For a band that shot to stardom peddling its appetite for destruction, Guns N’ Roses arrived Friday at San Antonio’s Alamodome in seemingly good health and ready to go the distance.
Playing for just over three hours (!), reunited classic band members – singer Axl Rose, top-hatted guitarist Slash and bassist Duff McKagan – were supported by a capable cast of backing musicians including Izzy Stradlin/Ronnie Wood lookalike guitarist Richard Fortus, drummer Frank Ferrer, keyboardist Dizzy Reed and keyboardist Melissa Reese. Billed as the “Not in This Lifetime” tour – a name born of the animosity that kept Slash and Axl at odds for more than two decades – this was as close as fans could get to a classic reunion.
While the glossy, big-budget production was the stuff of arena-rock excess, GN’R’s core catalog of songs remains as venomous as ever. Let’s face it: No amount of professional polish is going to detox such gutter-rock classics as “Welcome to the Jungle,” “Mr. Brownstone,” “Night Train,” “It’s So Easy,” “My Michelle” and “Rocket Queen.”
On the flip side, GN’R also has a knack for lush orchestration and finesse. The piano ballad “November Rain” was – to use an overused, but wholly appropriate word – epic. Conversely, the acoustic “Patience” was beautifully bare bones. “Don’t Cry” also showed GN’R’s softer side, and a dueling guitar version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” added goosebumps to goosebumps (as did teases of Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla” outro, Alice Cooper’s “Only Women Bleed” and Led Zeppelin’s “Rain Song”).
Speaking of cover tunes, McKagan took an early turn on lead vocals when he segued Johnny Thunders’ “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around a Memory” into the Misfits’ “Attitude.” He also paid tribute to fallen friend and fellow Seattleite Chris Cornell with a Rose/McKagan duet on Soundgarden’s “Black Hole Sun.” An oddball choice of the Jimmy Webb/Glen Campbell song, “Wichita Lineman,” also was offered in tribute to another recently fallen icon, and Bob Dylan’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” was met with a crowd-strong singalong.
Individually, the guys who sold the tickets were on the money. Rose was charismatic as ever and in fine vocal form as he covered the stage, stopping to smile and wave at fans in the front rows. Slash somehow got through the gig without a cigarette and proved once again – especially on the massive overhead video screens – that he is one of the greatest rock guitarists of the past few decades. McKagan, as always, was the picture of rock-star cool.
“You Could Be Mine,” “Coma,” “Used to Love Her,” “Civil War,” “Sweet Child O’ Mine” and AC/DC’s “Whole Lotta Rosie” helped complete the set (the latter reminding that Rose recently fronted Angus Young’s band) before confetti cannons brought “Paradise City” to a rousing finale.
It could be argued there were too many cover tunes, but in the end, GN’R earned an A for musicianship, presentation and crowd-pleasing stamina.
On any other night, opening act ZZ Top is a headliner in its own right. To their credit, the legendary Texas boogie rockers graciously played second fiddle to GN’R by offering a lively set of classic tunes and flashy showmanship – and giving fans the added bang of a solid double bill. A tip of the hat to the Top!
The first issue of TheVillage Voice I ever saw was the one dated January 22, 1979. The cover headlines were “The Case Against Jimmy Liar” (by Jack Newfield, with President Carter headshot), “Donald Trump Cuts the Cards” (by Wayne Barrett), and, most relevant for the next going-on-40 years of my life, “Triumph of the New Wave: Results of the Fifth (or Sixth) Annual Pazz and Jop Critics’ Poll” (by Robert Christgau, duh). I was in my freshman year at the University of Detroit, in the tower office of the Varsity News. Back in my safe suburban home, I’d never seen an alternative weekly, much less this all-time archetypal one, which basically invented the genre but last week announced after more than half a century that it’s about to stop publishing paper editions. I’d just started buying a handful of new wave records, especially ones by Elvis Costello, whom the cover pictured in his anxious early nerd-glasses mode. The 1978 album poll inside, which Costello won, fascinated me — not only because I’d never heard of Wire, Pere Ubu or Ian Dury, but because I’d never heard of rock criticism.
I know about the cover because I still have it, on actual tattered newsprint. For years, it’s been stored in a dilapidated 15×13-inch red plastic binder, along with every subsequent Pazz & Jop section through Nirvana’s 1991, plus a few mid-’70s ones printed out from an ancient college microfilm machine. Before long, I was reviewing albums myself, and becoming increasingly obsessed with the Voice music section and Pazz & Jop in particular. By early 1982, I was voting in the poll. Two years later, by which time I was a Signal Corps lieutenant in West Germany, Robert Christgau printed a big chunk of an 11-page letter I’d affixed to my 1983 top-tens ballot, quoted me in his essay, and asked me to start writing for him. By the end of the 1980s, I was racking up bylines almost every other week.
