Austin, TX: 3/18/04
Little Richard is a legend. Or more precisely, A Legend. He says so himself, and agrees with it, too.
When he walked in Thursday morning for his SXSW keynote interview with Dave Marsh, a circle finally closed for me. Back in late 1966, I had just moved to Paris to go to school, and for the first time became able to go to rock shows and catch up with what I’d been missing. It was at the Olympia that I saw Little Richard, the first in a long succession that quickly included Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Bill Halley, and many, many more. But it all started with Little Richard.
He’s now past 70 years old, and would look faintly silly if he weren’t who he is, but we do expect Richard Penniman to wear a bright red jacket, almost-bouffant trousers, and rhinestone-studded boots. Any less would be, well, less.
The interview tuns into a monologue from the very first question, and there’s no turning back. The words come easily, and they rhyme; the recurring verse-and-chorus structure keeps the aphorisms coming, while maintaining an underlying coherence to the whole. Trust yourself –especially with the music; don’t trust anyone else –especially with the money is the take-home lesson, and everybody nods appreciatively. Of course, they will forget it all the moment they see a contract with a few fat zeros on the bottom line…
Had I never seen Little Richard on stage, I probably would have made an effort to see him headlining at the Austin Music Hall, but I have my memories, and anyway I doubt he’s still climbing on his piano and jumping off it.
Instead, I start my evening with Stinking Lizaveta at Room 710. This Philadelphia trio is loud. Quite loud. Quite, quite loud. Without even singing. So loud that the plastic garbage can next to me is resonating with the bass and acting like bellows. Think Hawkwind riffing on Sunshine Of Your Love. Then there’s the three belly dancers in golden sequins. Very nice. And scary.
Their set is short enough that I can catch the end of New Orleans’s Telefon Tel Aviv at Elysium. They slowly build crescendos from slow and mellow premises, with two-voice harmonies. Very nice, too, and not scary at all.
Following them, Austin’s own, splendidly named I Love You But I’ve Chosen Darkness has a guitar-driven, ringing 80′s sound with insistant bass and repetitive motifs that remind me of Terry Riley‘s A Rainbow In Curved Air. (I think; I’ll have to check when I get home.) There’s also a bit with a Rock Lobster rhythm thrown in. Good one.
And now for something completely different. Carolyn Mark, outdoors at the Lava Lounge, is as funny and potty-mouthed as ever. I saw her for the first time a few SXSWs ago at a Canadian showcase and was instantly converted there and then to her brand of boisterous B.C. country music. She has never disappointed since, whether solo or –as tonight– with her Room-Mates, or with her co-conspirator Neko Case in the Corn Sisters. An expected delight, and she delivers once more.
A quick march on 6th Street — Mary Lou Lord is back at her familiar spot– and down Congress to the Elephant Room. Lalo is a New Yorker whom I’ve already met a few times; her music is quite unlike what I listen to most of the time: jazz vibraphone, sometimes solo, sometimes with a band or, as tonight, with just one sidekick, Mike Meadows, on various percussive and boingy things. She plays a mix of originals and covers (Sex In The City anyone?) with light deftness; just about as far from Stinking Lizaveta as anyone can imagine!
We’re not done yet; a quick trip way west, to Mother Egan’s first, to check out the South Austin Jug Band. It’s not a jug band, rather more like a mountain string band with two guitars, mandolin, fiddle, and bass. Close to bluegrass but not quite there, fun and fast, but I can’t linger, there’s still another historic pilgrimage to make: Gary U.S. Bonds is playing at the Cedar Street Courtyard. Another pioneer, one that I’ve never had the opportunity to see until now. I make it in time to catch a few songs from his new record, an Otis Redding cover, and his old hit Quarter To Three. But in Austin, things close earlier than that: it’s 2 a.m. and time to go.
…And Mary Lou Lord is still playing on 6th Street, but the cops are getting closer as the street is being re-opened to traffic (yes, in the heart of Texas, they close the street to traffic on week-end nights) and the code word “John Lennon” is heard from the corner. Time to pack up and fade away for the night.