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Mild in the streets 

A very brief, addled report on SXSW 2007

"Wild in the streets ... in New York ... and New Orleans" -- so sang veteran New York black rocker and South by Southwest (aka SXSW) panelist Garland Jeffreys at his Saturday night Antone's showcase. Jeffreys' classic tune could have easily served as the official anthem of this year's music festival in Austin, judging by the never-ending throngs of bands, bizzers and revelers navigating the 6th Street main drag for the latter half of last week.

Coney Island-bred Jeffreys had come all the way from Brussels to make his gig and serve as virtual co-chair on a Saturday afternoon panel about race and music -- titled "Say it Loud, I'm What? and I'm Proud" -- moderated by Dave Marsh. As such, Jeffreys, of Afro-Latin descent and purveyor of a streetwise brand of classic rock that came to primetime in the early 1970s, limned three prominent hallmarks of recent South-Bys: the recent explosion of international and world music acts (the British presence was emblazoned on the attendees' big schwag bags), tensions over race representation at the festival (last year's ghettoization of Texas hip-hop showcases was oft-discussed) and the increasing generational divide made plain between the keynote appearance of Pete Townshend and the ballyhooed multiple appearances of his young countrywoman Amy Winehouse.

My own festival experience could be titled "Searching for Amy Winehouse." At any rate, it was about missing the up-and-coming British soul chanteuse's performances three days in a row and encountering friends and colleagues who had just seen or talked to her on 6th Street. The U.K./buzz band deficiency was made up by catching The Fratellis at the Dirty Dog Bar on Thursday night. Hadn't had time to spin Costello Music much before traveling, yet The Fratelli's tight set was definitely a highlight of my first day at the races. The exuberant crush in the place and preponderance of audience members who'd flown in from Scotland to support their group reflected the general renaissance of U.K. acts influencing and outflanking American ones, as proven out over recent SXSW installments. On the freak-folkie tip, the same dynamic played out on a much more hushed, cloistered scale during the Thursday late night show of Edinburgh's Vashti Bunyan at the Central Presbyterian Church. And of course, London MC Plan B appeared Saturday night to bring the frisson of the U.K.'s current "hoodie" panic across the Pond.

Despite the foreign incursions, there's one vital thing Glasgow (where The Fratellis hail from) or Mexico City (base of the Mexican Institute of Sound, who played Friday night at The Rio) ain't got: the South -- or, to be more precise, the Southern Thang. Winehouse and The Fratellis were stalked arduously by many different types of music fans, and Dears held forth wonderfully at Stubb's on Thursday for their Canuck kin. But a great Dixie landmark was also being celebrated at the festival. And thus those in the know made the scene at Antone's for the Stax 50th anniversary. The hallowed Memphis label, founded by brother-sister pair Jim Stewart and Estelle Axton in 1957, is being resurrected by Concord (the current hot release is a live Johnnie Taylor CD from the vaults). And Memphis had a presence at the convention center trade show urging visits to "the world's only soul music museum" featuring a range of artifacts from a vintage Delta church to Isaac Hayes' pimped-out '72 blue Caddy. Hayes himself suffered a stroke not too long ago and, although about to release a new album, he was limited to introducing the Antone's lineup. Before, yes, a boomer-heavy crowd, Booker T. & the MGs harnessed their inexorable power, wowing through such staples as "Green Onions" and "Time is Tight." It was a thrill to finally see Steve Cropper do his thing, and when William Bell joined the group onstage, folk nigh about fell out. The great Booker T. Jones' interview earlier that afternoon was also revelatory, with anecdotes about Jones' post-Stax relocation to Malibu, recording with Willie Nelson in the '70s and his onsite view of Sinead O'Connor's Dylan tribute meltdown at the Garden.

Cackalack was also well-repped: I enjoyed some refreshingly cold PBR with the Sammies at the très fey (and now-defunkt) Arthur magazine party on Thursday, Peter Holsapple and Chris Stamey played my hotel at midnight on Friday, and Hobex were across the river at the famed Yard Dog party (the 10th anniversary of same) on South Congress at 11 a.m. on Saturday, sharing a bill with Northern State, the festival's greatest rarity -- a female rap group.

Other regional appearances of note included Kings of Leon, Killen, Alabama's Jason Isbell, of Drive-By Truckers fame; Atlanta's Black Lips; New Orleans' Galactic featuring Yay Area guests Lyrics Born, Gift of Gab and Boots Riley; and Nashville's Pink Spiders entertained at Friends Bar after my favorite band on the planet, Earl Greyhound. Yet the main rival to the Stax celebration was Friday night's Ponderosa Stomp rock cavalcade at Opal Divine's Freehouse, presented by NOLA's Mystic Knights of the Mau Mau. From the skinny-sexy Tammy Lynn recalling a long ago time when sista singers didn't oversoul and Motown legend Dennis Coffey unleashing the legendary "Scorpio" on guitar, this was an event that could not be beat. And the exalted revelry carried over to the next afternoon when the brothers and sisters stomped all over again at Bourbon Rocks. As I connected with our esteemed Asheville contributor and Harp managing editor Fred Mills, Rockie Charles led the crowd in a rousing, rebellious version of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," Paul "Lil Buck" Senegal slayed with his Strat backed by the Buckaroos featuring Stanley "Buckwheat" Dural on B3; Willie Tee's key-tickling kissed the cosmos; and Ms. Lynn joined the Flaming Arrows Mardi Gras Indians and the Black Eagles' Big Chief Roddy to sing "Smoke My Peace Pipe." A sweaty, funky good time was had by all -- and us'n, until we had to duck out of the bacchanal to catch Lee "Scratch" Perry's gig.

