AUSTIN—Brooklyn-bred Tony Visconti got Day Two of South by Southwest Music rolling with a second keynote address, bumped from Day One by the last-minute coup of the festival landing Michelle Obama. Visconti is one of the most important producers in rock history, having helmed David Bowie’s first and last albums, as well as the best in between, in addition to working with T. Rex, Thin Lizzy, the Moody Blues, Alejandro Escovedo, and many others.He also was a fascinating guest onSound Opinions.
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While Visconti’s stories of his musical education courtesy of a lively Italian family were heartwarming, and his anecdote about becoming fascinated with the echo he heard on records as a child was priceless—“Something was happening on those records that wasn’t happening in my mother’s kitchen,” he said—his talk went off the rails when he read a long excerpt from a novel-in-progress. Set in 2026, the book seems to be a metaphor about the record industry being reduced to a corporate star-making machine that no longer cares about music.
The point was an obvious and irrelevant one to those for whom disruption and celebrity superficiality are old news and who are here because they’re busy struggling to build the real music world of the future. The crowd would have greatly preferred to hear more about some of the timeless albums Visconti has helped craft, and about the real-world evils of the old-school record business he worked in during its heyday. But even though his talk ran a half-hour long, there were few of those tales.
A more timely and relevant talk later in the day came from Chicago journalist Jessica Hopper,who’s also been a guest onSound Opinions. She summed up many of the discussions that have been growing increasingly loud in the last few months about the music world being a challenging, exclusionary, and sometimes dangerous “boy’s club,” and she urged women to fight the system in many ways rather than giving up in disgust. Hopper has been an important voice on the topic for a long time, but she’s tired of being a lonely one.
“This is going to be my last talk on this,” she Tweeted just before taking the podium, and she reiterated that pledge onstage. “Other voices, other faces, other folks need to be called upon, given the podium and a mic.”
None of the other panels were nearly as important or as gripping, but it was another long day and night of great musical discoveries, some them featuring women doing exactly what Hopper—and Michelle Obama on Wednesday—urged of the next generation: challenging the status quo with their own unique voices.
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Sunflower Beanis a New York trio fronted by mesmerizing bassist and vocalist Julia Cumming and featuring inventive guitarist Nick Kivlen and hard-hitting drummer Jacob Faber. Released last month, the group’s debut albumHuman Ceremonyis a modern shoegaze classic, and the swirling sounds of songs such as “Easier Said” and “2013” were mesmerizing in concert.
Also evoking the shoegazer movement of the early ’90s, with the addition of equal parts K-pop and more avant-garde laptronica,Neon Bunny, a.k.a. South Korean musician Im Yu Jin, performed a more low-key but no less hypnotic set, taking to the International Stage in the Convention Center in mid-afternoon.
My favorite discovery before sunset, however, was a power trio from Puglia, Italy calledMoustache Prawn. The group can lean toward discrete indie-rock on earlier recordings—Grizzly Bear is a favorite, they told me in fractured English—but their new second albumErebusis a much more ambitious concept effort packaged with a book, and onstage, they deliver the proto-stoner-rock psychedelic-metal wallop of vintage Blue Cheer (a band they say they’ve never heard).
Thursday night,I did some of my usual blind wandering down Sixth Street in search of surprises, and I found a few very worthy ones.
CeaseTonewas a guitar and drums duo fromReykjavik,Iceland that brought more traditionally folkie finger-picking to the dreamy Sigur Ros sound at some points, and a lot more traditional classic-rock crunch at others. It was a winning combination.
A prolific indie-rock band from Austin, the Sour Notes are a band I should have discovered much sooner, given my love of psychedelic rock of the particular Texas brand, retaining that unique Lone Star grit and soul. (Think classic Thirteenth Floor Elevators.) Fronted by guitarist-vocalist Jared Boulange and vocalist-percussionist Yola Blake, the quintet ended my night on a high note indeed.
The best discovery of the day, however, wasBurnt Palms, a quartet from Seaside, California on Carpark Records, the same cool indie label that's home to Teen. Led by guitarist-vocalist Christina Riley, with backing vocals from drummer Clara Nieto, the band favors the term “fuzz-pop” for its short, sharp explosions of effervescent energy, though it doesn’t shy away from the word grunge, either.
Like their contemporaries Bully, a favorite of SXSW 2015, Burnt Palms use ’90s sounds as a starting point, then takes them somewhere fresh and new, onstage and on the new albumBack on My Wall.Struggling to peg the sound, I had just decided, “Veruca Salt, 2016!” when, in one of those can’t-make-this-up, only-here coincidences, up walked fellow Chicagoan Jim Powers, the man who started Minty Fresh Records and released Veruca’s debut hit “Seether.”