Scenes From SXSW 2011
Lucinda Williams, Robert Earl Keen & Ryan Bingham rev up SXSW at new Austin CityLimits Live venue
Day Three of the South by Southwest (SXSW) music conference and festival: So much to see, so little time, and central Austin is packed to the gills with capacity crowds.
Taking it all in stride, Zen master Billy Gibbons told CultureMap at the Four Seasons, “It’s a pretty crazy town. But it takes people to make a party.”
At South By, a little serenity is welcome at this point. The quest to catch as many hot bands as possible can take you all over town in a single evening. Sometimes, you get lucky, and your artists of choice all line up in one venue — so you can stay all night.
Friday, the Lost Highway Records 10th Anniversary showcase offered Americana music aficionados the stellar roster of Black Joe Lewis, Hayes Carll, Robert Earl Keen, and Lucinda Williams — plus the added benefit of being among the first visitors to see the brand-new Austin City Limits Live venue at the Moody Theater.
Austin-based Black Joe Lewis drew the starting slot, delivering a heaping helping of rock, blues, punk and funk, including songs from his just-released CD Scandalous and his popular “Sugarfoot” from Tell ‘Em What Your Name Is! Lewis brought a not-so-secret weapon with him in the form of the Dallas gospel group the Relatives. The nattily attired back-up singers glided across the stage, bounced up and down in perfect unison, and never missed a beat.
Up next: Woodlands native Hayes Carll. Houston audiences have known about the wit and wisdom of Carll’s music for quite some time, since his 2002 debut album Flowers and Liquor. The 34-year-old long ago established himself as a singer-songwriter, having penned songs with no less than master craftsmen Guy Clark and Ray Wylie Hubbard, and has been a popular draw at clubs all over the state.
With the release of this year’s KMAG YOYO and other American Stories, Carll has shown he’s ready to take the leap to a larger stage (like The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, where he appeared earlier this year). (The title track "KMAG YOYO" is named for a military acronym for “Kiss my ass guys, you’re on your own.”)
Carll’s SXSW set focused on songs from KMAG YOYO, like the hard-charging “Stomp and Holler” and “Another Like You,” a duet with Bonnie Whitmore, about a couple in which “one likes Fox News, one likes MSNBC…it’s a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story.”
Rumors had been swirling about the “special guests” who would appear next as part of the Lost Highway showcase, and the label didn’t disappoint. First, a brief solo acoustic set by Grammy Award-winner Dan Tyminski, who performed his version of “Man of Constant Sorrow,” which was featured in the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou?.
Then, singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham and his band, The Dead Horses, took the stage. Bingham, whose song “The Weary Kind” from the Crazy Heart soundtrack (co-written with T-Bone Burnett) has captured an Academy Award, a Golden Globe, and a Grammy Award, delivered a masterful performance with a raw edge and a rocking groove.
Bingham’s set spotlighted songs from his latest, Junky Star, including “Depression,” “Direction of the Wind,” and a moving version of “Hallelujah.” Bingham and The Dead Horses will appear tonight at Houston’s House of Blues.
CultureMap first saw Bingham perform in a packed bar in Marfa, at a 2006 anniversary party for Lubbock artist/musician Terry Allen and his wife Jo Harvey Allen. The guest list included (among others) Allen’s friends David Byrne, Guy Clark, Butch Hancock, and Bingham’s future Lost Highway label-mate Robert Earl Keen.
When a song swap began, a lesser songwriter might have been daunted by taking the mike in such illustrious company. But Bingham’s friend and mentor Joe Ely recalled of that evening, “Here’s Ryan, this new guy, sitting around and holding his own. When he plays something, you believe it.”
Bingham, a native of Hobbs, N.M, was raised in Texas, including time in Stephenville and Spring. It hasn’t always been easy. He took a turn on the rodeo circuit as a bull rider, and when he was getting his start as a songwriter, he spent a fair amount of time bunking on Ely’s couch waiting for fame to strike. It’s been a quite a ride so far, and it looks like this is just the beginning. Catch him tonight if you can.
Anchoring the 11 p.m. slot was Houston native (and Sharpstown High School graduate) Robert Earl Keen, always a favorite of Austin audiences. Keen's longtime band (including Rich Brotherton on guitar, Bill Whitbeck on bass, Marty Muse on pedal steel, and Tom Van Schaik on drums) hummed like a well-oiled machine.
Ably demonstrating his considerable sardonic humor and songwriting prowess, Keen delivered a rousing set with songs from his 2009 release The Rose Hotel (including “Throwin’ Rocks” and “The Man Behind the Drums,” a tribute to Levon Helm) as well as the always-entertaining “Corpus Christi Bay” from A Bigger Piece of Sky.
The Lost Highway tribute finished on a high note with songstress Lucinda Williams, introduced by Sirius XM radio host Mojo Nixon as “the lean mean queen of the scene.”
Williams’ latest Lost Highway release, Blessed, is being compared by critics to her Grammy-Award winning 1998 album, Car Wheels on a Gravel Road. Her set, clocking in at an hour and 25 minutes, started punctually at midnight and drew from Blessed (“Buttercup,” “Convince Me” and the title track.) Williams also reached back into her catalogue for favorites like “Essence,” and “Changed the Locks.”
She closed out the night with a searing version of “Joy” and the Buffalo Springfield song “For What It’s Worth,” which she dedicated to “the workers who are out in the streets voicing their opinions and standing up for their rights.” Williams is headed for Houston May 8 for a not-to-be missed set on the closing day of the Houston International Festival.
From Bauhaus to Roadhouse
One last word about the new Austin City Limits Live at Moody Theater, which had its official opening last month: It’s big – at around 2,700 seats, it’s roughly nine times bigger than the venue it replaced that housed television’s longest-running music series, Austin City Limits, for 36 years. (During future ACL television tapings, the space will be curtained off to house just 800 guests.)
It’s hard not to feel a twinge of nostalgia for the intimate 300-seat space in Studio 6A on the sixth floor of the Communications Building at the University of Texas, where every one of the show’s previous 500-odd episodes were taped. But the sound in the new space is crystal clear, the sight lines terrific, and it’s easy to start falling in love with the venue. There's even easy access to the glitzy, adjoining W Hotel.
The clean, modern lines of the building evoke an industrial feel — or, for Robert Earl Keen, an extra-terrestrial sensation. “What a great place this is!” quipped Keen. “The Starship Enterprise! Captain Kirk will be here, and Mister Chekov.”
As Lost Highway’s illustrious roster demonstrated last night, with the right line-up it’s possible to go from Bauhaus to roadhouse in a single evening.
Ryan Bingham will appear at the House of Blues tonight at 8 p.m. . 1204 Caroline Street.
Lucinda Williams will appear at the Houston International Festival on the closing afternoon at 4:30 PM on Sunday, May 8.