Imagine a music festival that is not massively packed and not obsessed with making as much money as possible. Seems impossible in 2012, but it’s not. The Newport Folk Festival is the last bastion of enjoyable music festivals in the United States. The crowd is courteous, the staff amenable and the stages accessible. You can bring a chair and a cooler without being subject to a full body cavity search. You can move between stages easily and enjoy the entire line-up if you wish. And the setting in Fort Adams in Newport offers a good setting to see live music and picturesque views of the harbor. Mix in some boozy fun in town and the weekend could be the best of summer.
Dr. John is one of those musicians that, admirably, has always just done his own thing. The performance of his that sticks in my head is always The Last Waltz — an amazing show and classic film. I remember seeing it for the first time and getting caught on those scenes with his music. Last year Dr. John performed at Bonnaroo with The Black Keys front man Dan Auerbach, and the performance went so well that it led the two musicians into the studio to collaborate on Dr. John’s newest album Locked Down, which Auerbach helped produce and was released this past Tuesday.
You already know South by Southwest doesn’t lend itself to peaceful contemplation. It’s an endurance test for all involved, that reverberates long after you leave. Yes, it’s a crowded mess—overlapping with St. Patrick’s green-stained idiocy doesn’t help. But it can also be oddly intimate: You see bands in small clubs, carrying their own instruments, playing countless shows as their sanity wavers. In the best moments, you’re reminded of the elemental equation between musician and audience. It’s an attraction renewed in real time, one that outlasts clueless corporate sponsorships, new media gambits and apocalyptic meditations about the future of the recording industry.
Sunday after SXSW is time to repent. It’s a day to confront questionable decisions—and you made some—and consider the bands missed, the drinks accepted, the morning bb-q indulged. You ask yourself what it all meant and there’s no good answer, there never is. Then you remember your favorite acts: Sharon Van Etten, Austra, Veronica Falls, An Horse, and you appreciate the magnetism of terrific, talented musicians. It’s a basic need.
You still have to overcome some guilt when you look at decent Austin residents who’ve been rampaged by people asking where they can buy The New York Times or charge their phones. You hear stories from the comely staff at the San Jose about serving drinks for 7 straight hours, confided without a trace of self pity. Others took a more direct approach—one large sign on the side of a bar (which is nominally in the hospitality industry) read: ‘Thank you/Go home.’
Resist the temptation to try to come to terms with SXSW logically. These aren’t tax forms you’re dealing with, but 2000 bands, playing in clubs, in tents, on streets, in parks. By design, it reinvents itself every year, and there are countless pathways through the mayhem, all of them leaving you exhilarated and exhausted. You face the assault on your senses and then pick your spots for visceral gratification. The fact that the festival overlaps with St Patrick’s Day is a blessing or a curse depending on your feeling toward public intoxication and fake Irish accents.
South by Southwest is commercial, chaotic, concentrated. It’s also elemental, extraordinary and the most essential week in American music. In the last few years we saw bands from Au Revoir Simone to Andrew Bird, Beach House to Midlake. Not in a field with 100,000 stoners or the echo chamber of Madison Square Garden, but in clubs where you’re 50 feet away from Warpaint or School of Seven Bells. At this late date you’re not getting a room at the Hotel San Jose, but you can still road trip to Austin and crash on the couch of your friend who’s still working on their thesis at U of T. Then head to Marfa check in at the Thunderbird Motel and you’re feeling pretty smart indeed. Don’t worry about tickets, there are free concerts all day, everyday and light beer for everyone.
Every concert needs its audience, so get thee to Austin.
In the mid sixties some of America’s most talented Soul singers banded together and set out on a European tour that would go down as one of the greatest of all time. The artists on tour were all on the Stax-Volt record label and included Booker T. & the MG’s, The Mar-Keys, Arthur Conley, Sam and Dave, Eddie Floyd and The King of Soul Otis Redding.
The Stax-Volt label was sort of a Memphis equivalent to Detroit’s powerhouse Motown, although Stax was much smaller. After the tour in Europe in 1966 and 1967 the group returned to the states and many of the acts continued on to huge stardom, Otis Redding being the biggest. Sadly, he died in a plane crash in December of 1967 at the young age of 26.
Do yourself a favor and watch all of these videos, they are truly spectacular. The performances are also available on DVD here, should you want to own them. Enjoy.
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