SXSW Notebook Dump, Day 2

Thursday morning, Lou Reed sat for the keynote interview with producer and friend Hal Willner, Willner likely chosen because Reed respected him enough to take his questions seriously. Willner started roughly, babbling about Lou as if even he was afraid to ask him a question. Even with a long-time friendship, he had a hard time with the halting rhythms of Reed’s answers. Much of the conversation focused on the new Julian Schnabel film of a live performance of Reed’s Berlin, but it rambled nicely, and Reed was often hysterically deadpan.

When asked what other instrument he wishes he could play, he talked about the saxophone. “I love Lee Allen,” he said, singling out the New Orleans sax player. “Every sax player on my records, I asked ‘Could you play like Lee Allen?’ Except Ornette. I did not as Ornette Coleman to play like Lee Allen.”

Roots rock afternoon at the New West party. Tim Easton played backed by the Whipsaws from Alaska, and their barroom drive gave his songs power without sounding as much like Dylan with the Band as he often does. Buddy Miller followed him, opening with “Shelter Me” before introducing his guitar player – Johnny Rivers. The rest of the show was a Johnny Rivers show, including a strong version of “Red House” and “Mountain of Love,” with “Lawdy Miss Claudy” and “Kansas City” folded into the song. One friend asked, “Why does Johnny Rivers look so young?” I think it’s a function of standing next to Buddy Miller.

Dead zone – unmoved by Old 97s, tried to see Vampire Weekend but the line was down the street. Found beer instead.

Susan Cowsill at Central Presbyterian Church – Going to a church during SXSW seems very wrong & very sober, but no question – a church serves Susan’s voice beautifully. Everything sounded big and dramatic, and her road band’s spare arrangements add muscle without distracting from her voice.

The Cowsills followed her, minus brother John, who was on the road with the Beach Boys. Her show was more coherent as the Cowsills’ set of hits, songs by Billy, covers and new songs didn’t come together as more than just a bunch of songs. But the fun of the Cowsills is the interaction between them. They harmonize with absurd ease, and they clearly have fun with each other. Susan was obviously amused by brother Paul’s over the top stage presence. You’d think he was fronting Tool.

Mason Jennings – Some guy who had a little Ray Davies in his phrasing, but Ray would never have written a line about “a tiny cage made of angel wings.”

Alejandro Escovedo played Stubb’s with an intimate gathering by his standards – 2 guitars, bass, drums, cello and violin. Nobody gets farther on the tension and drive created by chopping out a pulse. He doesn’t swing or lay back; everything moves forward with a strong sense of purpose. He played two from his upcoming album, a suite of songs reflecting on the underground rock ‘n’ roll world since he joined it. One, “Sensitive Boys,” was dedicated to Green on Red, the Replacements and all the bands that packed up in a van and toured the country. It was pretty sensitive. “Real as an Atom Bomb,” on the other hand, was as hard as an Atom Bomb.

Curumin – A Brazilian band from Sao Paulo whose first album came out on Quannum last year, and on album, you could hear a love of hip-hop and electronica matched to Latin grooves. Live, their passions were clearer – a bass and drummer who grooved like crazy with the third member playing a sampler, including Spanish guitar parts. A Japanese woman in the front row was ga-ga for them.

Supagroup – The grim realities of SXSW manifested themselves for this show. Not everybody gets a kickass venue; in this case, Supagroup played a 6th Street venue that was dark with the sign, “Closed for SXSW” taped to the window. The chalk board in front of a neighboring bar indicated that the door to the venue was around the corner in a back alley. Not surprisingly, 40 or so people found their way to the show, and they were obviously people into the band. Before their set, almost everybody stopped to talk to someone in the band, asking when Supagroup’s coming back to their town, or swapping road stories with friends.

In the roots rock artists such as Easton, Alejandro, James McMurtry and Jon Dee Graham, there’s something to think about, particularly with regard to their place in the world. More on that later.