Perry's show was at one of several newly established Convention Center venues, taped on site for DirectTV's new venture with the festival, SXSW Live. Shockingly, perhaps because of the cameras' imperative, Ole Scratch seems to have started on time and had a good band out with him, featuring a sax-blowing gal in hot pants. Trustafarians, geezers and lone sprinklings of black folk made the scene, while the concrete monolith that is the Center almost levitated from the bottomless dub beats. And, yep, Mr. Perry, who upped the fest's British dominance as a Jamaican-bred colonial subject, was as, erm, loopy as ever.

Aside from the Brit hype, the other most commented upon subject this year was the overabundance of day parties, which seemed to have outstripped official nighttime showcases. Although I had RSVP'd for Amoeba/Sin City Marketing's Cosmic American party wherein vault Gram Parsons music was unveiled and the Vice afterhours party (whose location was switched to the Elk's Lodge after some contretemps), I was not listed for much and ultimately lacked the stamina and energy to race around like the kids. This year's SXSW marked an extremely painful personal anniversary for me, so my resolve began to waver sometime after Friday midday, when I saw the legendary Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd interviewed. And so my schedule was refocused to catch new friends (Earl Greyhound, Hobex), friends of a dear friend (Alejandro Escovedo at the Convention Center with strings and Austin's rising Future Clouds + Radar, Doyle Bramhall II at the Continental, Charlie -- and Will -- Sexton at Antone's, Davíd Garza at Cosmica Artists' fantastic day party at Mexicarte), and the more provocative panels like the Drake appreciation and Marsh's "race and music" where Cyril Neville dropped science of gargantuan proportions and L.A. icon Charles Wright made a surprise appearance.

There was a general sense of malaise shrouding the festival, as if the wad had been blown with last year's 20th anniversary throwdown and now, in the aftermath, there was a lot of filler, despite the thrills of La Winehouse, Bloc Party, The Stooges and a few others -- Friday night especially was a black hole before the late night sets, if you were too young to want to ensconce yourself at the amazing Ponderosa Stomp. The inkling of downpression was not my bias but shared by many from my underage Hilton roommates over from London to one of my best friends who's attended South-By for twenty consecutive years. And business folk with a blunt view opined that for most of the musicians amongst the 2000 or so bands, the festival would accomplish nothing unless they'd had the good fortune to have the backing of a major who could carpet bomb the proceedings as with Ms. Winehouse.

Fortunately for Earl Greyhound, someone's handling dey biniss, and the great Brooklyn trio seemed to play almost as many shows as The Fratellis, including Jane magazine's day party and another on Saturday evening for the newly-inaugurated Colorado music festival Monolith (to which they were invited for mid September). Rocking Friends bar with songs from their second disc, Soft Targets, Ricc Sheridan, Kamara Thomas and Matt Whyte could do no wrong, judging by the folks shoved up against the stacks and stretching all the way between the bar's back nether regions and across to the opposite side of the street. There was nothing so moving as to open one's eyes and see young faces lit up with wild-eyed amazement peering through the window behind the stage, while Kamara howled through the ending of "Yeah I Love You" and Matt was moving so fast that his hair, fingers and guitar blended into one.

After Earl Greyhound, my personal festival highlights were the revelations of those cherished Austin icons Charlie Sexton and Davíd Garza. Lacking downtime in the city, I'd only heard of Garza's greatness and managed to see Sexton play behind Dylan once in N.J. So, in spite of massive technical issues, Sexton's late Saturday set at Antone's contained much beauty, centered on songs from the fine Cruel and Gentle Things. Hearing Sexton fluidly switch between piano and guitar on aching closer "Just Like Love" made enduring Kenny Wayne Shepherd's prior interminable performance worthwhile (as well as Shepherd's guests Hubert Sumlin and Pinetop Perkins).

Then I raced all the way back to Red River on begging feet to see the end of the Spiro's "Homegrown Latino" showcase, where Garza was holding court. Even with the competition of such as The Stooges, Antibalas' Mesmer horns a half-block away and the Screw Shop's 10th anniversary -- plus hordes of local St. Patrick's Day partiers queued up for the venue's other spaces -- folk kept streaming in to join the young Latino fans shaking their asses. It was so hot, one had to strip down (within legalities) and sublimate pain into the grooves for Garza never once faked the funk. Wild style, indeed.

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