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Memphis Magic at SXSW

Local talent shines at Austin’s annual fest.

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Rolling into Austin last week for South By Southwest (SXSW) was both exotic and familiar to me. Having first played there in 1990, this year offered more than five times as many bands, with more tech-oriented attendees (due to the growth of the non-musical conference) and a more pronounced Memphis presence than ever.

Right out of the starting gate, Austin saw a full slate of local favorites at The Memphis Picnic. Sponsored by the nonprofit Music Export Memphis, it featured catering by the new Austin branch of Gus's World Famous Fried Chicken, as well as the new Austin branch of the Amurica photo booth and "a line around the block before we opened," according to organizer Elizabeth Cawein.

The crowd flooded in to see opener Emi Secrest, a onetime Memphian now living in Los Angeles, who featured much-admired Memphis drummer Stanley Randolph, now playing for Stevie Wonder. One musician waxed enthusiastic about Randoph's playing with Secrest, noting that their set pulled in the audience and "set a tone of 'oh shit, this is good!' for the day." The show also featured Chris Milam, Marcella and Her Lovers, Dead Soldiers, and a fervent, soulful closing set by Southern Avenue. "It felt like being home," said Marcella Simien. "Every guest felt that energy, and that's why people stuck around all day. It was magical."

Dead Soldiers, who release a new album on March 31st, reprised their set the next afternoon with wild abandon, in songs ranging from anthemic rock to klezmer-like frenzy. Show-closer "Sixteen Tons" culminated in soaring group harmonies and drummer Paul Gilliam leaping over his kit: One could only feel for the band that had to follow them.

Amid all this talent, foremost in my mind was Cory Branan and the Low Standards, for whom (full disclosure) I was playing bass. A North Mississippi/Memphis native who has recently returned to Bluff City life, with a new album coming in April, Branan led me and drummer Shawn Zorn through one full band show per day, along with many solo sets. The highlight of the latter was his appearance at the Moody Theater (home of Austin City Limits) for the Country Music Awards' Songwriter Series, where his pithy lyrics and fiery picking brought the crowd to a standing ovation.

Scores of Memphians filtered into Austin as the week wore on, from new arrivals China Gate to the pedigreed Tommy Stinson-led Bash & Pop, featuring hometown guitarist extraordinaire Steve Selvidge, wrapping up their West Coast tour at Austin's Hotel Vegas on Wednesday. The next night was capped off by rock-and-roll lifers Joecephus and the George Jonestown Massacre. And Saturday featured an unofficial celebration of bands on the Goner label, including Memphis' own Aquarian Blood.

Bands rushed from one show to another, working themselves and crowds into a sweaty furor. Truckloads of tacos and coffee and alcohol were consumed, hearts and ears and minds caught in the sonic energy. Yet amid the clamor, more delicate moments also thrived. Mystic groove goddess Valerie June, now based in New York, was seemingly the toast of the town, with massive buzz and press coverage celebrating her new release. Coco Hames, newcomer to Memphis via Nashville, spun her classic pop songs with an assist from fellow Memphis transplant Mario Monterosso at the Merge Records Day Party, and again in a midnight show the following night. Meanwhile, Milam enlisted cellist Elen Wroten to add unique textures to his band. Both Hames and Milam have new albums arriving soon, as does Shannon McNally, another local favorite based in Oxford, Mississippi.

For her appearances at SXSW, McNally assembled a dream band featuring Memphian Stephen Chopek and the remarkable Charlie Sexton, best known for his guitar work with Bob Dylan. (Full disclosure #2: I joined them on keyboards at her Auditorium Shores show). Her liveliest show was at Lucy's Fried Chicken, where her eclectic energy brought cheers from a packed house. "Who else can go from Stevie Wonder to JJ Cale at the drop of a hat?" Sexton asked the crowd, to which McNally replied, "Same station, baby! Same station."

The most commercially promising acts at SXSW were arguably Memphis' hip-hop artists. The genre is more fully embraced at SXSW than in the early days, and rappers Blac Youngsta, Javar Rockamore, and Don Trip all represented the Bluff City well. The king had to be Yo Gotti, whose Thursday show had crowds crushing the edge of the stage, as he pounded out his direct-message-themed hit, "Down in the DM," as well as jams from his recent White Friday (CM9) album.

Finally, what could better evoke Memphis than the unique collaboration known as Big Star Third? Centered on original Big Star drummer Jody Stephens, with indie-rock luminaries such as Mitch Easter, Chris Stamey, Mike Mills, and others trading off vocals and instruments, supplemented with a string ensemble, the group recreates the lush and inventive sounds of the once-obscure band's Third/Sister Lovers LP, as well as selections from earlier Big Star and Chris Bell records. Their SXSW show, in Austin's Central Presbyterian Church, was reverent and tragic, occurring as it did on the seventh anniversary of Alex Chilton's death. There was something magical in hearing Stephens' powerful drumming echo from the church's arched chancel. His singing captured the vulnerability of friendships formed in his teens; and Stamey and Mills captured the wry, blunt delivery of the band's chief composer well. Yet one could almost sense Chilton himself, slouching in the back pew, making wisecracks about the gigantic crucifix hanging over their heads, wishing he could have a smoke.

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