The music section that Christgau meticulously, perspiration-inducingly line-edited opened up a whole new world of hip-hop, house music, freestyle, soundtracks, Southern soul and beyond, by the smartest critics anywhere. I have piles of clips stuffed in folders somewhere. In another red plastic binder, I have a ridiculously thick pile of monthly Consumer Guides from the early ’80s through mid-’90s — mostly by Christgau, but also including lots of jazz and a few new music, classical and country ones by occasional pinch-hitters.
Which is to say: Even though I admittedly haven’t held a copy in my hands for at least a couple of years (who in Austin even carries the thing?), the now-endangered tactile as opposed to evaporating digital version of the Voice has meant a whole lot to me, for most of my life. In the late ’80s in Michigan and early-mid-’90s in Philadelphia, the day the Pazz & Jop issue came out, I would drive clear across town to scarf up a copy the minute it finally hit a local train station or wherever, just to breathlessly find out whether they’d published my comments or best-of lists, As often as not, they did, saving me from being crestfallen, partly because I’d been neurotically obsessing on both for months. And this all happened despite the fact that my whole persona and/or shtick as a writer revolved around my provincial skepticism about New York pretension in the general — all those bogus multisyllabic words about deconstruction and structuralism that I made a point of being unable to decipher.
Through the ’90s, the Voice and I had a notably volatile on-off relationship. I fared better with some editors than others, and those others had a point. I published two books and wrote for competing magazines. But before the millennium turned, the music editor’s job opened up. I’d only been to New York a couple of times in my life, and the outgoing editor warned me he doubted I had the disposition for the job — being, I don’t know, a royal crank or whatever. (Or, as one letter to the editor dubbed me, The Mayor of Asshole City.) But I applied anyway, and for whatever reason, they hired me. Maybe the traditionally lefty paper was looking to diversify by recruiting a white male hetero Army veteran from the Midwest who’d grown up on Ted Nugent records, a demographic that’s only grown more deplorable ever since. After the interview, I was told that if I wanted the gig, I best head back to Philly and start packing bags.
I hung on to the position for seven years — longer than any Village Voice music editor ever, save Dean of Critics Christgau himself. (By my count, 11 people officially held the position while it lasted.) For a few years I was able to see pretty much any show in town, from Madison Square Garden on down to the most humble Lower East Side dive, for free, then expense the taxi ride home. Even crazier, I got to work with world-historic writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates (who I must have been one of the first editors ever to professionally publish), Luc Sante (who helped me move into my first New York apartment!) and Mary Gaitskill — not to mention a gaggle of interns who went on to be editors and/or authors themselves, and by now probably report more 1040 income than I do.
I was there to shape commentary after Columbine, to put together a benefit CD after 9-11, to crank out a cover story about Eminem’s fatherhood skills. I oversaw the Voice’s Best of New York issue (about a city I’d always resented!) for four years, and ran that venerable Pazz & Jop poll for seven. And I was aboard, even to the extent of recording a monthly radio show, when the Voice started the website that would ultimately supersede everything else. In other words, the beginning of the end: It’s when bosses really started reining in my section, which smartly or stupidly I tended to conceive at as a creative project in its own right. That, along with a 2005 merger with an alternative weekly chain out of Phoenix, were ultimately my undoing.
And here’s the thing: As proud as I am of being there when it mattered, I’ve never been an ambitious person. The Voice was not meant to be my stepping stone to somewhere else; it was my dream job, period, and I was naive enough to imagine I’d be its music editor forever. That changed in 2006. In 2009, I moved to Austin. I’m fine, but it’s not the same. And never will be.
Chuck Eddy, a former editor at The Village Voice and Billboard, is the author of the books Stairway To Hell, The Accidental Evolution of Rock ’n’ Roll, Rock and Roll Always Forgets and Terminated for Reasons of Taste. The decades-long contributor to Rolling Stone, Spin, Creem and other publications lives in Deep South Almost-Not-Austin.
By Kayleigh Hughes, special to the American-Statesman
At the Austin stop of her intimate “Sorry Not Sorry” house party tour, pop superstar Demi Lovato showed she’s ready to embrace happiness. The singer brought smiles and jams on Saturday for a breezy, would-have-been-a-boat party along the shores of Lake Travis at Ernie’s on the Lake.
The event’s premise — celebrating the release of Lovato’s new single with a private boat party for her biggest fans — was complicated by weather. (There must be some exasperation for artists who book weather-reliant events in the notoriously often-drought-ridden Austin, only to be faced with wicked horizontal rain on the day of their event.) But Lovato and her team handled the complication with grace, relocating the party to the lower-level of Ernie’s and decking the space out with giant balloon letters spelling out “Sorry Not Sorry.”
Speaking to the Austin American-Statesman, Lovato explained that the house party tour is “a play off the music video” for “Sorry Not Sorry,” which is centered on a big bash. Lovato entered the venue with the poise of a seasoned professional and took to the stage to perform two songs in a jovial, high-energy mini-set. The first tune was, of course, the fierce “Sorry Not Sorry,” a ferociously confident pop banger. Lovato followed the new song with her smash hit, the sultry “Cool for the Summer,” before hopping offstage for a meet-and-greet with eager fans.
