Monday, March 29, 2010

My South By Southwest 2010

South by Southwest 2010 – Music + Film + Interactive
A Bloggish entry by L.E. Agnelli

Since its 1987 inception, when an impressive 700 registrants attended the new, indie music, Austin, TX based music conference, the very popular South By Southwest (SXSW) conference has grown to over 50,000 registrants, a mind boggling number. It’s also expanded into a film and interactive festival, and now spans nine days, smack dab in the middle of March, every year: in 2010, from March 12 – 21st. It’s the largest music/film/interactive conference and festival of its kind, in the world.

I first attended “South By” (as locals and insiders call it) in 1991, when I was a member of the very indie Dave Rave Conspiracy, a post-grunge, tuneful powerpop sextet. By then, SXSW, just an indie music festival then, seemed big enough – indeed, I can’t recall being able to hear and see everybody even in ’91 (though Matthew Sweet was a big fave at the time). And then, five years later, I played a showcase at La Zona Rosa with my nuclear polka plus heroes, Brave Combo (we had a CD out on Watermelon Records, Kiss of Fire). SXSW seemed giganda in ’96, for sure, But now, 14 years later, it’s hard to wrap your brain around how immense and prestigious an organization SXSW has become.

People first of all have been asking me what I heard at live shows down there in Austin. This time around, I wasn’t there for the entirely, but I did manage to catch musical legends John Hiatt, Ray Davies, and Smokey Robinson. Smokey was particularly inspiring, but everybody had something uplifting to offer, musically and message-wise. Also caught The Trews (exciting fairly new, young Canadian group who are Dave Rave’s friends and songwriting colleagues), and Viv Albertine, formerly of English punkers The Slits. Of the new groups that impressed me, Visqueen was particularly charismatic, and Parlour Steps also played some good material.

But, my real mission there was to support both Bongobeat Records, who believe in my music and put my music out on CD and online, and work with Dave Rave, my longtime songwriting partner, who has a great new album coming out soon, Live What You Know (on Bongobeat, of course). The Dave Rave showcase happened at 11 PM on Saturday, downstairs at a nice little club called Habana Calle Six, on the very popular Sixth Street strip.

Peerless frontman, songwriter, musician and gentleman Dave Rave played a very exciting set with Chris Peck on drums/vocals, Mark McCarron on lead guitar/vocals, and yours truly on bass and vocals. Dave was showcasing old and new material – and featured one of the new uptempo Lauren Agnelli songs from my latest project in the works, “Cruellest April.” (I’m also the co-writer on four of Dave’s songs he played that night.)

Over the course of forty high energy minutes, we played a dynamic set of powerpop/rock – with no vocal monitors to speak of -- and for the last number, Canadian punk classic “Let’s Shake” by Dave’s former group Teenage Head, two members of the current popular Canadian rock band The Trews got onstage to play (Jack Syperek on bass and John Angus McDonald on guitar). The room was crowded with fans, friends, celebrated musicians (like pedal steel guitarist Bucky Baxter & songwriter Mark Johnson) and the curious alike. After Dave jumped out into the crowd for the third time, the audience respectfully (or fearfully?) moved away from the stage about ten feet, just in case the Raver leapt out and rolled around out there, again.

But also that Saturday night, several blocks away, at Antone’s, following the sudden death of Big Star's singer/guitarist Alex Chilton, bandmates Jody Stephens, Jon Auer, and Ken Stringfellow held an all-star tribute to Chilton in the place of Big Star's SXSW performance. Friends and fans (including original Big Star member, Andy Hummel) gathered to celebrate the life and music of Alex Chilton. I’d love to have been there, too. . . but I had our own music to do.

Because of its immensity, in any given time slot at SXSW, 80+ bands or solo acts are performing. So of course, the very people who’d love Dave’s & my music, that same night and time of the Dave Rave set, were crammed in at the Alex Chilton/Big Star tribute. This is just one of those interesting ironies of life. I’d have been at the Alex/Big Star thing if I weren’t already working, making fine music with the Raver, but as it is, I am really happy to be working our music, though: it’s fun, and an honor.

