With over 2000+ musical acts, the 32nd edition of South-by-Southwest Music maintained its recent focus of creating a launching pad for artists with the operative themes this year being anonymity among attendees and a return to its grassroots with a fierce emphasis on up-and-coming acts. For the first time in recent memory, many “badges” worn by industry insiders went covered up with many attendees choosing to conceal both their names and company affiliation. While good music was boundless, the music industry showcase nonetheless felt overbooked and lacking in careful curation for many reasons. Because it can be reasoned that both high-quality (not to mention lower quality) music “pop-ups” in years past have become omnipresent, SXSW organizers probably reasoned just to go ahead and take the best of the best of and place the plethora of “unofficial” musical acts under their umbrella. Less major label presence as evidenced by the myriad of independent showcases and the MASSIVE influence of social media as a communication tool amongst musical acts and fans also played a significant role in shaping this year’s festival.
Louisiana artists once again made their presence known at official SXSW showcases. In all, it was impossible to see every New Orleans act solely because of the sheer volume of performances with now Lafayette (and perhaps even Shreveport) as go-to cities for Louisiana musicians. The most well-attended homegrown act was Sweet Crude who played at a packed St. David’s Church on the Verve Music Group bill with megastars Edie Brickell and the New Bohemians. Proudly singing in both English and French with an unapologetic indie rock flair, this group had a sound that was wholly unfamiliar (in a good way) and had the crowd moving highlighted by their rhythmic, upbeat, and radio-friendly songs like “Isle Dans La Mer.”
Lake Charles Grammy-nominee Sean Ardoin performed at the Official SXSW Presenter Lafayette Live Sheauxkaze as part of Cajun Country’s push to become a regional economic and regional force. Notwithstanding the free jambalaya that was offered by the kind people from Acadiana, great music from this region has been not-so-quietly spilling over into the mainstream.
I’ve been a member of the Recording Academy for about 19 years, and now I’m on the governing board for the Memphis Chapter. Aaron Lindsey helped me produce my new album “Kreole Rock and Soul” (Louisiana Red Hot Records), and it was like a dream come true as he’s a six-time Grammy Award winner and super accomplished producer and musician (Two-time Grammy winner Chris Finney mastered the recording). We’ve been friends for about 12 years now, and I’ve always wanted to work with him. We talked about my vision for the project, and he was really excited because he’d never done zydeco before. I’m so pleased with the final product and getting two Grammy nominations made it all the more sweeter!
On that same bill that evening and in what can be deemed an ALL-STAR lineup, pianist Marcia Ball, Grammy-nominated singer/songwriter Yvette Landry, and multiple Grammy-nominee Roddie Romero closed the showcase’s night at the storied Antone’s. Lyrically, Yvette Landry’s “Friday Night Special” was arguably the best single heard during the entire music festival (alongside Grace Turner’s “Easy I Fall”).
“Friday Night Special” came to me as I was packing up from a Friday night gig at the Blue Moon Saloon in Lafayette, Louisiana. Pretty much everyone had left the saloon except for a couple that was seated at the end of the bar. My mind started wondering what their story was. Were they a couple? Had they just met? Were they married? Then the line, “ a Friday night special is all that I am,” came into my head, followed by, “the deeper the pain, the harder the heart.” By the time I drove home, I pretty much had the song written.
Sam Delucia and Sick Thoughts
On an all-Memphis/New Orleans bill at Beerland, and keeping the mean streets edge of the Crescent City securely intact, bassist Sam Delucia performed a Courtney Love Hole-esque female-fronted punk rock outfit Pscience (replete with guy drummer) on a Goner Records showcase whose relationship was forged in metal following Hurricane Katrina when several musicians from New Orleans evacuated to Memphis and connected with musicians from the label. Later that evening, fellow NOLA rockers and Delucia side project Sick Thoughts (Trampoline Team is another) performed at midnight for a short set with frontman Drew Owen whose full-frontal vocal assault evoked vestiges of Pantera/Down lead singer and New Orleans native Phil Anselmo.
That Memphis/New Orleans relationship in the punk scene has been around since the 90s at least, with some Jackson, Mississippi, thrown in there as well. Die Rotzz and Guitar Lightnin’ Lee along with a lot of friends/bandmates ended up evacuating to Memphis after Hurricane Katrina. Since they were already friends with everyone at Goner, label founders Zac Ives and Eric Friedl helped out a lot of those who evacuated. This lead to a friendship that I guess directly (or indirectly) lead to Goner’s SXSW showcase being all New Orleans or Memphis bands. In the same vein, for the past seven years I book an “all local” punk show over Mardi Gras with at least one Memphis band because our friends are coming down to hang out anyway, so they might as well play.
One of the better acts during SX was long-time New Orleans Latin groove/Conjunto/R&B rock standbys the Iguanas who have now been playing together for 30 years and performed during one of the closing nights at the vaunted Continental Club. What was most impressive about the group was their level of discipline and professionalism sonically was at one of the higher levels of any act seen during SXSW. At a time when many acts are drowning out their inability to play their instruments or perform live with sheer volume and bombast, this nuanced group kept it tight instrumentally with vocalist/guitarist/accordionist Rod Hodges excited about a new upcoming release and some marquee shows (and oddly enough, spoke highly of Memphis during a personal conversation).
Our new album was produced by Bruce Watson who owns Fat Possum Records, and it will hopefully be out by May of this year. The Iguanas are playing French Quarter Fest on April 12th and JazzFest May 3rd. We also play every Wednesday (early evening) at The Circle Bar in New Orleans when we are not on the road.
The singular non-Louisiana official showcase act that blew this writer’s mind was Aussie singer/songwriter Grace Turner. Evocative of an emerging PJ Harvey with a cool-but-tender mystique when she first played Tipitina’s, this nightingale from Newcastle, Australia, performed an intimate set that goes down in all-time SXSW performances after having attended the music conference now for 15 years. Other stellar sets included Chicago’s The Evening Attraction with their “harmonic structures of the 1960s Beach Boys” merged with a Black Keys/Breeders feedback guitar-driven psychedelia & “melodic riffs” and of course, Houston’s The Wild Moccasins (New West Records) whose latest album “Look Together” can be found in constant rotation within this scribe’s vehicle.
In all, a good time was to be had with big name star celebrities also appearing on the scene in one way, shape, or form (CeeLo Green, Lance Bass, Bun B). What seems inevitable is that SXSW will continue to have a permanent impact on the international music landscape and continue its path toward success and pushing the envelope.
John Alfone is a writer, photographer, and the owner of Corsair Media Productions, LLC. A former New Orleans Native, he is now based in New Mexico. He enjoys highlighting musicians and artists from Louisiana whenever he can.