Lovato’s many fans, all grins and big hugs during their few shining moments with the star, are dedicated to her — and the relationship goes both ways. “I’m always connected with them,” the singer told the Statesman of her dedicated legions of “Lovatics.” “They’re just continuing to inspire me, and I’m just continuing to open up my heart and help them in whatever way I can.”
For Lovato, that help comes in many forms: speaking out about women’s rights; sharing photos on Instagram with inspiring body positive messages, such as an April 13 post that says “I don’t have a thigh gap and I’m still beautiful the way I am”; and writing anthems that are unafraid and unapologetic — and perfect for pumping loud when you need to build yourself up. When asked if that brazenness was natural or learned, she said, “I think it’s just a part of who I am.” Lovato added, “Growing up, I’ve always been unapologetic. I’ve been outspoken about the things that I believe in… I’ve never quieted myself for anybody.”
Lovato has fought bipolar disorder, addiction, and eating disorders in her past, and the former Disney Channel star has bravely put much of her private life on display in service of starting real conversations about these issues. In 2015, she launched a mental health campaign, and in 2016, she performed at the Democratic National Convention, openly stating that while she was lucky to have been able to receive outstanding mental health care, not everyone is so fortunate. Of being an activist and a musician, Lovato said Saturday, “I feel like everyone can make a difference, and it’s important to use your platform for more than just your talents.”
But Saturday’s event indicated that the star is in a new place, both for her career and her personal life. For one thing, she’s not taking questions about mental health right now. Given how valuable Lovato’s frank, honest voice has been for reducing stigmas, you can hardly blame her for wanting a break. At 24, the lifelong performer has been through more than many 40-year-olds. And as any activist can tell you, it’s a draining business talking about such serious topics — made exponentially moreso when there’s a personal connection.
“I’ve shared about my struggles,” Lovato said. “But what people haven’t seen is the lighter side of me, the happier side of me.” With the house party tour and upcoming documentary “I Am: Demi Lovato,” she’s aiming to reveal — and revel in — that happier side. And what makes her happy? Lovato is quick to answer, zeroing right in on her biggest support systems: friends, family and fans. “The three Fs,” she calls them.
“I Am: Demi Lovato” also documents the artist’s experience recording a new album, which she confirmed to the Statesman would be released “by the end of the year.” Lovato says the project will have an R&B and pop focus. If “Sorry Not Sorry” is any indication, the singer is at the top of her songwriting game and will be dominating arenas on her next big tour. For now, though, she’s taking a moment to enjoy performing in small venues for her fans. “It’s been so much fun,” Lovato said. “I feel like I know my fans.”
By John T. Davis/Special to the American-Statesman
Sometimes the good things are worth waiting for.
Jason Isbell has spent the past few years collecting new fans, critics’ plaudits, Grammy awards and media attention with a near-mechanical regularity. The process seems to be peaking with the very recent release of his latest album, “The Nashville Sound.” It takes some serious momentum and buzz to pack ACL Live for three nights running.
But there he was, onstage with his crackerjack band, the 400 Unit, in front of a crowd buzzing with anticipation. And there I was, laying eyes on him in person for the first time.
Well, better late than never. Oh, I’d seen Isbell in his former incarnation as a member of the Drive-By Truckers. But this new guy — the bandleader, the astringent, insightful songwriter, the forceful vocalist — was still, to me, a largely unknown quantity.
But not for long. That Isbell made one more convert during the course of a tight, 18-song set Friday night probably meant less than nothing to him. But to this audience member, watching a musician emerge onto a new and higher plateau of craft, assurance and showmanship was a rare treat to experience.
The musical template from which Isbell draws is full of sunny Americana-tinged hues that include folk, rock, country and blues. But many of his lyrics mine the same blasted landscape of fraught dead ends that has been mapped by James McMurtry, Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen. Isbell’s music is the soundtrack of a man trying to prove to himself he’s still alive.
“I used to think this was my town/What a stupid thing to think,” he sang on his opening number, “Hope the High Road.” “I hear you’re fighting off a breakdown/I myself am on the brink.” And he followed that with the Tom Petty-esque rocker “24 Frames,” which warned ominously, “You thought God was an architect/Now you know/He’s something like a pipe bomb/Ready to blow.”
Hard-hitting sentiments, to be sure, but Isbell isn’t a doom and gloom merchant. Rather, he was selling stoicism and transcendence: marching forward no matter what, clutching the hand you’re dealt.
He was aided in his efforts by the 400 Unit, an airtight quintet that features his wife, fiddler and vocalist Amanda Shires (she’s opening the shows Saturday and Sunday). Whether in semi-acoustic mode, as in “The Last of My Kind,” “If We Were Vampires” or “Something To Love,” or rocking like a Saturday night bar band on “Cumberland Gap” and an encore cover of the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post,” the band made the kind of multi-layered, full-throated sound that filled up every corner of the room. It was an exhilarating experience.
