It's late Saturday afternoon at the Beauty Bar in Austin, Texas, and Boston indie-rock band Apollo Sunshine is playing an outdoor stage at one of the hundreds of unofficial day parties during the city's South By Southwest Music Festival. Several dozen people stand outside swaying lazily to the band, but the atmosphere is more animated at the club's indoor lounge, where an equal number of people are bobbing their heads to music being piped through the club's p.a. system. The song that's gotten the party started? "Poppin' My Collar," the current single from Memphis rap group Three 6 Mafia.
After four days of squeezing into packed clubs of writers, bizzers, musicians, and music fan(atic)s at America's biggest annual music showcase to see buzzed-about bands such as Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, Art Brut, Fiery Furnaces, and Gogol Bordello, this moment put the experience in perspective. But if Three 6 Mafia is what Memphis music means in 2006 at any sort of mass level, this year's SXSW left little doubt what, in more subterranean terms, contemporary Memphis music means to the rest of the world: the garage-punk inheritors of seminal Memphis bands the Compulsive Gamblers and Oblivians.
The avalanche of noisy, grimy, and gritty Memphis guitar bands in Austin last week turned a portion of the sprawling event into "Gonerfest Southwest," with Red River dive Beerland as home base and Midtown-based record store/label Goner as ringleader. The Memphis madness kicked off Thursday night with Goner's official label showcase.
As the Goner showcase ripped loose at Beerland, the Memphis bands that played clearly felt at home before a crowd that reached club capacity early on, and it wasn't just the Pabst and filthy stalls. New Orleans-based, Memphis-connected King Louie opened the show with his one-man-band set, getting the crowd involved with his dirty, determined performances. "Welcome all you Goners," he bellowed, drawing a roar.
The night's three Memphis acts got going next with Harlan T. Bobo, playing his first SXSW solo set. Billed in the daily Austin-American Statesman as "the mystery man from Memphis," Bobo played a confident set that was sadly cut short by fussy SXSW staff. Just like at his shows in Memphis, Bobo had a full front line of fans singing along to every word. "There is no mystery now," Bobo quipped when informed of the Statesman preview.
After Bobo's set, Goner co-owners Eric Friedl and Zac Ives got to take time from their organizational chores to join in the music. Former Oblivian Friedl went first with his band the Dutch Masters, where he was flanked by fellow guitarist and garage-rock mainstay Scott Rogers for a set that echoed the tone of Friedl's scene-starting '90s band if not quite the frantic energy. Instead, frantic energy was the domain of the Final Solutions, which Ives fronted with vocal assistance from drummer Jay "Reatard" Rensley in probably the most entertaining set of the Goner showcase.
The next day, Beerland was crawling with Memphis bands day and night. Rensley was almost a one-man show during a daytime showcase for his Shattered Records label, playing in three of the lineup's seven bands -- the Angry Angles, Final Solutions, and a rare, show-closing set from his infamous Memphis teen band the Reatards -- while overseeing things and manning the merchandise table, where he sold one of everything to at least one notable attendee: Sonic Youth guitarist Thurston Moore.
By the time the Reatards closed the show, there was a line outside waiting to get in. In their daily festival coverage, local weekly The Austin Chronicle reported that "a mass of bodies heaved and shook to the 15-minute riot that was Memphis underground legends the Reatards" and quoted club doorman Max Dropout as saying, "It was pandemonium from the start. Bands like the Oblivians and the Reatards are what this venue is all about."
But Rensley didn't exactly return the love when asked earlier about Beerland's Memphis connection.
"I don't even know why all the Memphis bands play here," said Rensley. "This place is not that cool."
Rensley's Shattered showcase rhymed with one at the same club the next day for Contaminated Records, a label run by Rensley's former Lost Sounds bandmate Alicja Trout, who performed a similar organizational juggling act, selling records and T-shirts and policing band set times while finding time to play with one of her many bands, the River City Tanlines.
In between, the Tanlines and the Tearjerkers, the fine band from Friedl's Oblivians bandmate Jack Yarber, played a Friday night Beerland showcase for Blackout Booking. The Tearjerkers opened with a rousing cover of the Rolling Stones' "Connection," then slowed down with a wheezing accordion breathing life into "A Bullet for Ramona" from their 2005 album Don't Throw Your Love Away.
The Tanlines, meanwhile, may have been the most impressive Memphis band we saw all week. At both shows, the veteran rhythm section of bassist Terrence Bishop and drummer John "Bubba" Bonds built a thunderous interplay that Trout rode on several slashing guitar solos that nearly caused her to lose her footing,
"We scared them, I think," said Trout after the Friday night set, as she happily sold records to some Texas fans.
