Another SXSW Music Festival is now in the books. You know the deal: Five days. Nearly 2,000 bands, nearly a quarter of which are international. Over 12,000 people. What I learned from last year was the need to make hard decisions: With so many bands, there’s no way to see everything you want to see. Also, you’ve got to leave room in your schedule to go with the flow. Do this and sometimes you’ll make some exciting discoveries. I certainly did.
First, here’s what I missed that I wanted to see: V.V. Brown, Somi, Dam Funk, Year of the Dragon, and Anti-Pop Consortium. Also missed Malene Younglao (glad to see she’s not really “retiring”), The 54, TheFiveOne, British group The Invisible, Flying Lotus and Mwangaza Children's Choir of Uganda.
So, who did I see? I made a point of getting over to see Texas bluesman Guitar Shorty. This was on my must-see list since I’d read that he had some significant influence on Jimi Hendrix. Also, dude is in his 70s. He’s still vibrant (for his final song, he did a 5 minute solo during which he left the stage and walked through the venue, outside and re-entered through another door. See the photo above. Dope.) I didn''t want to wait and assume he was going to have dates in New York City, and I'm glad I made that move.
Finally got to see Gordon Voidwell, the alter ego of multi-instrumentalist and producer Will Johnson (above, second fr. left). I’d been hearing about Gordon from Guillermo Brown, the one artist I regret not including on the Boldaslove.us compilation. More on that at another time. Anyway, turns out his publicist is my good friend Vickie Starr of Girlie Action, who leaned on a bunch of us to show up, and I’m glad she did. With the help of Guillermo, Tecla Esposito (ex-Sweetie) and Kassa Overall (who plays regularly with jazz master Geri Allen and avant electronic group BiLLLL$), the group creates this crazy, fun mashup of Talking Heads, Rick James and Prince. And it works. Well.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops
Also, finally got to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops, the American roots trio that I’ve been hearing so much about from Kandia Crazy Horse and Kamara Thomas of Earl Greyhound. What I think makes them special is 1) they’re clearly having fun with each other, the music and the audience; and 2) they have such a deep love for roots music and through their work they’re bringing that music into the consciousness of younger, 21st century audiences. Their showcase at the Driskill Hotel was SRO and for good reason. It was great to see them work multiple instruments to powerful effect: guitar, banjo, jug, violin. And all three of them—Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens and Justin Robinson—are all strong vocally. A high point was their rework of Blu Cantrell’s “Hit ‘Em Up Style” during which Rhiannon unleashed some gutbucket growls over Justin’s beatboxing. Yeah, an original roots crew can beatbox.
Caught Lisa Kekaula and The Bellrays and was struck by how much she channels Tina Turner. On one hand, maybe it was her muscular legs that were planted wide and shaking as she sang. But was probably the voice: She can summon this raging growl that only got more intense, I suspect, out of her increasing frustration at the ineptitude of the sound man: Mics weren’t working and the mix in the house was way off (Why would anyone stack all the speakers on one side of a room? ) Despite this, The Bellrays delivered the goods. We were packed in there, enthusiastically with the band. And, looking around at the handful of other black folks, it was clear that they, too, were thrilled to see this black woman rocker represent.
First of all, it was cold as all get out Saturday night. Imagine this: 40-degrees and windy in the heart of Texas. But another packed house was out to see what looks to be a success story 35 years in the making. I felt the current trio of brothers Bobby and Dannis Hackney and new guitarist Bobby Duncan started out a bit conservatively. However, midway through the short set, they relaxed, took off their coats and let loose. By the time Death got the finale of “Politicians In My Eyes,” they ripped it. Overall, I found all of the activity that day surrounding Death very poignant: As he did on the panel earlier, he mentioned that it was the birthday of his late brother David, who had an unwavering vision of Death’s eventual success right up until his passing in 2000.
Speaking of the interview, it went well. I was clear my job was to let them tell
their story, get them from 1964 to 2010 in about an hour, and basically stay out of the way. Here they are below prior to the panel with Bevis Griffin, acknowledged as the first black rock artist in Texas.
Left to right: Bobby Duncan, Bevis Griffin, Dannis Hackney, Bobby Hackney. And below is a photo by Laina Dawes.
I crossed I-35 and made it over to the all-female MC showcase that Detroit MC and social activist Invincible put together. I caught the tail-end of her fellow MC, Chicagoan Psalm One. Then it was time for Invincible. I gotta give it up: She rocked the crowd and is a great example of hip hop that can be both substantive and dope. Looking forward to listening to her album Shapeshifters.