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2007 South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival Coverage

By Brian T. Atkinson, March 2007

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"Townes promised to teach me to ski," Earle later joked. "He said don't listed to what they say – just take this hit of acid. I almost immediately experienced a tree."

Earlier in the day, the Sin City All-Stars paid their own tribute to Van Zandt during their fourth annual jam at Maria's Taco XPress. "This is the only song that matters," one of them noted introducing "Pancho and Lefty." A number of stellar songwriters in the crowd – including Tim Easton and Jim Lauderdale – sang along.

Back-to-back sets from John Doe and Lauderdale literally define alt.-country music – dirgy punk rock from the former combined with the latter's classic heartbroke country. Taken together, the two are a gold standard as precious as Uncle Tupelo, Whiskeytown, even Gram Parsons.

Many in the crowd – including notorious groupie and author Pamela Des Barres – stomped along enthusiastically with Doe's raucous cover of The Beatles' "Revolution" and danced to Lauderdale's "Single Standard Time."

"I want to thank our sponsor, Halliburton," Lauderdale joked at one point. "Our motto is 'Halliburton Is Us.' But I don't want to end on that note – you never know how long these corporate sponsorships are going to last." The decidedly liberal crowd roared.

Easton provided another high-water mark with his gutter-troubadour cover of Bap Kennedy's "Domestic Blues," a tune that fits the wandering minstrel – and the entire mood of this gathering – as comfortably as a dusty rucksack.

Day 2 – Rachel Fuller presents ATTIC Jam, featuring Pete Townsend, Willie Mason, Martha Wainwright, Mika, Alexi Murdoch and Joe Purdy: buzz turns into fizzle

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Talk about anticlimactic. It started with a boatload of buzz. Palpable anticipation followed. And then, in the end, it fizzled out miserably.

First, though, the good news. There was plenty of it during this otherwise endearing and engaging evening.

The ATTIC Jam is like fantasy camp for under-the-radar musicians. The premise: Pete Townsend and his girlfriend Rachel Fuller pick a few of their favorite songwriters to showcase their material, and Townsend jams with each for at least one – sometimes as many as four – songs.

Tonight continues a series of these jams that the duo has hosted at places like Hotel Café in Los Angeles and Joe's Pub in New York City. Steve Earle once said that his experience picking bluegrass with the Del McCoury Band was "like getting Jesus to play shortstop on your baseball team." This is the rock ‘n' roll equivalent.

It started with an unexpected thrill. Fuller finally took the stage a full 20 minutes after the show should've started and announced that the opening act was running a bit late. "It's a bit of a hootenanny," she said, "so we've asked our closing act to open."

Enter Townsend to uproarious applause. "I'll close it, I'll open it – and in the middle I'll ruin it," the Who guitarist and songwriter joked before offering up a forceful "Drowned," from the supergroup's "Quadrophenia."

The question, of course: Would Townsend be a part of this if someone other than his girlfriend was the host? It seems he might. The legendary musician was loose, energized and full of ideas and improvisation throughout the evening. In fact, he might've had more fun than anyone onstage.

From Willy Mason to Joe Purdy, the connection between Townsend and the younger writers was immediately evident: They're all superb storytellers. Some (Purdy, a folkie singer-songwriter from California who released an indie disc) succeeded more than others (the British pop singer Mika), but none of the originals fell short.

Covers provided the brightest moments, though. The undeniable highlight was Purdy's delicate, half-tempo reading of "Let My Love Open the Door," with Townsend on guitar and backing vocals. Fuller quieted even the most unruly yakkers – and there were many – with a languid reading of Joni Mitchell's "Blue." That it apparently was unrehearsed made it all the more stunning.

The veritable love-in was anything but a battle of the sexes. If it were, though, Martha Wainwright and Alexi Murdoch would've been team leaders. Wainwright – daughter of Loudon, sister of Rufus – was nearly as charming as Kasey Chambers and as sassy as "Exile on Guyville"-era Liz Phair delivering crowd favorites like "This Life."

The most quietly charismatic of the bunch, Murdoch killed with his sleeper hit "Orange Sky." Townsend pitched in on lead guitar and backing vocals, stooping down to sing Murdoch's mantra "my salvation lies in your love" over and over into his guitar mike.

Now, here's the thing about SXSW: It requires commitment. Traffic snarls and overfilled parking garages will quickly nix a novice's notion that scrambling about to catch every second of music is brilliant. Hundreds of good folks – possibly over a thousand – committed a nearly three-hour chunk of their evening to ATTIC Jam, presumably waiting for Townsend's closing set.

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