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South by Southwest: Tennessee heats up Texas
By Bob Mehr | Friday, March 14, 2008

AUSTIN, Texas -- In 2008, the South by Southwest music conference reached what may be a peak in its nearly quarter-century history. Music experts, casual fans and everyone in between descended on the Texas capital for a perfect storm of day parties, nighttime showcases and after-hours events. If you said there wasn't a single second of the four-day festival where someone wasn't playing somewhere, you'd not be far wrong.

With so many sounds clattering from every club, corner and crevice of the city, it was hard for anyone to be heard over the din, and yet Memphis certainly made its presence felt, dispatching its largest ever contingent of local performers to SXSW. And those acts covered a wide spectrum, from the progressive hip-hop of Free Sol to the frenetic punk of Jay Reatard.

If there was a true "buzz" act (apart from the well documented and white-hot Reatard and the Memphis-connected but Brooklyn-based MGMT) it was Amy LaVere, who made a pair of showcase appearances, and had many repeat customers coming to catch her at both Antone's on Thursday and Opal Divine's Freehouse on Friday.

Since the release of her 2007 sophomore LP Anchors & Anvils, the roots-pop chanteuse has slowly but surely won over a legion of fans and critics -- she most recently earned a nod from Esquire Magazine as "like Norah Jones but too sultry for Starbucks," which is perhaps as good a description as any of the nature of her appeal. LaVere, backed by her crack unit of players, including guitarist Steve Selvidge and drummer Paul Taylor, charmed and beguiled the crowds during both sets, surprising many seeing her for the first time with the rockabilly intensity and spunk of her live act, which is a far cry from the simmering diffident cool of her studio work.

While the festival's first two days featured a smattering of Memphians taking the stage, Friday provided the strongest blast of local music with a pair of showcases from Goner Records and the Six Degrees of Memphis.

The Six Degrees bash, both a day party and night showcase -- organized by Memphis Music Foundation head Dean Deyo, Third Man's Jeff Schmidtke, and blogger/Internet radio host Rachel Hurley -- took place west of downtown Austin at Opal Devin's Freehouse. Although the daytime affair's attendance suffered somewhat because of the venue's distance from the heart of Austin's main drag, that didn't stop a number of groups -- including several non-official SXSW acts -- from delivering fine, exuberant performances.

Chief among them was contemporary R&B; crew Jump Back Jake -- led by East Coast transplant Jake Rabinbach -- who continues to grow exponentially as a live act, building anticipation for the release of their forthcoming Ardent Studios-recorded album.

Ultimately, the party was just a precursor for the Six Degrees official evening showcase, which featured a wide array of acts from jumpy bluegrass-Americana crew the Tennessee Boltsmokers to epic pop outfit The Third Man. And while the star power certainly rested with showcase headliners the North Mississippi Allstars, the bill was surprisingly strong top to bottom.

Arguably, the most outstanding turn came from indie-roots outfit Snowglobe, the "all star" band featuring several prominent members of the Makeshift Music collective, including singers Brandon Robertson, Brad Postlethwaite and Tim Regan. If there's been one complaint about Makeshift artists as a rule, it's that they lack a certain identifiable personality or charisma. But Snowglobe seemed to be able to circumvent that issue, by spreading the weight of carrying the band among its various players, each of whom added a separate and distinct element to the outfit's Flaming Lips-meets-Gram Parsons "Cosmic American" sound.

With old-school soul music returning to the charts and critics' favor via big-lunged divas like Amy Winehouse and Sharon Jones, there was much anticipation for an appearance at Opal Divine's Freehouse by the Bo-Keys. Led by bassist Scott Bomar, the band has been relatively quiet since the release of The Royal Sessions in 2004 -- keeping its appearances mostly limited to backing Stax legends like Eddie Floyd and William Bell, while Bomar has been busy with his film-score composing career. The band's SXSW turn -- a grooving, sweat-soaked set featuring a guest appearance by singer Harvey Scales to a packed crowd -- certainly served as a reminder of how tight and powerful the group is in its own right, and more than whet appetites for a new Bo-Keys album due later this year.

On the other side of town, Goner Records' Friday night label showcase -- which started as an official SXSW function before being decommissioned as it were -- proved another success for the Cooper-Young based label/record retailer. That was a relief to Goner's owners, Zac Ives and Eric Friedl, who'd gotten caught in a tug of war between SXSW organizers and the host venue, Beerland. The club only wanted to be part of the festival for the Goner showcase, and this caused some serious rumblings among other venues, all of whom have to commit to performances for the festival's duration. After much back and forth, which initially looked grim for Goner's prospects, a compromise was reached with Beerland opening its doors for free for the show, but with Goner losing its official SXSW status.

Of course, none of that mattered to the folks who filled the venue to see the lineup, which included Memphis rant and roll kingpin Ross Johnson, Chicago's organ-fueled garagistas Cococoma, and Arizona electro-punks Digital Leather. But it was Bluff City faves Jack Oblivian and the Tearjerkers and Harlan T. Bobo who provided the highlights of the event, playing a pair of loose but absolutely storming sets, each of them working with somewhat makeshift backing bands, with substitute players and little rehearsal time.

As great as each performance was, if there was one downside, it was that the Beerland location and the unofficial status meant that the packed crowd was mostly made up of garage rock partisans already familiar with the music. So, despite the fact that tens of thousands of music seekers in Austin from all over the world surely would've appreciated Bobo and Oblivian, the performers largely ended up preaching to the converted.

The festival also featured appearances from longtime local alt-country torchbearers Lucero as well as a bit of comedy from Just Farr A Laugh, the Matador Records-signed prank call duo, featuring Memphian Andrew Earles.

Saturday night brought the festivities to a close, and Memphis checked in with arguably its most unique export, Lord T. & Eloise, who made their presence felt with a set at the Ninety Proof Lounge, and left more than a few people laughing and shaking their heads after being exposed to the band's hip-hop novelty stylings and "Artiso-Crunk" sound.

Bob Mehr: 529-2517

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