On a day when University of Memphis reserve Roburt Sallie exploded for 35 points in the NCAA tournament, the Memphis Music Foundation similarly exceeded expectations at the South by Southwest Music Festival.
The Foundation had put a mammoth effort (and, clearly, an awful lot of money) into the Memphis presence at SXSW and had both of its primary events yesterday an outdoor day party in a Brush Square Park, adjacent to the convention center, with catering from Memphis in May award winners Natural Born Grillers, and an official nighttime showcase at the Dirty Dog bar on 6th Street. I was starting to wonder if, in the grand scheme of things, such focus on a few days in Austin was really worth it. But both events came off terrifically yesterday.
The lineup at the day party was indie pop group Two Way Radio, fronted by emerging $5 Cover star Kate Crowder, swamp-rockers Jump Back Jake (with Big Star beat-keeper/Ardent Records patron Jody Stephens sitting in on drums for one song), singer-songwriter Dave Cousar, and the Cody Dickinson-led Hill Country Revue. Swelled to a seven-piece by the additions of Snowglobe's Nashon Benford and the Original Cyndi's Justin Edward on horns, Two Way Radio opened the show, with Craig Brewer filming them for a live stream for MTV.com via a new gadget he'd received from recently acquired $5 Cover sponsor AT&T. After the set, Crowder got mobbed by prospecting bizzers lawyers, music licensers (one who wanted to pitch the band's music to Jon & Kate Plus Eight), offers for a USO tour.
In addition to Brewer's $5 Cover filming, MTV News did interviews with Two Way Radio, Lucero, and Al Kapone, the later pair of which were part of the Foundation's official showcase that night. Kapone was joined on stage by Cody Dickinson on electric washboard for a hip-hop tribute to Beale Street blues.
In addition to Kapone, the rest of the early lineup at the Dirty Dog consisted of Jack O & the Tearjerkers, River City Tanlines, and Free Sol. Eightball & MJG were supposed to perform, but missed their flight, forcing a late start to the showcase as early sets were pushed back slightly to fill in the gap.
The odd-couple headliners were Lucero and Stax vets the Bar-Kays. There was some apprehension about how this pairing would work. More than anyone else on the bill, Lucero brings with them an independent national fanbase and their set transformed the bar from a two-thirds-full crowd that was at least a third Memphians to a full crowd heavy with hardcore Lucero fans.
The band had been charged by showcase organizers to "be sober" for their set, a request they partially fulfilled, but which gave lead singer Ben Nichols a conversation topic in his back-and-forth with the audience. Lucero was not as sharp at last night's showcase as they were at a day party earlier alongside their friends, the Brooklyn-based Hold Steady at the club Red 7. Their, the band previewed three songs from a major-label debut they begin recording Monday at Ardent. The new songs were expansive, rhythmic, and terribly impressive. Before the set, Nichols and guitarist Brian Venable couldn't hide their excitement about the new album, for which they're deploying a horn section and a more painstaking songwriting process. If the performances at Red 7 are any indication, this excitement is very warranted.
Back at the Dirty Dog at the night showcase, Nichols sensed that the crowd his band had lured into the club probably weren't big Bar-Kays fans. "The Bar-Kays are going to play after us," Nichols said late in the band's set. "Anybody ever heard of a song called 'Soul [effing] Finger'? Badass shit." Not getting the recognition he sought, Nichols threw his hands up in resignation and admonished his fans: "Ignorant motherf#(#kers!"
After Nichols polished off the Lucero set with an old chestnut "Fistful of Tears" accompanied only by Rick Steff's piano, the Bar-Kays took the stage and proved to not need any help with the crowd. The club thinned out a little when Lucero finished, but a new wave came in expressly for the Bar-Kays, who took the stage in white sequined suits and unleashed a surprising blur of energy and sound that immediately gripped the crowd. Microphone problems for a very unhappy frontman Larry Dodson threatened to derail the set, with Dodson storming off the stage while a tech tried to fix the problem and the band kept playing. But once that wrong was righted and the band launched into "Soul Finger" their one, sure claim on eternity it was a big party. And a big success.
The Memphis action was wall-to-wall yesterday, but we managed to get away for a few non-local events: Detroit blues/garage band the Hard Lessons were a pleasant surprise. The Hold Steady was ferocious. New Zealand buzz band Cut Off Your Hands lived up to the hype. And most compelling of all was Mogadishu-by-way-of-Toronto rapper K'Naan, whose recently released disc album Troubador is the early frontrunner for Album of the Year to these ears and whose sharp storytelling skills and rich blend of hip-hop, afropop, and reggae makes him potentially pop music's most momentous new artist.
Look for more on these bands and all the Memphis action in next week's print edition. Today, the Memphis presence sprawls in innumerable directions, with events hosted by MusicMemphis, Goner Records, Ardent Studios, and Lucero all happening today. Check back tomorrow for another report.