Big names Van Morrison, R.E.M. mix in with indie bands’ showcases at SXSW

[17 March 2008]

By Timothy Finn

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

AUSTIN, Texas - This town’s annual music festival long ago stopped being a place where unsigned bands can get discovered.

That loss of mission has been made official this year by the festival organizers, who summoned some experts for a Friday panel, where they addressed the question: “What Is The Future of Record Companies and Artist Deals?”

If you have to ask, the answer is implicit: Not very bright. It’s all bad news if you’re a young, unsigned band.

But music fans in Austin this week are reaping the rewards: the appearance of big-name headliners with label deals who are looking for ways to promote albums. None was bigger this week than the usually reclusive Van Morrison, who played a one-hour show Wednesday night at the club La Zona Rosa.

The place filled up before fans with wristbands could get in, which meant the place was full of industry and media people who tend to act cynical and not get too excited about whomever they’re seeing.

That wasn’t the case Wednesday night. Not long before Morrison took the stage, people up front (including me) were excited, even a little giddy. Some joked they didn’t believe it was really going to happen. It was a break in the routine, a “moment” - kind of like when Davy Jones dropped in on “The Brady Bunch.”

He played about a dozen songs, including the country classic “There Stands the Glass,” but none was a classic of his own. About half were songs from his upcoming album, “Keep It Simple,” including the title track.

He accompanied himself on saxophone and ukulele and showed what a taskmaster he can be with his band, barking out orders and pointing directions. He also showed what a gruff host he can be. After a fan yelled something ridiculous like “the baby Jesus of white soul,” he growled back, “Oh, (bleep) off.” After finishing one of several molten blues-soul numbers, he said to no one in particular: “I’m glad we’re finally going somewhere because I’ve got other things to do.”

Morrison turns 63 this August, but even with a cough and cold, he can sing like he’s still in his 40s. His voice has lost a little strength but not much range or finesse. All night he sounded fabulous. So did his impeccable 10-piece band, which really got its frenzy on after he’d left the stage. The cat was gone, so the mice went a little crazy.

The other big headliner Wednesday: R.E.M., which played a midnight set at Stubb’s. The band played a bunch of cuts from its new album, “Accelerate.” They also tossed in lots of older material: “Second Guessing,” “Electrolite,” “Fall On Me,” “Drive” and “Auctioneer (Another Engine).”

The good news: Most of the new stuff sounded like older stuff - like the better material from “New Adventures in Hi-Fi.” The album comes out soon; expect a tour to follow. And if you’ve ever liked the band, go see them. They sounded revived.

Thursday, I took a long walk west toward Waterloo Records, hoping to get in to Sara Bareilles’ in-store. No chance. Got there too late. Stopped in too many places doing free shows. Did the same thing on the way back. It’s all way too hit-and-miss, but I bumped into a couple of good bands/acts:

Macon Greyson: It’s a Dallas band, not a guy, but the guy (Buddy Huffman) sounds like a mix of the angry Steve Earle and Tom Petty.

Child Bite: These guys are from Detroit, but they look like they’re Deep Southern. They look like the Drive-By Truckers - ball caps and beards. They mix punk and indie rock with some sax. Think of the Replacements covering “Rosalita” or the Police’s “Peanuts.” That’s kind of what these guys sound like: all raw, tuneful energy.

One of the bigger shows Thursday was at the Austin Music Hall: My Morning Jacket headlined with Yo La Tengo and the Whigs. Yo La did the distortion/feedback thing too much and too long for my taste. I did like “Autumn Sweater,” though. MMJ is fierce live - true to the recorded versions but raw and louder, more cosmic. Jim James’ voice is supernal sometimes. The band played “Gideon” and “Wordless Chorus” and several songs from the record due in June, like “Highly Suspicious.” Some of those were more formal country-rock songs.

The weather here has been pleasant, which has been good for the outdoor events, like the New West Records showcase. Johnny Rivers showed up and sang several songs with Buddy Miller. Then Rhett Miller and Old 97’s played a set.

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