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2007 South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival Coverage

By Brian T. Atkinson, March 2007

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This means missing exciting opportunities like, say, checking out the Alejandro Escovedo String Quartet at the Austin Convention Center. Not to mention skipping the great Colorado songwriter Jeff Finlin's set at Friends. And the Amoeba Records' listening party that debuted a new Flying Burrito Brothers live recording.

The point: The payoff for this dedication is expected to be huge.

Here, it is not. Because ATTIC Jam started late, there was only a 20-minute window between its end and the beginning of the SXSW showcases at La Zona Rosa. That leaves time for Townsend to play the shortest set of the evening – precisely two songs.

Sure, "In the Ether" from "Endless Wire" with Fuller on piano was entrancing. But it was hugely disappointing, to say the least – a heinous letdown that hopefully was the low-point of the week.


Day 2 – Jonathan Demme interviews Emmylou Harris

Thursday, March 15, 2007, Austin Convention Center

AUSTIN - Buddy Miller seems to be around every corner at SXSW. Last night, he was hanging out at The Parish, ready and willing when Ray Wylie Hubbard called him up for an after-midnight assist on "The Way of the Fallen." Today, he's up bright and early, sitting in the front row of the Austin Convention Center's main conference room.

Miller glided right into place last night with Hubbard, but this is where he's truly at home as an instrumentalist – next to Emmylou Harris. Director Jonathan Demme has been tabbed to interview Harris this morning as a part of the conference's more academic side. It was a wise choice: Demme became well acquainted with Harris while filming "Heart of Gold," the Neil Young documentary that she appeared in.

Settling into deep couches like old pals, Demme opens the interview with a question about Harris most powerful instrument: her voice. Seems that Harris views singing like Townes Van Zandt looked at songwriting. That is, that these gifts come from a higher power, and singers and songwriters are only conduits to creating art.

"The sound (of my voice) is a mystery to me," Harris says. "I say things to sound guys like 'I sound like I'm in a well,' or 'it sounds wooly.' I don't know how to describe it. I get the tempo and groove, (but) I know there's another kind of singing. It's more technical, but I don't know if I have the ability."

Many would argue the point. Harris might have the most distinctive and heartbreaking voice in contemporary country music. In fact, it might be the very defining sound of modern country music, a voice as unique and easy to identify as Neil Young's.

Demme brings up their common friend early on. "I admire (Neil) for the way he lives his life," Harris gushes. "His ranch is for recording music. He respects the fact that you have to be inspired, that we're just channels for what comes through us."

Young certainly hit a high note when he channeled "Wrecking Ball." Harris used his songs as the title track to her 1995 Grammy-winning album produced by Daniel Lanois. She knew the song's purpose the first time she heard it.

"You look for a title that pulls together the disparate pieces, and ‘Wrecking Ball' did," she says, then notes the importance of selecting the right album title. "One time I couldn't think of a title and we called the album 13 because it was my thirteenth album." A moment's pause, then a joke: "That album didn't do too well."

Harris' collaborative efforts have, though. She is, of course, an in-demand duet partner, and she says that the importance she puts on harmonies has defined her career path: "I love harmonies. Other than only knowing three chords on the guitar, that's why I can't play solo. Harmonies resonate and are so important to the message of the song."

Miller leaves his seat from time to time during the interview to accompany Harris on a handful of songs. "I think we'll do my first hit, though I haven't had many," Harris says as the two launch into the Louvin Brothers' "If I Could Only Win Your Love." "The Louvin Brothers were very important to me when I discovered country music and harmonies," she continued later.

Harris and Miller offer intimate takes on "Green Pastures," "Love Hurts," Gillian Welch's "Orphan Girl," and Harris' own "Boulder to Birmingham." Talk soon turns to Gram Parsons, Harris' musical mentor who died at age 26. The two minted "Love Hurts" together, then Harris penned "Boulder to Birmingham" to cope with the Cosmic American music pioneer's passing.

"You can talk all you want about the thousand monkeys and the thousand typewriters, but I believe I was destined to meet Gram," Harris said. "When he died, I was 26 and other than my grandmother I hadn't lost anyone. The shock of it – I didn't know how to deal with grief."