There were a couple of false moments. To these ears, “Something To Love” and “If It Takes a Lifetime” didn’t work in the context of the rest of Isbell’s taut and wary lyrics. There wasn’t a lived-in feel to the songs, and they seemed self-conscious. But that’s a subjective judgment, and a small caveat to what was a revelatory evening.
To judge by last night’s show Isbell certainly seems to be at the top of his game. That doesn’t mean he’s peaked, by any means. But you know he’s got to be enjoying the view.
“This is my favorite part of the night,” Dangerous Toys frontman Jason McMaster said with a smirk as he sauntered onstage at 10:59 p.m., one minute before the band’s designated start time. “We don’t even know if the gear works yet and I’m already talking shit!”
The healthy crowd inside Come and Take It Live (Grizzly Hall) roared with approval as McMaster’s bandmates took the stage and kicked off a raucous, 90-minute set that highlighted the Toys’ massive guitar riffs and devilish sense of humor. To call the quintet’s Saturday show a nostalgia trip is hardly an insult, but a requirement, given they haven’t released an album since 1995’s unfortunately titled “The R-Tist 4-Merly Known as Dangerous Toys.” The fans hugging the barricade who drove all the way from North Carolina didn’t come here for new material, a fact McMaster readily acknowledged when he told them, “You … already know the set list anyway.”
Though rarely mentioned alongside other Austin rockers who broke out of the city, Dangerous Toys rode the last wave of hair metal hysteria to modest national success. After drafting McMaster from local prog-metal quartet Watchtower in 1987, the band signed to Columbia Records and released their 1989 eponymous debut, which eventually went gold. Arena tours opening for the Cult, Judas Priest and Alice Cooper followed, but by the time they released 1991’s “Hellacious Acres,” the Toys found themselves caught in the eye of the grunge storm. Suddenly, the winking misogyny of “Sport’n a Woody” and “Teas’n, Pleas’n” seemed a lot less amusing.
It’s a shame, too, because those first two records explode with ear-splitting screams and sleazy, southern-fried riffs more akin to ZZ Top than Ratt. The band wisely mined those records for the majority of their annual hometown gig, showcasing the irreverent blues boogie of “Take Me Drunk” and sinister shredding on “Bones in the Gutter.”
Credit the Toys for aging far better than most of their poufy-haired peers, both physically and musically. Guitarists Scott Dalhover and Paul Lidel traded chunky riffs and nimble solos, the former in particular flexing his lead chops with lightning-fast sweeps and whammy bar acrobatics. Meanwhile, at 52, McMaster still sports a trim waistline and the same banshee wail that earned him Axl Rose comparisons several decades ago (even though any self-respecting fan could distinguish the two by their tattoos).
The frontman fed off the crowd’s energy, though he was quick to fact-check one diehard who claimed to have seen their album release party in Deep Ellum in 1987: “Nope. Album did not come out in ’87. But I like your candor!”
This cheeky sense of humor and self-awareness turned what could have easily been a warm and fuzzy walk down memory lane into a genuinely exciting rock show. Rather than act bitter about their fleeting success, Dangerous Toys seemed grateful for the opportunity to play to an appreciative audience. McMaster thanked fans profusely as he led them in a rousing sing-along on closing number “Scared,” which stretched to nearly 10 minutes.
“1989, some shit happened,” he said dismissively of the Toys’ Columbia deal, now more than half his lifetime ago. “We didn’t take it seriously. Thirty years later, we get to milk the shit out of it!”
When the apostle Paul wrote his first epistle to Timothy, surely he didn’t expect his words to resonate 2,000 years later amidst a throng of rabid Panic! at the Disco fans.
“Let no one despise your youth,” the disciple exhorted, a word that fans took to heart during the band’s 90-minute marathon at the Frank Erwin Center on Sunday night. Grizzled music critics often dismiss artists that appeal primarily to this passionate demographic, but none could deny the ear-splitting screams from some 17,000 devotees in attendance, many of them teenagers who likely witnessed the uniting power of live music for the first time.
Truth is, Panic’s continued relevance and ability to pack arenas is something of a miracle. After 2005’s “A Fever You Can’t Sweat Out” went double platinum off the strength of vaudevillian emo anthem “I Write Sins Not Tragedies,” the group took a drastic left turn into baroque pop on sophomore LP “Pretty. Odd.” Lead guitarist and chief songwriter Ryan Ross and bassist Jon Walker departed shortly thereafter, and the underperforming “Vices & Virtues” further darkened the band’s prospects.
Since then, lead singer and sole original member Brendon Urie has clawed his way back to superstardom by sheer force of will, mining the sleazy, electro-glam-rock and sultry swing of his native Las Vegas on last year’s chart-topping “Death of a Bachelor.” The decadent cocktail of Queen bombast and Sinatra crooning affirmed the 29-year-old’s status as modern rock royalty, and his current jaunt boasts the fireworks, confetti guns and dazzling onscreen visuals to prove it.
