called Bensh, and they don't sound like a sidewalk band. Good-spirited pop with flourishes of electronics and gypsy bounce, Bensh's fluid, well-crafted pop caused me to scribble a seemingly bizarre list of comparisons in my notebook: Luka Bloom, Deathray, Syd Barrett, Animal Collective, the Monochrome Set. Much spunkier live than on record, Bensh still made a great impulse download that was perfectly dreamy in the earbuds during a pedicab ride home.
• • •
A showcase of musicians from Israel, sponsored by the Israeli Consul, ran all day Friday in a downtown park. I caught an acoustic set by Noa Margalit, from the rock band the Car Sitters. Listening to her stoic personal songs, you'd never guess how energetic the Car Sitters usually are. Tel Aviv's Margalit — breathy, barefoot, bar-chording the heck out of her guitar — played things close to the vest, at least sonically. Lyrically, she was raging about politics and quality of life, lamenting (or marveling?) that "it doesn't take much to survive."
Later, J. Viewz, aka Grammy-nominated and Brooklyn-based producer Jonathan Dagan, let loose some throbbing beats with a soulful vocalist and great live drums.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.