Guitarist Ron Gallo had an announcement to make, one he thought important enough to have composed and typed up ahead of time. So he got on the microphone right before his band began one of its South By Southwest sets and read it aloud in a hilarious deadpan:
We are very excited to be here today in Austin, TX 78701 at SXSW, an annual event dedicated to helping creative people achieve their goals. Featuring some of the biggest names in music: McDonalds, Monster Energy Drink, Esurance, Mazda and Capitol One Bank. Oh and also thousands of bands from all over the world that paid to be here for the illusion of opportunity and the choice between $250 and a wristband.
Everyone laughed, and more than one of Gallo’s fellow musicians in the audience clapped and nodded knowingly. What made the whole thing even more pointed was the setting: Gallo and his bandmates were onstage at the YETI Flagship, a store that sells coolers (as in containers for icing down and storing cold beverages) and also doubles as a concert venue with a stage using YETI coolers as risers.
Gallo and his amped-up power trio was as loud as any band I saw at last weekend’s South By Southwest, and also quite good. But the high point of their set was “All the Punks Are Domesticated,” which was slow and quiet enough for the words to be understood:
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Meanwhile, the pop tarts climb the pop charts
The blood clots block your heart parts
And no one really has anything to say…
In this hyper-marketed world of branding, it was refreshing to come across someone still capable of working up actual anger toward the music industry, diminished though it is nowadays. And South By Southwest remains ground zero for what’s left of the music business, drawing bands and fans by the ton.
Three decades removed from its origins, South By Southwest has gone from being an event where upstart bands get discovered to one where the wheels and gears turning America’s entertainment industry are on display. Plenty of big names turned out to promote their latest project - from Fleetwood Mac drummer Mick Fleetwood talking up his forthcoming book to country superstar Garth Brooks’ expounding on his recent venture into online streaming. Brooks also played an unannounced “secret” show at Austin’s honkytonk landmark the Broken Spoke, and drew huge throngs to a free outdoor show.
Still, there was plenty of off-the-beaten music to discover. The oddball-guitar-drums-duo format seems to be alive and well in Canada these days, between Les Deuxluxes and the Shanks, who both found ways to include bass guitar. DakhaBrakha, a Ukranian folk quartet decked out in fur-hat finery, played entrancing drones that felt like a hit of Siberian mushrooms. And I’d somehow never encountered the fantastic Minneapolis emcee Lizzo before; she was plus-sized in all ways, most of all charisma.
But a big part of the South By Southwest experience is also checking in on how the folks from back home do, and the Triangle had some very fine ones this year. Durham electronic duo Sylvan Esso got a choice big-venue slot and pretty much killed it, building anticipation for their upcoming album “What Now” (coming out April 28).
Then there was “Thank You, Friends: Big Star’s Third Live…and More,” director Benno Nelson’s concert film of one of Chris Stamey’s labor-of-love stagings of music by the much-beloved cult band. Listening to Big Star’s records 40 years on, it’s still unfathomable how they weren’t all over the radio in their day. “Thank You, Friends” underscores that with great renditions of “Thirteen,” “September Gurls” and other shoulda-been hits by an all-star band featuring members of R.E.M., Wilco, Semisonic and others - plus Stamey’s fellow North Carolinians Mitch Easter, Jeff Crawford, Skylar Gudasz, Brett Harris and Django Haskins.
“Thank You, Friends” had its world premiere at South By Southwest, followed by a live performance by all the principles who were in town. I’d put a few bugs in a few ears among my critical brethren about Gudasz, so it was nice to hear several of them afterward saying, “She’s really good!”
The movie is lovely, too, and Triangle locals can see “Thank You, Friends” at its North Carolina Premiere — April 21 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre.