I can probably count on the fingers of one hand how many times I’ve sat through a 10-minute-long rock song and actually enjoyed the experience. And there have been even fewer occasions when I wished a 10-minute-plus tune was longer. But I’m here to tell you: At 5:45 p.m. Central Time this past Saturday, finale day for South By Southwest, James McMurtry pulled that off.
McMurtry hails from the sardonic division of hard-bitten Texas singer/songwriters, and he used to pretty much just strum his acoustic guitar and sing. Over the past 25 years, however, McMurtry has matured into a formidable electric guitarist who can flat-out cook a blues-rock groove — like John Lee Hooker with a literary streak. And he and his band turned the methshiner ode “Choctaw Bingo” into a phenomenal groove and guitar duel I wish would have gone on all day and all of the night.
Then again, partaking of the all-night version would have made me miss a lot of what else was going on elsewhere at South By Southwest. This was the 30th edition of the convention, which long ago mushroomed beyond the music industry to become a gigantic and unmanageable spring-break party with thousands of bands and tens of thousands of attendees. The cacophony of the whole thing was fairly overwhelming, but there was so much to see and hear that it still qualified as the usual amazing good time.
One of this year’s stars was Concord’s own Avett Brothers, who were previewing songs from their upcoming album “True Sadness” (due out this summer). This wasn’t a home-state crowd or one of their multi-hour marathons, so it lacked the celebratory house-party sing-along vibe of the Avetts’ New Year’s Eve show in Greensboro. But that was fitting, given the generally somber tone of the new material.
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In something of an irony, the Avetts were paired on a bill with their fellow Old North State native Ryan Adams. Where the Avetts have always been happy to stay at home and proudly vocal about their roots, Adams fled his native state the first chance he got and hasn’t played a show in North Carolina since 2005.
“It’s an honor to share the stage with an artist we all adore, Ryan Adams,” Seth Avett said during the Avetts’ opening set, grinning a bit sheepishly as he continued. “Fellow North Carolinian. It’s been…a few years since he played there. But we still claim him.”
Adams has moved on a good bit from his mid-1990s days leading his old band Whiskeytown in Raleigh, and most of his set focused on his recent iterations as Grateful Dead-influenced guitar god and devotee of Bryan Adams-style ’80s guitar pop. The music went over well with the crowd, and it was fine. Just fine.
But even for an over-it old-timer like me, Adams offered up a few moments that tugged on the heartstrings, especially a solo acoustic take on “Be My Winding Wheel” and the shattering goodbye ballad “Dear Chicago” recast as a full-band song with a down-the-track-clickity-clack backbeat. It was lovely.
There were plenty of new discoveries, too, especially the hypnotic Nigerian groove guitarist Bombino and Long Beach rapper Vince Staples — who can’t possibly be only 22 years old, since he sounded eerily like old-school West Coast hip-hop that was current around the time of his birth in 1993. Staples also showed impressive nerve by cracking on the Spotify streaming service’s meager payments to musicians, while performing on a stage sponsored by Spotify.
Country singer Wynonna Judd isn’t a new act, but she was showing off a new direction with a set of jumped-up blues; the woman really can sing anything. And folksinger Judy Collins (yes, “Suite Judy Blue Eyes” herself) was a revelation. At age 76, Collins demonstrated a purity of tone that was fairly jaw-dropping — never moreso than on her cover of Crosby Stills & Nash’s “Helplessly Hoping,” a song Stephen Stills reputedly wrote about his and Collins’ breakup more than four decades ago.
Also making a fine impression was Durham rapper Shirlette Ammons, showing ample star power while fronting a punk-leaning band; Massachusetts singer/songwriter Aoife O’Donovan, who sounded like an excellent cross between Suzanne Vega and Alison Krauss; and the Waco Brothers, pound for pound still the best bar-band experience going.
I’m not sure any variation on the phrase “good impression” would ever apply to the raconteur, singer-songwriter and occasional political candidate Kinky Friedman, but I did enjoy his set immensely. It was equal parts standup comedy and songs with punchlines, and I regret to say that most of it was far too salty to repeat here. One of his few gags that’s appropriate for a family newspaper: “Germans are my second-favorite people. First, of course, is everybody else.”
Well, then, I’m happy to be part of Friedman’s favorite tribe.