It also allows Urie to indulge his every whim. Sporting skintight black leather pants and a gold jacket, the frontman dashed across the stage all night, flexing his seemingly limitless falsetto by injecting stratospheric vocal runs into nearly every song. These acrobatics popped especially on “Bachelor” tracks, such as the soulful “Hallelujah” and the sinister, swaggering “Emperor’s New Clothes.”
Urie played eight of the 11 tracks off his new album, as well as five from the band’s last effort, 2013’s “Too Weird to Live, Too Rare to Die.!” Fans hoping for a nostalgia trip had to settle for a brisk “Fever” medley and a muscular rendition of “Nine in the Afternoon” off “Pretty. Odd.” The singer has long since outgrown his impish, teenage Mad Hatter persona, but it’s still frustrating to see him abandon the group’s second album and most daring stylistic departure. The rollicking “Pas De Cheval” begs for a live overhaul, and a solo acoustic performance of “Northern Downpour” would uncork those tear ducts in a heartbeat.
Not that Urie lacked the opportunity to woo the hysterical, mostly female crowd sans backing band. The masses reached a fever pitch when he ascended on a rotating platform at the opposite end of the venue for a stunning piano rendition of “This is Gospel,” only to one-up themselves when he sauntered across the arena floor to “Death of a Bachelor,” charitably offering hugs and handshakes and accepting a bouquet of flowers from one star-struck fan.
The singer also showed his roots with a breathtaking cover of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and a sprightly version of Billy Joel’s “Movin’ Out (Anthony’s Song).” The latter was a perfect fit for Urie, who, like Joel, displays his affinity for sounds of a bygone era.
“This man was the soundtrack to my childhood,” Urie said of the Piano Man, for whom he got to perform “Movin’ Out” on a previous tour date. “This is for Sir William Joel! I just knighted him!”
The most poignant moment of the evening came during “Girls/Girls/Boys,” as Urie draped a rainbow flag over his microphone stand and videos of gay rights protests played on the screen behind him. Fans shined their smartphone lights through an array of multicolored paper hearts, illuminating the Red River drum with a rainbow of hues.
“This is just the biggest sign of love,” Urie told the audience. “Thank you for being a part of something so gorgeous. We’re in the midst of history. A revolution is happening, and I’m gonna be right beside you for it.”
It was a brief message that wisely avoided sermonizing; just a simple call for love and inclusivity to an audience that took its main attraction’s words as gospel truth. Hallelujah.
Don’t Threaten Me with a Good Time
Ready to Go (Get Me Out of My Mind)
Medley: The Only Difference Between Martyrdom and Suicide is Press Coverage/Camisado/But It’s Better If You Do
By John T. Davis
Special to the American-Statesman
Say this about Ruthie Foster: Once she sings a song, that rascal stays sung.
A case in point is “Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever,” which Foster performed midway through her headlining concert at the Paramount Theatre on Saturday to celebrate the release of her new album, “Joy Comes Back.”
Originally a lighter-than-air Motown confection that was a hit for the Four Tops, the song also got a wonderfully rough-hewn treatment from The Band some years back. But Foster, with the help of her own band and several special guests, opened the song up and took it to church. After she got done, it was hard to ever envision the tune otherwise.
Foster is diminutive in stature, but she has a gospel-soaked voice as big as Godzilla. And whether she turns it loose on airy pop (“Open Sky”), gutbucket blues (Mississippi John Hurt’s “Richland Woman Blues”), anthems of affirmation (“Working Woman” and “Phenomenal Woman”) or even reggae (an encore rendition of her own “Real Love”), she has a transformative effect on her material.
That even goes for her South-Austin-back-porch-jam-session take on Black Sabbath’s “War Pigs.” It’s tempting to regard the unusual interpretation as a sly goof, and maybe on one level it is. But damned if Foster didn’t sell that song like it was the greatest thing since night baseball.
On this evening she had a bigger musical palette to work with than usual. In addition to her usual ensemble, she added the talents of guitarists David Grissom and Carolyn Wonderland and fiddler Warren Hood, as well as a harp player, a keyboardist and a pair of backup vocalists. The array of musicians let her put some extra muscle into the blues rocker “Working Woman” and Son House’s gospel testament “People Grinnin’ in Your Face.”
But the night was all about Foster, and she made the most of it. During her encore number, she took one note and held it. She shook it, worked it, wrung every drop of emotion out of it and then held it some more. It brought to mind those Olympic ice skaters who pirouette for what seems like forever in a timeless dimension.
Since last I saw the Peterson Brothers perform (admittedly its been awhile), the Austin-based group, who opened the show for Foster, have progressed leaps and bounds in terms of chops, stage presence and all-around showmanship. It’s a long way from holding down a residency at the Continental Club to commanding the attention of a full house at the Paramount, but brothers Alex (bass and vocals) and Glenn Jr. (guitar and vocals), along with drummer Chris Mead, did so without breaking a sweat. From an opening medley which improbably married up Tampa Red’s “Don’t You Lie To Me” with “The Theme From Shaft” to a turbo-charged workout on “Got My Mojo Workin’,” which saw the guys parading up the aisles and through the theater lobby, their too-short set was bristling with fun and infectious energy.
