How to find your joy and conquer your fears at SXSW (with karaoke)

Erin Walter competes in a live punk band karaoke contest at South by Southwest 2016. Contributed by Michael Magers

By Erin J. Walter, special to the Statesman

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.

Karaoke judges at the 2016 contest included Jose Andres, Matt Goulding and Anthony Bourdain. Contributed by Michael Magers

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.


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.

RELATED: Roads & Kingdoms is sponsoring a SXSW showcase Tuesday, March 14

An enthusiastic crowd cheers at a punk rock live karaoke contest thrown by Roads & Kingdoms and Japan House in 2016. Contributed by Michael Magers

SXSW 2017: Talking with “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” subject, and the film’s director

The seeds for “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” were planted at South By Southwest nearly a decade ago, when director Emma Franz was showing a previous film at the festival and attended a Frisell performance at the Continental Club.

“I was playing there, and she walked up to me and asked me if she could do this thing,” Frisell remembered on Monday, shortly before heading out with Franz to the second of three screenings that “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” is getting at SXSW this year. The third and final showing is 10:45 a.m. Thursday at the Alamo Drafthouse South Lamar.

Amid the cacophony of SXSW, settling into a two-hour window centered on Frisell’s colorful guitar tones and easygoing, contemplative personality provides a welcome, zen-like pause from the surounding buzz. “I wanted to have a different sensibility from all the music films that are fast-cut and flashy,” Franz acknowledged on Monday.

Early on, stars such as Bonnie Raitt and Paul Simon testify to Frisell’s distinctive style and tone, while Wilco’s Nels Cline speaks eloquently about the influence he’s had on other guitarists. But the film soon dives well beneath the surface of his considerable accomplishments, capturing the humble grace and subtle humor at the heart of both Frisell’s personality and his music.

RELATED: Frisell explores Guthrie on recent outing

Interactions with many other musicians, from his longtime mentors Michael Gibbs and the late Jim Hall to frequent collaborators such as bassist Tony Scherr and drummer Joey Baron, help illuminate why Frisell is, as Raitt notes early on, “universally loved” by those who’ve worked with him. Still, the film’s best moments are simple conversations with Frisell himself: checking out a closetful of guitars at his home in Seattle, poring over pages of recently written sheet music at a kitchen in Italy, walking around Greenwich Village and marveling at the musical history there.

After Sunday’s world-premiere screening at the Alamo Ritz, Franz answered questions from the crowd, explaining how she’d “tried to make something that was more focused on the peripheral elements that make someone’s music special.” The next day, Franz and Frisell (who’d flown in for a one-day-only, non-performing appearance to support the film) sat down with us in the SXSW media lounge to talk a bit more about that periphery.

Director Emma Franz and guitarist Bill Frisell discuss the film “Bill Frisell: A Portrait” at South by Southwest on Monday, March 13, 2017. Peter Blackstock/American-Statesman

Austin360: There’s no narration in the film, with someone telling Bill’s story; it’s almost more impressionist.

Emma Franz: “Yeah, I didn’t want to do a biography. From the start, I wanted it to be more of a portrait, which is why I called it that in the first place. But I wanted it to be about ideas and attitude and approach, and all of those things that are often left out of music films. It’s so often just about the biography, or some scandal. We were going to fake his overdose to get some excitement at the end of the film, but that never happened!” (Laughs)

Bill Frisell: “Yeah, for me, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone, ‘I played the clarinet and then I did this, and I used these strings,’ and all that. I mean, that’s all cool, but she got at something that I don’t think anybody’s ever [captured] — you know, it’s about the process, or whatever it is that I [go through]. I felt like you could actually see that.”

A360: Did you approach the film like the audience probably already knew who Bill was?

Emma: “Well, I think the opening scenes [with Raitt, Simon and others] are for people who, if they don’t know Bill, they at least see how respected he is. In a way it’s kind of antithetical to what I like to see in a music film, because you don’t want just empty praise. But then I think hopefully the film goes on to explain WHY people say that about him. I always hope it’ll bring other people to it. And then I’ve had people who have seen it who said, ‘Yeah, I can’t believe I didn’t know who he was, but I realize now I’ve heard his music everywhere.’

But I think it’s something problematic with music films — people think they have to know who it’s about to enjoy it. If you walk into a feature film, you don’t know the characters; you get drawn into their personality. I think that’s how people are responding to this film. They feel like they’ve been hanging out with Bill and they’re getting to know him.”

A360: There’s a moment in the film that sharply illustrates the difference between practicing and performing. Can you elaborate on that?

Bill: “Well, when you’re really doing the gig, there’s so much more intensity happening. It doesn’t always work out that you get it, but you have to deal with it. When you’re practicing, it’s a few steps removed from what the actual music is. I mean, I know you have to do it; that’s how we get things together.

Just the other day, there was this tribute for Pat Metheny in New York. It was like all these guitar players, and they asked me to come and play this one song. So I spent all day — you should have heard it, it was incredible! (Laughs) In my room I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I’m gonna get out there, I’m gonna show Pat.’ And then I came out there and I was just petrified — it was horrible. And I think it might have been better if I hadn’t been practicing. Because it puts all these expectations in your way, when you should be just in the moment. Be where you are and do what you can do. So that’s what happens with the gig. You just have to deal with it.”

A36o: There’s a scene where you’re going over very recently written sheet music that felt like a rare window into the songwriting process:

Bill: “Well that’s what I thought — because that’s never been shown before.”

Emma: “This is one of the things I’m trying to do, when I’m making films about music — to sort of dismantle the idea that there are people with these god-given gifts. There are geniuses who walk among us, but such a huge amount of it is just doing it every day and working, and then going back through things and editing.

“It’s obviously his talent, and there’s a whole lot of other factors. But I think people don’t often show that it’s a very human process. Sometimes you don’t know what you’re doing, but you’ve just got to do it every day. Hopefully that’s inspirational to people who feel like they can’t do it because it’s not just flowing up out of them like a god-given gift.”

READ MORE: Five documentaries we’re looking forward to at SXSW

Austin Music Awards hit all the right notes to kick off SXSW Music Festival

Kevin Russell, in the orange suit, accepts the Best Blues/Soul/Funk award for Shinyribs at Sunday’s Austin Music Awards at ACL Live. Photo by Dave Creaney/For American-Statesman

By Chad Swiatecki, special to the Statesman

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.

Chrissie Hynde sings the Tom Petty part in “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” with Stevie Nicks at the Erwin Center on Sunday night. The Pretenders opened for Nicks, then Hynde showed up at the Austin Music Awards at ACL Live. Photo by Scott Moore/For American-Statesman

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.

REVIEW AND PHOTOS: Stevie Nicks and the Pretenders at the Erwin Center

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.

SXSW GUIDE: Here’s what to put on your SXSW music schedule

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