april 2009


Billy Bob Thornton Undermines Surgeon General's Report, ACORN Influence Suspected; Newcomers and Familiar Faces Save the Day

By Billy Altman

Billy Bob Thornton breakin' the law at SXSW: Actor, musician, smokers' rights activist

March 19: Just about any boot-scootin' Texan can tell you that deep in the heart of the Lone Star state, where there's smoke there's barbecue. This is especially true around Austin these days, since the town billed as the "Live Music Capital of the World" has followed most major U.S. cities in banning cigarette smoking indoors, leaving tobacco-inclined people in need of open-aired spaces in which to exercise their habit—with the net effect of societal prejudice now adding (given the detrimental effects of nicotine and tar) insult to injury, so to speak.

Still, we are a nation of freedom-loving people, and at this year's South By Southwest music festival, which finds some 1900 or so performers of every different stripe and style from all four corners of not just the U.S. but the world doing their particular thing, the growing minority of cigarette smokers can look to their voice being now heard here, too, in the presence of Billy Bob Thornton. Yes, that Billy Bob Thornton, certainly best known as an actor, but also of late a recording artist with his musical group the Boxmasters—and, as evidenced by his appearances at several shows at the start of this year's SXSW, something of an activist as well on the smokers' rights front.

Billy Bob's shows at SXSW were at venues sponsored by two tobacco companies, both of which, we should note, are purveyors of products advertised as being "all natural"—although, as their advertisements do faithfully note: "No additives in our tobacco does NOT (their caps) mean a safer cigarette." And while Thornton doesn't have any specific songs relating to smoking, he did take the stage at both his concerts with a lit cigarette firmly in hand. Technically, he was breaking the law, though no one was compelled to make a citizen's arrest Wednesday night at the aptly named Smokin' Music Club, which does have an outdoor safe haven "lounge" area adjacent to the music room.

About the closest anyone came to breaking up Thornton's act of "protest" was the person near us complaining about the quality of the stone country music Thornton and his band were playing. About midway through a number called "Don't Build Your Own Prison If You Can't Do The Time," he told his friend that "These songs would probably sound a lot better if he sang them in his Sling Blade voice."

Tough crowd, these oppressed smokers.


March 21: It's 1:30 am on Saturday in Austin, Texas, on the fourth and final day of the South By Southwest music festival, and although I'm not exactly sure what's brought me to a comedy club, I find myself at the Velveeta Room on 6th Street watching standup Todd Barry ask if anyone in the audience is in a band. Everyone laughs, and then a kid in a hooded sweatshirt raises his hand. "Where'd you guys play?" asks Barry.

"We didn't," says the kid. "We couldn't get booked." The comedian gives him a quizzical look. "Wow, that's weird," he says. "I've never been here before, but it seems to me this festival doesn't turn down a whole lot of people. Yesterday there were four bands playing in the laundry room of my hotel."

As funny as that was, what might be even funnier is that Barry could well have been telling the truth, as this year's SXSW saw over 1900 acts perform at shows at some 70-plus venues all concentrated in a nine by 14-block section of downtown Austin. And while the music industry continues to sputter along with the rest of the economy, and record companies continue to drop faster than you can say illegal downloads, the simple fact remains that real live music played by real live people may be in better shape than it's been in years.

Maybe it's because there aren't bagfuls of money waiting anymore at the rainbow end of a contract with a major label anymore, or because the old fame and fortune promises from high-powered managers on the prowl don't quite cut it for a new generation of musicians who've got heir heads screwed on tight and their feet firmly planted in reality. But the overall vibe at SXSW 2009 was surprisingly footloose, and fancy free, with far less wannabe posing and far more good, honest musicmaking than witnessed in many years at this wonderful, crazy marathon. As keynote speaker Quincy Jones put in rather nicely in his keynote address: "Music comes through us; it's not about us."

Here, then, in chronological clubcrawling order, are some of the best things I heard coming through at this year's SXSW:

THOSE DARLINS (Pop Culture Press day party, Wednesday, March 18.): Hard to say what's cooler about these three young women all dressed in red from the wilds of Murfreesboro, TN—their predilection towards hootenanny-styled unison singing or their predilection towards cracked corn cow-punk. Their all-for-one, one-for-all spirit goes way past the Ramones-inspired shared surname; Nikki, Jessi and Kelley Darlin swap instruments and lead vocal duties throughout their set, which includes not only a cover of the Carter Family chestnut "Cannonball Blues," but wildwood originals with like "Snaggle Tooth Mama" and "Whole Damn Thing," about getting the munchies after a night of partying: " I got drunk and I ate chicken/ I ate a chicken I found in my kitchen/ Not just a leg and not just a wing/ I'd like to let you know I ate the whole damn thing." As old-timey banjo picker Uncle Dave Macon would surely advise: "Keep your skillet good 'n' greasy."

Ben Sollee (Photo by Ken Diala)

BEN SOLLEE (live.create.lounge, Wednesday, March 18.): I first saw Sollee at SXSW in 2003 playing an amplified cello behind fierce bluesman Otis Taylor, and having been floored by his ability to make his classical music-associated instrument sound like a wailing harmonica, I've continued to watch his progress as an outside the box musician. Recent stints as part of the Abigail Washburn and Bela Fleck's world-folk Sparrow Quartet have raised Sollee's profile a bit, and as demonstrated by his set here, in which he sang and played some vaguely swinging but solidly uncategorizable songs like the seeking-change-themed "Only A Song" all by himself—that is, voice and cello alone—he is definitely a player to keep track of.