There was a little time to meet up with old & new friends who live in Austin (Kevin, Mary, & S.J.), and to sample some of Austin’s thoroughly yummy foods (barbecue at IronWorks, texmex chow at Chuy’s. Would have gone to El Azteca but they were closed on Sunday, when we were able to go).

In fact, “South by” was really a great chance to reconnect with cool people I know or have known – and to sit in on some interesting panels, like “CBGB Stories” with Chris and Tina from Talking Heads and Clem Burke from Blondie; “Women Write Women’s Experiences in Music” with Holly George-Warren, Jaan Uhelszki, and others; “Elvis at 75” with writer Billy Altman and music legends Wanda Jackson and James Burton (I knew Billy, not Wanda & James!). Also saw some great Canadians who are lots of fun, like Victor Syperek (inventive designer and once mayoral candidate in Halifax, NS)and his fun Nova Scotian posse. Even went to a fun day-after party in a real stone castle (created out of an old Mexican church smack dab downtown, practically) with mostly wild & crazy Canadian friends, hosted by the generous and very successful Robert, Victor’s friend and a CEO and owner of Canadian Radio stations.

Besides, and pretty importantly, I finally got to meet, in person, the “Senior Fellow,” Frank Brandon, from our Bongobeat distributors in the U.S., Burnside Distribution Corporation. He’s a really nice guy, with great hair. And seeing Ralph again, Mr. Bongobeat Records, is always great. Couldn’t have gone without Dave Rave’s help, though – hats off to the excellent Raver! (We also stopped by Sun Studios in Memphis on the way back – another inspiring moment in music history.)

Because I ceaselessly wonder how & what makes things work business-wise, I enjoyed talking with record exec/marketing & design maven/poet/performer Ralph Alfonso, and with Canadian musicbiz legend Larry Wanagas (KD Lang, the Trews, Big Sugar, Yukon Blonde). A great home team is what it’s all about – plus a good sense of humor (or humour, in Canada). With guys like Ralph or Larry on your side, you know your work will carry farther than you could have imagined

An unexpected but fascinating look into the volunteering aspect of “South By” came from a young woman who was helping to run one of the numerous (very useful) information booths in the Austin Convention Center.

This volunteer (who wisely prefers anonymity due to prevailing SXSW privacy policies) is single, 32 years old, no kids, lives in Austin, is self employed, and makes jewelry. She has volunteered at “South By” for six years, on and off. “I don’t drink, and that’s rare. If I drank, I’d be dead. You have to make a commitment to get no sleep, basically. During the film festival, I watch films all day, and volunteer all night. During the music festival, I volunteer all day, hear music and party all night.”

She continued: “This festival has the largest number of volunteers in the U.S. of ay festival.” More than 1700 enthusiastic and outgoing SXSW volunteers contribute hours of their time to welcome the international community of artists and industry professionals to Austin and to South by Southwest, every year. Indeed, they are the faces of SXSW, working in the Austin Convention Center or the film and music venues; they’re often the first ones to greet the many out-of-town registrants. These tireless volunteer hordes work for “perks” so they can attend film and music events.

This helpful, vibrant, punkishly attired (has bright pink streaks in her spikey hairdo) volunteer finished by saying, as she was spending her final hours in the info booth on the last day of the festival, exhausted but still cheerful, “The real thing about South By is ‘How can I get on the RSVP list?’ To get a platinum pass, you have to work 80 hours; to get a gold pass, 70 hours.”

And you thought Tennessee was “the Volunteer State” – or from the way the small towns run (mainly on volunteers), Connecticut. Nosiree, in March of every year, Austin, TX, is its own little “volunteer state,” and the massive machine that is SXSW runs quite smoothly due to these unsung heroes, the South By volunteers.

Hooray and thank you to them and to everybody whose paths I crossed during SXSW (Music) 2010. I always like to feel good about what I’m doing and trying to do, and it was a stellar time, for sure. Next up, I’m looking into Folk Alliance 2011, and heck, maybe even SXSW again!

So about that new album I’m working on. . . let’s complete it (getting close)!