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SXSW 2004: Austin Translation (Day 2)
Day Two: A Living Legend Because He Says So
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2004-03-19
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Thursday March 18th, Austin, Texas: This morning the featured entertainment is The Little Richard Show, starring Little Richard. Little Richard is a hard act to follow - at his spry, quick 71 years he's had time to work out all the kinks, and he s a fabulous mix of keen punch, down-home banter, and whack-a-mole dithering. He's also an easy act to follow, because in some sense just about every musician here in Austin this week at the SXSW Music Conference owes a bit to Little Richard, one way or another. This much is clear: Little Richard loves being King.

The World According to Little Richard is a passionate tale of friends, strangers, time, and pliable truths. When he makes his entrance into the packed convention hall, garnished and decked in restrained splendor, the standing ovation is instant and heartfelt. Richard travels familiar territory preaching to this morning's choir; if you've seen the film or TV versions, you've seen the story. But in person it's that good and more fun by half. Star quality, indeed.

The keynote is billed as a "Conversation With," and Dave Marsh is sitting in the chair opposite. It turns out to be a pretty quiet chair, and the session is more sermon than exchange. Little Richard's message to young musicians is simple, sensible, and repeated, often in rhyme: learn how to play, and no excuses; learn how to run your business, and no excuses; fill your art with soul. Lather, rinse, repeat.

By "soul" he doesn't mean soul music. "If you sing from the heart," he says, glittering behind the kind of sunglasses that make Ray Charles imitations inevitable, "it reaches the heart." Shortly after this, there's a Ray Charles imitation, which just goes to show that life likes a good straight line, too.

Richard is full of stories, and we're treated to memories of Jimi Hendrix when he was still a bluesman, of the Beatles when they were first trying to break in America, of the Rolling Stones when they were sleeping in the van. "I'm from the thickets," he says, recalling growing up in a one-thump town, "and it was really thick." Saturday nights were spent, if he's to be believed, standing in front of the grocery store, with bugs flying through the outside lights. And Saturday night would end up "with a mouth full of bugs."

Of course, he's not to be believed - not really. But that is part of the point. He's Little Richard. You don't argue paltry facts with a living legend, it's just tacky. As for being a living legend, Little Richard tells us this: "I'm really it, for real."
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Accept no substitutes. Has Dave Marsh ever been so happily quiet for so long? Just before the keynote is through, we're treated to a clear and classic "woooo" that warms the cockles.

This Year's Muddle: And ain' t it funny how the night moves? Wednesday' s slice of the musical pie is a bit of this, a bit of that. Brooklyn' s Sea Ray is a tucked-chin sextet with the expectant air of a shoegazing band that has looked long and hard at the footwear, and would now like to tell someone about it. For reasons that escape me they play in the light of a video projector showing pink effusive flowers, rambling trafficks, and jump-cut squiggles and colors. Danielle Howle, minus her backing Tantrums and in the company of a lone acoustic guitarist, is voluble and bright as she moves the company to order at the Daemon Records showcase. She promises - or is it a threat? - that her next outing will fuse country and jazz. Rose Polenzani follows with smaller songs that curl inward in pocket deliberations, battling unfortunate feedback every step of the way.

At the fringes of a drunken St. Patrick's street fair, Marynka and Some Lovely Girls, from Moscow by way of Amsterdam, crash incomprehensible polyglot ethnic folk into headlong slinky cabaret strut. The result? Lemonade, of course. Marynka is, apparently, the Queen of the Night, and she'll recount for you exactly the reasons why. Their set is a tart intriguing mix of kinky slurs, diaphanous skirts, and more mileage than one mere mortal should be able to coax out of a heavy accent.

Back on the main drag, the dears pummel out drony psychedelic murmurs that build up to a crisp throaty roar; they're a highlight of the night, with twin keyboards meeting twin guitars over a rhythm section that lights off for the horizon along back paths that sound obvious but aren't. It' s been a long time since I thought of Soft Machine and Vanilla Fudge, and it' s nice ground to revisit. The band is so good that I have no alternative but to fall in love immediately with one of the keyboard players. She probably has a name, but I need to get down the block to see The Dresden Dolls before I can look it up. The Doll duo do their gussied-up artsy hipster-redux act with real gusto, and their fans adore it. So do I. It's a triumph of style and substance over pretension, and I don't even begrudge them their English version of Jacques Brel's "Amsterdam."

The Residents Don't Live Here Any More: The stage-right percussion player has a marching drum, a rack of pots and pans and engine housings, a super-sized washboard, and a mounted rack of metal containers including - yes - the kitchen sink. The bass player, sporting a tripartite mohawk and sad-clown eyes, also plays the "pedal-driven wiggler." The violin player is done up as a cracked-porcelain-doll waif (complete with crack), and the lead singer is the very picture of a frolicking goaty Pan. Oakland's Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are all this and plenty more, and as they gibber and prance and tell stories in high tones and rounded tunes I wonder if I'm seeing The Residents reborn, sprung from some dark whimsical convolution of the chittering Zeitgeist. Did I just write that? In the context of this enthralling band, it just might make sense. As they struggle with a grumpy mic that won't do as it's told, they help the sound guy thusly:

"It does not work, and it can not be made to work. It is not a microphone, it is a hamburger."

Word.

Links:

SXSW - www.sxsw.com
Little Richard - www.littlerichard.com
The dears - www.thedears.org
The Dresden Dolls - www.dresdendolls.com
Danielle Howle - www.daemonrecords.com
Marynka and Some Lovely Girls - www.marynkanicolai.com
Rose Polenzani - www.daemonrecords.com
Sea Ray - www.searaymusic.com
Sleepytime Gorilla Museum - www.sleepytimegorillamuseum.com


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