Update: Warren Hood’s name has been corrected from an earlier version of this review.
People know Wu-Tang Clan, but they don’t really know Wu-Tang Clan. Tuesday night’s South by Southwest performance at Austin City Limits Live wasn’t the heads, and most big shows where not even a badge can guarantee you entry are not for the heads. There were probably more people standing in line who could have a substantial discussion about which members’ solo records are the best than actually inside the show. It’s fun to yell “Wu-Tang Clan ain’t nothing to f**k with!” with a bunch of people, it really is. That didn’t make the show any less artificial.
Wu-Tang is a far-ranging collective of members with different styles, and that worked against them. Method Man was absent, as he was for their Fun Fun Fun Fest appearance in 2015. Redman came on and did a couple songs, and while his energy punctured the crowd, the more modern-influenced sound didn’t jive with Wu-Tang’s jazz derived classics. RZA, whose Shaw Brothers shirt defined “on brand,” made an impassioned plea for refugees towards the end of the night. Not a second after did the raggedy piano chords of “Shimmy Shimmy Ya,” deceased member Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s solo track that’s a Wu-Tang staple, come on, and the transition was jarring. That’s not to say a person, or a group, can’t contain multitudes, but it felt as though RZA’s speech was tacked on, to fulfill a “political statement” quota.
Erykah Badu did a DJ set before their set, and she came back on to perform “Afro” and talk about how she was hustling during SXSW 1993 to get her demo tape out, citing Wu-Tang as an inspiration. Nothing can kill the “SXSW is where you go to make it” dream. And it probably goes without saying that “C.R.E.A.M.” is the festival’s unofficial theme song.
Some Wu-Tang members weren’t there, and some may have well not been there. In particular, GZA didn’t get much mic time. That was the opposite of his performance at the Soylent party Sunday at Whisler’s, where there was little separation and the crowd. He’d bust the Interactive badge crowd for being too timid, even they were mere feet from his face. It makes sense that GZA would perform at a Soylent function, given his futuristic focus in his lyrics (Soylent doesn’t promise an exciting future, but that’s for another day). These big parties aren’t much his thing. He’d rather be playing chess or hanging out with Neil DeGrasse Tyson, and you could tell by his lack of energy on stage. It’s a bit much to expect that he’d playfully jab with a bigger crowd, but it was just one example of how Wu-Tang’s show felt less like a show than an exhibition. “Here’s something that was cool 20 years ago. If you were actually there, there’s no way you’re getting in.”
This time last year, I was drenched in sweat, belting out a Joan Jett song in a crowded bar with a band of musicians I’d never met. South By Southwest attendees from around the world were screaming and raising drinks in the air as I wailed, flailed and almost fell off the stage during a punk rock karaoke contest for the ages.
Host Anthony Bourdain grinned and hollered from the judges’ table: “You believe it! You made me believe it! 10!” Celebrity chef José Andrés and Queens of the Stone Age frontman Josh Homme also gave me 10’s — and rather comically asked me out on dates. It was surreal.
I remember thinking, “Well, hell. I guess South By Southwest can still surprise me after all these years.”
Fellow Austinites, here we are again.
South By Southwest 2017 has descended upon us. Do you still believe?
This is that time of year when we locals grapple with what role to play in the behemoth that the festival has become. Some of us are working SXSW, volunteering, speaking on a panel, or playing music in an official showcase. Others who can afford it have headed for the hills, perhaps wisely leaving the crowds, traffic and brand-bombardment to the tourists and industry professionals.
What about those of us who are still here – working our day (and night) jobs, wrangling kids on spring break, not officially part of the fanfare? Do we brave the crowds or stay in hiding? Boycott how bloated SXSW has gotten or find small pleasures amid the overwhelm?
It’s up to you, but I know two things. One: in 2017, supporting artists and musicians is a radical act. In a time of fear and anxiety in our nation and around the world – and when institutions like the National Endowment for Arts are fighting for existence — we need the indie arts more than ever. We need the buskers in the streets and the countless unofficial showcases for working musicians and underground performers. We need joy and songs to sustain us.
Two: Last year’s live band karaoke contest showed me that, more than 20 years after I started attending South By Southwest as a teenager with a $15 wristband, there is still some magic to be had.
Fear Of Missing Out
As SXSW 2016 loomed, like many locals, I planned to sit the whole thing out. Recovering from a foot injury, I was feeling emotionally sluggish and physically out of shape, struggling with my confidence and body image.
As a Zumba teacher and student minister at Wildflower Church in South Austin, I make music and preach about body positivity –that all bodies are beautiful and worthy. Still, like many people, ingrained cultural messages about gender, size, age, ability and more can make me want to hide, away from the spotlight of life.
When a friend nudged me to audition for a SXSW karaoke contest put on by her husband’s company, Roads & Kingdoms, I said no at first. My kids were off from school and my seminary coursework was piling up. I did not need one more thing to do. And I did not need a bunch of intoxicated partygoers with cell phone cameras documenting my jiggling body for all of YouTube to see.
