After the sad news that broke early Thursday morning, casting a pall (if only temporarily) on the swirl of festivities and underscoring the questions I raised Tuesday about whether SXSW has at last become so big that it’s unmanageable, the days and nights began to blur, and I decided to just keep filling the notebook to compile one final dispatch on the most remarkable of the rest of my experiences in Austin, 2014.
On Thursday afternoon, a panel discussion led by former Warner Bros. Records publicist and rock historian Bill Bentley paid tribute to Lou Reed, who died in October at the age of 71, via stirring reminiscences from the second of his three wives, Sylvia Morales; his college buddy Garland Jeffreys; Jerry Harrison of the Talking Heads and the Modern Lovers, and others. The session perfectly set the scene for the musical tribute at the Paramount Theatre on Friday night, with which I intended to end my festival.
Each in their own way, the panelists contended that the notion of independent music, or music in opposition, began with Reed and the Velvet Underground. And an event like SXSW—or what SXSW was when it began, and still might be, on occasion and far on the margins—would be unthinkable without his groundbreaking contributions.
Thursday night I devoted the evening to my annual blind wander through the chaos of 6th Street, sans plan and in search of musical surprises. And two stood out.
Desert is a duo of electronic musicians from Barcelona, Spain that plays exquisitely sensual electronica, with slyly seductive grooves accented on stage by producer Eloi Caballé, and other-worldly vocals from his musical partner Cristina Checa. Comparisons to the Cocteau Twins are apt, and all the more so for the fact that Checa sings in the exotic (at least to me) language of Catalan.
Thursday’s other discovery: Opus Orange, a quintet from Santa Monica, California with two guitars, keyboards, percussion and drums that summoned an anti-folk Feelies crossed with some of Arcade Fire’s inspiring anthemic qualities, especially since the vocals never were delivered with less than three-part unison singing (and sometimes with all five musicians singing together). The group is led by the appealingly frumpy everyman Paul Bessenbacher, who attended the Wheaton College Conservatory of Music, and his songs were not only ridiculously catchy, but smart and moving.
On Friday morning, I decided to say the hell with Lady Gaga’s keynote address, knowing full well that my Sound Opinions colleague Greg Kot would cover it (along with countless other journalists), and suspecting that the diva of sexual diversity would not answer the question I’d submitted about the ethics of cosigning R. Kelly, who has been charged with hurting so many underage women. (And guess what? Not a peep on that issue!)
Instead, I headed to the Convention Center’s Radio Day Stage, where Damon Albarn of Blur, Gorillaz, and so many other memorable ventures performed a mostly acoustic set to preview his new solo album Everyday Robots, due at the end of April. Ambitious as ever, Albarn augmented the quiet, melancholy tunes—think “End of a Century,” 20 years later and in an even more introspective frame of mind—with piano, percussion, a string quartet, and a mini-choir borrowed from an Austin church.
The effect was quiet but stunning, with only one misstep. “Mr. Tembo,” a song about an elephant fallen victim to poachers, is a fine children’s ditty, but it felt slight during this otherwise solemn morning reverie. On the other hand, Albarn closed with the gorgeous “Heavy Seas of Love,” performed as a duet on album with Brian Eno, though here he handled both parts himself.
Later in the afternoon, I returned to the same stage for Temples, a young British dream-pop band that recalls many of the best “shoegazer” groups of the early ’90s—as well as the original psychedelic heroes that inspired bands like Ride, Slowdive, and the Boo Radleys—without ever seeming derivative, and arguably with stronger melodies than any of those combos.
Finally, though there still were plenty of bands on my list of “new artists to explore,” I felt a need both because of the loss of such a tremendous artist and the nagging desire to recover a measure of what the SXSW community once was to end my festival with the tribute to Reed arranged by two of his countless and wildly diverse acolytes: New York-area singer and songwriter Richard Barone of the power-pop band the Bongos, a friend of Reed’s and a fellow guitar geek, and Austin resident Alejandro Escovedo, who has covered and drawn inspiration from Sister Lou in all of his many guises through the years, from the Nuns to Rank and File to the Alejandro Escovedo Orchestra.
SXSW does musical wakes well—one recalls Chris Stamey’s impressive all-star rendition of Big Star Third at the Paramount in 2012—but the Reed concert was on another level entirely, thanks to the incredible catalog of indelible tunes that the artist produced over a nearly five-decade career.
For four hours, a stellar procession of guests fronted a crack house band that included Lenny Kaye and Tony Shanahan of the Patti Smith Band, Blondie drummer Clem Burke, and Ivan Julian of Richard Hell and the Voidoids (whose second guitarist, the late Robert Quine, played on some of Reed’s best solo albums, though his name never was mentioned).
As might be expected at such a long and chaotic event, there were a few missteps, including an attempt by Escovedo’s new project the Fauntleroys to cover “Waves of Fear.” (If Alejandro ever has heard the harrowing tune from The Blue Mask, there was no evidence of that on stage.)
But the moments of musical transcendence were much more plentiful and thoroughly unforgettable. Among them: Steve Wynn with a heartbreaking “Coney Island Baby” and, fronting the Baseball Project as Mike Mills of R.E.M. and my old friend Linda Pitmon held down the rhythms, an epic, eardrum-threatening “Sister Ray”; drag queen Sharon Needles singing “Candy Says”; Jesse Mallin tearing it up on “Sally Can’t Dance”; the Fleshtones chanting in the aisles during “Real Good Time Together”; Suzanne Vega making “Walk on the Wild Side” her own; Sean Lennon relishing every note of “What Goes On”; Spandau Ballet doing a much better “Satellite of Love” than U2 ever gave us, and Barone singing his heart out on “I’ll Be Your Mirror.”
The end, of course, was a group sing-along to “Rock and Roll,” the lyrics of which ended many Reed tributes and obituaries last fall, and which sounded newly poignant as a reminder amid the relentless corporate shilling, drunken debauchery, and unbridled greed of too much of SXSW about what really matters: the music, which retains the power to save our lives, despite all the amputations.
This blog’s coverage of SXSW 2014