AUSTIN, TX -- The confluence of the South By Southwest music conference hitting its 20th year and this Texas town's reputation as a bohemian haven and key music capital meant that, above all, the 2006 SXSW lived up to its reputation as a summer camp for music heads. The event, held last week, totaled five delirious days, 1,400 bands and 65 official stages; industry legions partying to excess; music critics giddy at the prospect of show-hopping nirvana; and moments of artistic poignancy and pulverizing weariness. Some of the hottest moments came courtesy of Charlotte acts like soul man Anthony Hamilton and indie-rockers The Talk.
As songwriter, musician, actor, cool icon and Texas legend Kris Kristofferson was being honored during the event, his lyric "freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose" came to mind. Into this musical bacchanal, I wandered with freedom and the articles of sonic faith on my mind:
My first-day highlight was crossing the picturesque Colorado River with Blogging While Black panelist George Kelly. We were headed to a screening of Alex Hinton's Pass The Mic at the Alamo Drafthouse Cinema. The film documented the burgeoning gay hip-hop movement (aka homohop) and centered primarily on the Bay Area scene. It featured black and Afrocentric homohop pioneer Juba Kalamka (who has done vital archival work on behalf of the community and nurtured scores of artists) and his Deepdickollective bandmate and spoken-word artist Tim'm T. West, whose West Village travelogue is priceless. Hinton, who hails from around Spartanburg, SC, was on hand for a Q&A session.
Later in the evening, we entered the singer-songwriter zone, with the BMI showcase of Stephen Stills' son Chris delivering one of the finest performances I witnessed during the festival, not an easy feat when most acts have roughly 40 minutes to display their work. Backed by a rhythm section, Stills seamlessly switched between guitar and electric piano. His newer songs show a good deal of evolution, channeling the jazzy swing of Tim Buckley's early Elektra records. A promising direction for one of roots rock's younger lights.
My first of many pedicab rides then took me to Austin's famous Antone's blues club to catch Canadian hip-hop artist k-os, who closed out the night on an odd note. He started late, only mentioned special guest Melissa Auf Der Maur (ex-member of Courtney Love's Hole) toward the end in making reference to a recalcitrant bassist, and abruptly cut his set short while announcing the end of his relations with Astralwerks Records. Rather unprofessional, but k-os is a quite gifted MC whose sung rhymes and band kept the audience hyped.
My last festival serendipity was a front-row seat during my hero Kris Kristofferson's interview session. The songwriter discussed a range of topics, including his struggles in Nashville and his film career. Most riveting was his exploration of the tension between growing up in a Texas military family and his outlaw convictions. Dave Dudley covered his first song successful in Nashville: "Vietnam Blues." Kristofferson's current release This Old Road (New West), featuring key track "The Burden of Freedom" (long time since "nothing left to lose") may be his best recording since his classic The Silver Tongued Devil and I. Claiming freedom is a necessity of life that's also a double-edged sword, Kristofferson sings, "He didn't beat the Devil, but he tried."
Racing to Antone's again, this time to catch California folk-rock veteran Richie Furay, challenged my assumptions that his show would be woefully under-attended amidst the flood of young buzz bands. Every Boomer on earth was already in line it seemed (including former '60s groupie Miss Pamela DesBarres), alongside numerous twenty-something Austin locals who must've caught wind of rumors that keynote Neil Young might sit in. I was giddy from witnessing two members of my all-time favorite band, the Buffalo Springfield, in one day. Young did not appear, but Furay was in fine voice and his multi-generational band offered very hot pickin', blending old and new Americana tradition. Furay warmly referred to his old podnahs Young and Stephen Stills before singing six Springfield songs, including the great "Nowadays Clancy Can't Even Sing."
Among several Austin debuts, the best included an appearance at La Zona Rosa by Charlotte's own Anthony Hamilton. Appropriately, I walked in on a groovin' rendition of "Southern Stuff." As with most urban-themed festival shows, black Austinites outnumbered festival badge-holders, but the mixed crowd was definitely eating out of Hamilton's hand. A nine-piece big band held down the mix of soul grit, gospel and cool jazz, as Brother Anthony worked the stage. Sadly, he didn't offer "Lucille," but Hamilton was gone to church and tore it up testifying and exhorting call-and-response during "Preacher's Daughter."
Lacking energy to fight throngs of Latino teens for admittance to Morrissey at Austin Music Hall -- or the wheels to check out Raleigh's Tres Chicas and Chatham County Line across the river -- I opted for Gogol Bordello at the Red River club Emo's. This Rama-punk outfit has been on the come-up in New York City since my departure.