Still, like many Austinites, I am a musician (bassist for rock band Butch County), and the stage is my happy place. It is where I feel most powerful, most me. I had to practice what I preach, so I changed my “no” to a “yes” and sent in an audition video.
When the night of the contest came, I was terrified, uncharacteristically shaky in the crowd of so many strangers. What if Anthony Bourdain, who had professed to hating karaoke at the outset, was just waiting to unleash his inner Simon Cowell? What if Josh Homme laughed at me and it went viral? The Internet can be especially awful to women.
And something very odd was happening. As I waited for my turn, other contestants were singing – no, crushing — my songs: “Do You Wanna Touch,” “Cherry Bomb,” and “Where Eagles Dare.” Josh Homme leaped out of his chair in the balcony for a guy who rocked my Misfits pick, awarding a perfect 10 and declaring, “Song choice is everything.” Yes, it is, and apparently my songs were already chosen.
I started to think there’d been a mistake and I wouldn’t be singing at all. Had I gotten all dressed up, paid a babysitter, and exposed my arms for nothing? What if the band started playing a song I didn’t even know when it was my turn? What pure humiliation awaited?
“I may vomit,” I said to Amanda, the one friend I was allowed to bring as a guest.
Then they called my name.
Bright lights shone in my face as I saw the lyrics to “Do You Wanna Touch” on the music stand. OK then, I thought. I have to sing a rerun. No one wants to hear a rerun. I’d better do something different.
One thing I’ve learned in my recent years as a Unitarian Universalist minister is that people connect through vulnerability. We don’t need our leaders to fake that everything is perfect. We need to hear the truth with love. Many singers had gotten up there and played it cool. It had worked for them, but I knew deep down that the Cool Card was not in my deck to play.
I grabbed the mic and shrieked, “OH MY GOD, SOMEONE ALREADY DID MY SONG AND I AM SO NERVOUS AND IT IS JOSH HOMMMMMMMMME UP THERE EEEEEEEEEEEEEE AND IF I DON’T VOMIT ON YOU, I WILL CONSIDER THIS NIGHT A SUCCESS.”
The crowd went berserk. It felt so good to be honest.
The Punk Rock Karaoke band from Dallas played “Do You Wanna Touch” as I jumped and fist-pumped and leaned into the crowd. I watched the videos online this week, for the first time in a year. My voice sounds atrocious. I do not care now and I did not care then. Nor did I care about my arms or my chin or my belly, or having to be up in a few short hours to make toaster waffles for my kids. I only cared about the joy of the moment.
It was magic.
Where Eagles Dare
I made it into the finals and got to sing, “Where Eagles Dare.” Since everyone had heard a perfect version of the song once already, something wild would be needed to win.
Inspiration – and my training in community organizing — took over. “If you already sang tonight and want to get back up on stage, just jump up here and do this song with me!” I yelled.
A previous contestant, now stripped down to a U.S. flag unitard and red ski cap – I repeat, stripped down to U.S. flag unitard (please picture it) —ran on stage, along with a woman I didn’t recognize. Then another contestant jumped up, took his shirt off, and started swinging it around. He had a Texas tattoo on his chest. (Of course he did.) I put my arm around his sweaty shoulder and held out the microphone for others to join me in screaming, “LET’S GO WHERE EAGLES DARE! GO WHERE EAGLES DARE!”
Only in Austin. Maybe only at South By Southwest. Even in the shadow of the festival’s nonstop corporate branding, the moment felt raw and beautiful. On stage and in life, we are more powerful together than alone.
What Did You Win?
They said nothing about my technically terrible singing during the judging panels. Josh Homme just kept repeating, “This is your night.”
After I won, the judges called for an encore — just one more surprise I wasn’t expecting — so I yelped through another Joan Jett song. “I don’t give a damn about my bad reputation.” After my last high kick, I shouted one more thing to the crowd, “Ladies, join a (expletive) band.” I hope some of you do.
“What did you win?” my friend Phil Ajjarapu, a Portland-based musician, asked me the next day.
Technically, I won an expensive knife set from the contest’s sponsor. But it felt like I won something much better than that — a chance to be myself and be seen in full, insecurities be damned, and to be newly inspired by my city’s flagship festival. I met some amazing local musicians who were fellow contestants and we are still in touch. (And truth be told, a year later, I have yet to open the box of fancy knives. I would rather sing than cook any day.)
If you’ve read this far, I will let you in on a Secret to Live Band Karaoke, which is also a Secret to Life: give it your heart and soul – MEAN IT and don’t worry about being perfect. You can be the rock star of your own story.
I hope you find your own brand of surprise magic this year, in SXSW or beyond. Seize the spotlight, whatever your fears or struggles. May 2017 be your turn to shine.
Awards shows – but music awards shows especially – are all about vulnerable moments and collisions between people who would not usually be in close proximity to each other.