DADDY (Twangfest party, Jovita's, Thursday, March 19): Fronted by a dream team duo of singer/songwriter guitarists Will Kimbrough and Tommy Womack, Daddy is Americana at its roots-rockingest best—honest music that makes its case with equal parts chops and smiles. Pals since their short-lived early '90s ahead-of-the-alt.country-curve band the Bis-quits, Kimbrough (2005's Americana Music Association Instrumentalist of the Year) and Womack (two-time winner of the Nashville Scene Best Song Award) play serve-and-volley with songs and riffs, and with aces-up tunes like Kimbrough's appropriately fresh "(Meet me down at the) Wash and Fold" and Womack's swamp-doggin' "Love In A Bottle," they're about as close as sheen-obsessed Nashville gets these days to "real" country music. No place like the belly of the beast to kick that gong around.

RAUL MALO (Antone's, Thursday, March 19.): For nearly two decades now, Malo has come about as close as any singer alive to reaching the rarified air once breathed by Roy Orbison. Had he wanted to, the former frontman of '90s country-rockers the Mavericks could probably have successfully gone the operatic route, but fortunately for us heathens he's stayed on the pop side of the music fence. His new band, featuring keyboards and a horn section, is malleable enough to let him glide across a variety of genres including sweet and sultry Latin jazz, and it's no accident that many of his songs lyrically reference the moon: I saw more gravitational swaying by girls of all ages at his show than anything else all week. "Dance The Night Away"? You bet.

LISA HANNIGAN (Central Presbyterian Church, Friday, March 20): At times at South by Southwest, the music gods simply decide to smile on you for all the insanity that comes with trying to figure out how to see 10 things at once every hour from noon until two a.m. for four straight days, and this unexpected gift came after I left Metallica in all their steamrolling glory Friday night and sought sonic sanctuary—literally—at the Central Presbyterian Church a few blocks away. For the last few years, the pin-drop quiet church has hosted some of the most breathtaking shows at the entire festival, and that's precisely what the set by Dublin singer-songwriter Hannigan was: breathtaking. Surrounded by a four-piece band of locked-in multi-instrumentalists who at various points played everything from violin and melodica to trumpet and pocket xylophone, Hannigan and her harmonium weaved quite a spell with drop-dead gorgeous songs that even before they were halfway done had you humming along like you'd known them for years. Exemplified by the disarming "I Don't Know," about curiosity and the rules of attraction ("I don't know if you write letters or panic on the phone but still I'd like to call you"), Hannigan's exquisite music had me at chord one—and then, out of nowhere, she delivered an utterly transfixing version of "Just Like Tom Thumb's Blues" that immediately ranks among my top 10 Dylan covers. Ever. Trust me, that's saying a lot.

DEXTER ROMWEBER DUO (Red Eyed Fly, Saturday, March 21): There are cult heroes and there are cult heroes—and then there's Chapel Hill NC's Dexter Romweber, who has trod the lonely path of obscurity for several decades without ever losing his fire or sense of purpose. Standing onstage with twanging guitar in hand and an ever-wounded look on his face, he at first seems like some frozen, time out of mind rockabilly renegade. But then he and his faithful sidekick sister, drummer Sara Romweber, plow through a set that takes vast stretches of pop music—standards (Victor Young's "Love Letters (Straight From Your Heart)"; '40s cabaret (Marlene Deitrich's "Ruins of Berlin"); early British rock ("Picture of You"); Nashville Sound country (Tammy Wynette's "Still Around")—and, by filtering them all through a prism of primal rhythm and melody, mystically manages to connect them all. His new CD features guest duet vocals by Cat Power, Exene Cervenka and Neko Case—all of whom, like just about anyone else who's ever actually taken the time to pay attention to him, hear in Dexter Romweber's singular music just what the title of one of his own broken gems says: "Blue That Defy My Soul."

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Tiny Masters of Today perform "Bushy"

TINY MASTERS OF TODAY (Cedar Street Courtyard, Saturday, March 21): While they played earlier on the last night of the festival, I've saved this Brooklyn indie punk trio for last. After all, they had a good reason for their 8 p.m. time slot: The band's vocalist, Ada, just turned 13, and the guitarist, her brother Ivan, is barely 15. Then again, they're already veterans, having debuted with homemade recordings that caused quite a stir on MySpace back in 2005 when they were...well, do the math. Hailed by David Bowie, featured in Newsweek, they're already something of a sensation in the U.K. and Europe, where their song "Hey Mr. DJ (Turn Up That Music)" became a remix club hit, and where, homework permitting, they'll soon be touring. Even fighting the cold that she said was making her sound "awful," young Ada sounded just fine to these old ears on such cut-to-the-chase compositions as "Big Stick" ("Got a big stick/Gonna hit you with it") and the astonishing "Book Song," whose total lyrics are these: "My life's an empty book/That will fill up over time/No one else will fill it for me/no one else can write my lines/Ba ba ba ba ba/Every day's another page/ Every sentence is a feeling/And my book will last a lifetime/Although the binding will start peeling/Ba ba ba ba ba." Just as the Tiny Masters began what they'd announced as the last song of their half-hour set, Ivan broke two strings on his guitar, and with no backup instrument, they were going to pack it in. Everyone in the little crowd urged them to just go ahead, though, so they did, to the delight of all on hand.

After all, when it comes to music that matters, in the final analysis, heart and attitude trump everything else. And somewhere, Joey, Johnny and Dee Dee Ramone are listening—and smiling. May it ever be thus.

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