Soak, Girlpool, Remi, Blossoms… and Frank Sinatra?
AUSTIN, TX—Unlike many (most?) of the journalists who cover the South by Southwest Music Festival, Greg Kot and I generally skip the daytime parties—which may be fewer this year, but still are myriad—in favor of covering the panels at the Austin Convention Center, which often offer valuable insights into the state of the music industry, or at least the stray bit of a different kind of entertainment.
Our time at the convention center was cut short on the first full day of sessions because we had to do some radio at KUTX and KUT—no complaints; Austin’s hometown public radio stations are among the biggest supporters of Sound Opinions!—but as a result I only caught two discussions of note.
The first talk was called “Branding Ovation: Advertising Creatives Talk Music,” a.k.a. the inevitable annual session on selling your music to the man. As in the past, I was a lonely skeptic in a room full of managers and label folks eager to get their artists on the soundtrack of a Wendy’s or Garnier commercial. And as in the past, I left feeling vaguely sick to my stomach as a dais full of self-professed music lovers-turned-advertising execs never once entertained the question of whether this in any way cheapens the music. Instead, they maintained that it’s all about “spreading the love,” meaning money for the artists and exposure for their product…. er, art. Sigh.
More entertaining was the second full panel I caught later in the day, “Sinatra: An American Icon,” a tribute to Francis Albert, who was born 100 years ago at home in Hoboken, N.J. to mom Dolly, a low-level local Democratic fixer who also performed illegal abortions.
This and many other salacious facts about the great singer and sometimes bully of wayward female croupiers and wait staff were, perhaps not surprisingly, never mentioned as a panel including Frank Sinatra, Jr. and fellow famous Jerseyans Max Weinberg and Steve Van Zandt of the E Street Band, “Conan,” and “The Sopranos” waxed rhapsodic about Old Blue Eyes’ musical and cultural accomplishments during three key eras, with Columbia Records in the ’40s, Capitol Records in the ’50s, and Reprise in the ’60s.
Me, I’ve got a love/hate relationship with Frank: I’ve read too many books about the man to emulate his image in any way, as all of the panelists did to varying degrees. But I was born in the same hospital in Jersey City as daughter Nancy, had some of my formative experiences on Frank Sinatra Drive in Hoboken, and did a lot of stories in my early days as a beat reporter about the barber who went to kindergarten with Frank and sang his music as he cut hair, Frank’s fondness for fresh mozzarella from a particular local deli, and his visit to the St. Ann’s Parish spaghetti dinner with some guy named Ronald Reagan (the President ate the food the Secret Service provided, but Frank ate the old Italian ladies’ home-cooked meatballs, which made them rapturous). So it all was a guilty pleasure.
The truest words came from Van Zandt early in the discussion: “He was not the kind of artist you’d see at South by Southwest… He was this skinny kid from nowhere who reached these incredible heights” through sheer talent and force of will.
For that reason, Frank should have appreciated the 2,000 bands who’ve traveled to Austin for SXSW XXVIII, though he probably would not have. Why? Recall these famous comments during an interview with the Associated Press in 1957:
“My only deep sorrow is the unrelenting insistence of recording and motion picture companies upon purveying the most brutal, ugly, degenerate, vicious form of expression it has been my displeasure to hear—naturally I refer to the bulk of rock’n’ roll. It fosters almost totally negative and destructive reactions in young people. It smells phony and false. It is sung, played and written for the most part by cretinous goons and by means of its almost imbecilic reiterations and sly, lewd—in plain fact dirty—lyrics… it manages to be the martial music of every side-burned delinquent on the face of the earth. This rancid smelling aphrodisiac I deplore.”
Yes, indeed: Frank nailed everything I love about rock ’n’ roll! And revisiting that diatribe reminded me of many of the things I spend my time at SXSW searching out and applauding. Which brings me to the music on day two.
I caught two acts of note during the day. Israel Nash is a New York-to-Austin transplant who performed at the ungodly hour of 9 a.m. during KUTX’s live broadcast from the Four Season Hotel (once upon a time the sole domain of major-label weasels, none of whom have those Platinum Amex cards—or jobs—anymore). Nash’s Americana formula is to quote as many as three Neil Young songs in every one of his own, with the occasional Pink Floyd interstellar guitar solo thrown in for good measure. Original? Heck no, not in the least! But there are worse sounds to imbibe along with free Illy coffee early in the Texas morning.
Later in the day, a rapper named Remi from Melbourne, Australia took to the International Day Stage at the Convention Center with his drummer and DJ, Sensible J. “We recorded an entire album in my bedroom,” Remi said, “so being here at SXSW is pretty incredible.” His enthusiasm was contagious, whether performing upbeat jams such as “Sangria” and urging the crowd to two-step, or unfurling darker tales about his hometown’s distressing problem with “ice.” (“You call it meth,” he said, “and while it may not sound like it, this is an anti-drug song.”) Remi has been championed by the likes of Vic Mensa, De La Soul, and Damon Albarn of Gorillaz, and his skills are undeniable, if not quite enough to forgive the land down under for Iggy Azalea.
As the first stop on the evening’s musical rounds, it was back to Mohawk for Girlpool, a guitar/bass dual-vocal duo from L.A. The pair’s short, strikingly minimalist, and seemingly fragile tunes could erupt in surprisingly cathartic explosions, as when the musicians’ exhortation, “Tranquilize me with your ideal world,” yielded to a guitar solo that was as violent as it was furiously focused and climactic.
From there I hit the British music showcase at Latitude 30. Blossoms are a quintet from Stockport (though you want to say Manchester) that play an especially energetic brand of early ‘90s British shoegaze/psychedelic pop, heavy on the Charlatans U.K., thanks to a delightfully warbling and wheezing organ. Again: Original? Hardly. But I could have ridden their groove all night.
A little too much on the twee side, the London quartet Gengahr didn’t do nearly as much for me. But Soak, a singer-songwriter from Derry in Northern Ireland, had come highly recommended by the legendary Geoff Travis of Rough Trade Records, and she did not disappoint.
Only 18, Bridie Monds-Watson has both a soulful voice and a probingly confessional way with her lyrics that belie her youth. Opening with several songs performed with only vocal and guitar, she succeeded in silencing—and stunning—a packed bar, much of it filled with rowdy Brits. Based on this unforgettable set, her forthcoming album now is one of my most anticipated releases of the year. And diminutive as this skinny kid is, she probably could’ve kicked the skinny young Sinatra’s butt from here to Hoboken.