The awards themselves are fine, but they’re mostly there to serve as the connective tissue between live music pairings that see experienced hands sharing the stage with new partners and featured guests, with fireworks and “wow” moments often to follow.
The 35th Austin Music Awards fit that paradigm perfectly on Sunday night, with a shiny new home at ACL Live at the Moody Theater serving as a dramatic upgrade from its recent home at the Austin Convention Center.
Charlie Sexton, serving his third consecutive year as the ceremony’s musical director, played laid back traffic director to the dozens of players and guests on stage for the nearly four-hour ceremony, with KUTX radio personalities Laurie Gallardo and Rick McNulty cracking wise, yucking it up and handing out the award hardware. For the full list of winners, skip to the end of the story.
What follows are some of the most endearing, humorous or “Wow!” moments from a night where Austin honored its own and prepared for the musical tidal wave of South By Southwest.
Surprise showing: Warmed up and ready from leading the Pretenders earlier in the night at the Erwin Center – where that band opened for Stevie Nicks – Chrissie Hynde was the night’s biggest surprise guest. Leading the house band on gutsy, powerful runs through “Message Of Love” and “Middle Of The Road” during one of the final music interludes, she was every part of the rock legend that she’s earned. Her band’s “Austin City Limits” taping on the same stage Monday night should be a rager.
Insiders get it: Local booker/promoter Graham Williams won the unofficial best inside joke honor. During his tribute inducting punk heroes the Big Boys into the hall of fame, he dryly noted, “…and I know of at least one promoter who’s named more than one music festival after their songs.” Williams’ aside was of course referencing his now defunct Fun Fun Fun Fest and his new Sound On Sound Fest.
Random observation/show biz opportunity: Local keyboardist Oliver Steck needs a talk show, podcast or standup comedy career, on the double. Receiving his Best Keyboard award and speaking during bandmate Bob Schneider’s award for Best Rock act, Steck was a ball of wiry, nervous hilarity, like an entertainer playing with a Robin Williams starter kit. His extemporaneous rants defy easy quotation, but the guy is captivating.
Big winner: Hayes Carll, the night’s big winner of six awards, was not present and sent a slightly unprepared but affable Ray Wylie Hubbard to accept in his place.
Personality yin-yang moment: Leading Shinyribs on stage to accept the Best Blues/Soul/Funk award, showy front man Kevin Russell stomped up to the podium like he was fronting a New Orleans second line brass band, with an orange suit leaving no doubt he’d be the gregarious center of attention. Moments later, local synth stars Survive – whose star rose with their work on the “Stranger Things” soundtrack – accepted the Best EDM/Dance award with bandmember Adam Jones awkwardly remarking that “I’m really glad people just know who we are now.”
Beloved veterans: A pair of hall-of-famers made their marks in very different ways. Longtime music advocate and activist Rose Reyes’ lengthy HOF acceptance speech was simultaneously heartfelt and engaging, which is a tough balance to strike, as she paid tribute to her three decades of heroes and colleagues. By the end, there were lots of tears in the theater.
Terry Allen wrapped his acceptance speech going a cappella/hymnal style on “Bloodlines” before settling in behind the keyboard for a four-song suite – “Amarillo Highway,” “What Of Alicia,” “New Delhi Freight Train,” and “Gimme A Ride To Heaven Boy” – that saw him joined at turns by Lyle Lovett, Joe Ely, Buck Allen and the Trishas, among others. It was likely the longest music spot of the night, and had the musical firepower to earn every second of its time.
Musician of the Year: Hayes Carll
Best Band: Calliope Musicals
Best New Band: Jane Ellen Bryant
Album of the Year: Hayes Carll “Lovers & Leavers”
Song of the Year: Hayes Carll, “Sake Of The Song”
Best Avant-Garde/Experimental: Golden Dawn Arkestra
Best Blues/Soul/Funk: Shinyribs
Best Country/Bluegrass: Fingerpistol
Best Cover/Tribute: Suede
Best EDM/Dance: Survive
Best Folk: Hayes Carll
Best Hip-hop/Rap: Magna Carda
Best Jazz: Church On Monday
Best Latin: Gina Chavez
Best Metal: Dead Earth Politics
Best None Of The Above: White Ghost Shivers
Best Punk: (tie) Worm Suicide, Sailor Poon
Best Rock: Bob Schneider
Best Under-18: Tiarra Girls
Best World: Rattletree
Best Bass: George Reiff
Best Drums/Percussion: Mike Meadows
Best Female Vocals: Jane Ellen Bryant
Best Guitar: A.J. Vallejo
Best Horn Player: Ephraim Owens
Best Keyboard: Oliver Steck
Best Male Vocals: Hayes Carll
Best Miscellaneous Instrument: Jan Flemming
Best Songwriter: Hayes Carll
Best Strings: (tie) Warren Hood, Tosca String Quartet
Hall of Fame: Big Boys, Bobbie Nelson, Doyle Bramhall II, Ephraim Owens, Larry Monroe, Rose Reyes, Terry Allen