"I was asked not to attend the funeral. There were jealousy issues. Everyone thinks we had this affair, but we were just friends. ‘Boulder to Birmingham' helped me put that into words."




Charlie Louvin, Sunny Sweeney, Ray Wylie Hubbard shine

Wednesday, March 14 – The Parish

AUSTIN - The cautionary note in this year's South By Southwest literature warns visitors about the idyllic Austin weather in March. Don't let these mild temperatures (average of 62 degrees this month) seduce you into moving here, it says, because in a month or two it'll be stinking hot (summer averages: 85 degrees, 89 percent humidity).

No need to worry about that today. This weather - rainy as Seattle, muggy as Des Moines, gray as Erie, Pa. - isn't likely to spur a spike in UHaul reservations. The downbeat climate, however, does not put a damper on the mood at The Parish club.

The night belongs to Sunny Sweeney at this Louisiana-themed venue. In fact, the country and roots music hotspot offers something of a generational torch-passing from old school traditionalist Charlie Louvin to Austin's rising star Sweeney.

Half of the legendary Louvin Brothers (his brother Ira died in a 1965 car accident), Charlie - smartly dressed in a black embroidered suit - is the embodiment of traditional country music. His 45-minute set is entirely tasteful, sometimes funny and subtly captivating.

Louvin, performing shows at 79 to support a just released new CD, mixed hefty doses of banter with both classics and material from the new album. "Over the years, I've recorded lots of songs, but this might be the best," he said by way of introducing "This Darn Pen," a duet with Willie Nelson. Guitarist Bill Kelly - much to the delight of the crowd - did his best Willie impression filling in on vocals.

Other highlights included a spot-on cover of Jimmie Rodgers' "Waiting For A Train" and an upbeat reading of the Louvins' "Atomic Power," which the younger generation recognized from Uncle Tupelo's cover on the album March 16-20. "Most of y'all are too young to remember, but back in the '50s everyone was diggin' holes because of the bomb," Louvin said before launching into the latter.

Louvin showed how graceful country music can be, but Sweeney proved that its future might be even more exciting. The east Texas native - who daintily carried her purse on and off stage during sound check - fit the majority of her stellar debut, "Heartbreakers Hall of Fame," into her set.

A rising star of the Austin music community, Sweeney channeled the strength of Loretta Lynn on "Next Big Nothing" and "Refresh My Memory," then the fluidity of Patsy Cline on the album's title track. Her cover of Jim Lauderdale's "Please Be San Antone" was a singular performance. (Lauderdale himself appeared onstage to duet on Keith Sykes' "Lavender Blue.")

Ruthie Foster later proved to be a crowd favorite, undoubtedly getting closest to the bluesy-gospel heart of this venue. In fact, her cover of Lucinda Williams' "Fruits of My Labor" - driven soulfully by a Hammond B-3 organ - inspired the crowd, oddly still during Sweeney's performance, to swing and sway blissfully.

Foster was popular with her peers, too. A thrill for fans at SXSW is mingling with performers, and there was no shortage of them hanging around to check out Foster - among them, legendary songwriter Chip Taylor ("Wild Thing," "Angel of the Morning"), alt-country hero Buddy Miller and Sweeney, who gladly obliged new fans' requests for photos with her.

The greatest challenge of this five-day event is picking and choosing from such a broad menu of live acts. A thinning crowd suggested that when Ray Wylie Hubbard took the stage at midnight. Still, Hubbard, joined on lead guitar by instrumentalist-producer extraordinaire Gurf Morlix, turned in the most solid set of the night.

Leaning heavily on his new album "Snake Farm," Hubbard's slick guitar work and keen lyrics proved that the Wimberly, Texas resident is at the top of his game. Morlix provided burning slide work with an empty beer can on "Polecat," Miller lent his voice to the dirgy "Way of the Fallen" and Hubbard himself brought the house down with his crunchy guitar work on "Snake Farm."

"I forgot to mention that this is a sing-a-long," he joked midway through the latter. The enthusiastic crowd obliged, singing, "Snake farm, it just sounds nasty/Snake farm, it pretty much is." Fitting, too, for a snake charmer to rile his followers at this Bayou-based venue.

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