During their last number, Trout leapt out on several lengthy solos of such spark that even her dour bassist cracked an impressed grin. "It's rock-and-roll, but you have to smile sometimes," Bishop said.
But the Memphis garage/punk invasion wasn't restricted to home-away-from-home Beerland. Goners Ives and Friedl were scheduled to participate in the festival's "Indie Village" networking session Thursday-Saturday afternoon in the convention center, though when we swung by for a visit Saturday they seemed to be playing hooky, no doubt having found a more useful way to spend the afternoon.
Scene godfather Jeffrey Evans kicked off a garage-rock day party at Emo's IV Thursday with a solo set and joined Yarber and Austin's Walter Daniels Saturday night for some lovably loose-limbed roots-rock in the longtime Yarber-Daniels collaboration South Filthy. Later Saturday night, Rensley's Angry Angles, Ron Franklin, and Viva L'American Death Ray Music were scheduled to play official showcases.
If the offspring of the Oblivians headlined the Memphis contingent at SXSW this year, the city's representation wasn't restricted to them.
The biggest Memphis band in attendance was probably fest regulars Lucero, who swept into town from a Southeastern tour with opener Harlan T. Bobo.
Lucero was scheduled to play a Friday night showcase hosted by frequent tourmates Ted Leo & Pharmacists but first played a packed day show Thursday at Jovita's. Singer Ben Nichols' ragged voice betrayed the strain of a rigorous touring schedule while bassist John Stubblefield's 3 p.m. "good morning" salute to the crowd betrayed a very late festival-opening night. But Lucero's performance was still a rousing, set-list-free romp through an increasingly thick back catalog, shaped on the spot based on the torrent of shouted-out song requests, though not every request was honored. When one fan pleaded for the intense epic "Here at the Starlite," a bone-tired Nichols could only smirk and explain, "That's not gonna happen."
For further proof of Lucero's growing popularity, you only had to stroll through the festival's fabulous Flatstock concert-poster convention, where locals Sasha Barr and Matt Cole [a Flyer employee] were exhibiting work from Barr's The New Year company and where Lucero posters were ubiquitous.
Lucero wasn't the only Memphis-related alternative to the Goner invasion. Murfreesboro alt-country band Glossary, with Memphis-based drummer J.D. Reager, was in town playing the same day show as Lucero, while singer Susan Marshall and her husband, producer Jeff Powell, were in town performing and conducting business.
Marshall played a Gram Parsons tribute show Thursday at Opal Divine's Freehouse, offering a soulful solo reading of "She" then joining Tim Easton for a duet on the Parsons standard "Sin City." Later that night, Marshall sat in with Missouri band the Bottle Rockets at their official showcase, where the band played material from a forthcoming album produced by Powell in Memphis at Ardent Studios, whose Jody Stephens (perhaps better recognized as the drummer of Big Star) was also in Austin conducting business for the studio.
Powell and Marshall seemed to have a busy schedule for SXSW but took time out Friday afternoon to join a few other Memphians at a 6th Street sports bar to watch the University of Memphis play their first-round NCAA tournament game. Powell and Marshall had even more of a rooting interest than the other locals. They had tickets to the Sunday second-round game in Dallas.
But the most meaningful "Memphis" showcase of all may have been one without a single contemporary Memphis band in attendance. Friday night at the cozy Continental Club on South Congress, a group of traditional Mardi Gras Indians decked in full, feathered regalia marched through the front door stomping and chanting to signify the survival of the Ponderosa Stomp, the wildly acclaimed New Orleans roots-music festival that will be relocating to Memphis for 2006, sandwiched in between the Beale Street Music Festival and the Blues Music Awards in early May.
Stomp founder Ira "Dr. Ike" Padnos and his wife Sam had shown up at Beerland the previous night to lend support to the Goner showcase. But on Friday, they had their hands full with a packed house at the Ponderosa showcase, an event that Padnos told the crowd was "training for Memphis."
As New Orleans continues to recover from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Ponderosa Stomp has embraced Memphis in the meantime, and the New Orleans-Memphis connection was a lovely sight Friday at the Continental Club. The Crescent City opener was followed by Elvis Presley drummer DJ Fontana, who provided the beat for young(er) guitarists Charlie Sexton and C.C. Adcock as they lit into a swinging set of Elvis tunes, including "That's All Right" and "Baby, Let's Play House."
It was also proof that as much as the local SXSW experience was about what the city sounds like today, in Memphis the past is never far behind and always alive.