So It Goes 2023 6: SXSW and Beyond
Little Richard and Donna Summer docs, U2, Aly & AJ.
My March Madness tradition is this: I get a hole blown out of the middle of the month thanks to SXSW. The festival—or conference or whatever it is these days—lasts something like ten days but the effort leading up to its launch and the decompression afterward amounts to something like a timewarp: by the time SXSW ends, the year feels like it's in full swing.
Compared to years past, including last year's return to in-person events, SXSW 2023 seemed rather subdued. You could blame it on the freak thunderstorm that blew through Austin on Thursday night, canceling all outdoor events right as the evening was getting started. You could blame it on the lack of marquee names at the festival; long gone are the days of Lady Gaga playing Stubb's or Coldplay sneaking in a headline set at the Moody Theater. Maybe the revolt among musicians who demand fair compensation for their endeavors at SXSW was a factor. Maybe it's how SXSW now lacks a distinct shape, with the various tracts all converging into a high-tech muddle. I personally think the root of muted vibes lies in how Austin is a much different city than it was even five years ago. The areas close to the convention center that used to host makeshift stages are now crammed with hotels, Instagram-ready bars, multi-use multi-story buildings, and upscale dog salons. There's so much shiny new stuff that there's little room for grubby musicians, whether it's young upstarts or grizzled road warriors. They're confined to the venues on Sixth Street and around Red River that manage to survive, although there's a sense that these clubs would face a wrecking ball if developers had their way.
Then there's the Comedy Mothership, the comedy club Joe Rogan just launched in the middle of Sixth Street. Rogan commandeered the location where the Alamo Drafthouse Ritz existed for years. The Drafthouse has been embroiled in its own scandals for a while now but the theater was one of the central hubs of SXSW, hosting film screenings throughout the festival. Comedy Mothership has nothing to do with SXSW. It's a black hole in the epicenter of the festival, surrounded by hulking bouncers and emanating bad vibes. It feels like the onset of an invasive species.
It was still possible to hear a lot of good music, of course. This year, I was fortunate enough to contribute to Rolling Stone’s coverage of the music portion of the festival, writing up the sets I liked best. Among the acts I saw were KxS, Chickasaw Mudd Puppies, Ric Wilson, Spoon, the Deslondes, Superchunk, and Os Mutantes.
I also saw Robbie Krieger.
Rolling Stone SXSW links:
Little Richard and Donna Summer
Another part of my SXSW involved moderating a panel for Rolling Stone and Audible featuring a discussion between Valerie June, Lisa Cortés, Roger Ross Williams, and Brooklyn Sudano. The conversation was anchored on two new documentaries: Cortés's Little Richard: I Am Everything and Love To Love You, Donna Summer, which was directed by Williams and Sudano.
The films are complementary. Little Richard: I Am Everything places Richard squarely in the center of all the upheaval of the mid-20th Century, while Love To Love You concentrates on a personal story, aided greatly by home movies and videos curated by her daughter Sudano. Both Little Richard and Summer struggled to reconcile their spirituality with secular music, emotions complicated considerably by how their music intersected with queer culture.
Partway through Little Richard: I Am Everything, ethnomusicologist Fredara Hadley poses the question "What would it do to the American mythology of rock music to say that its pioneers were Black queer people." Cortés doesn't explicitly answer this query as much as let the viewers explore the idea itself. By highlighting Richard's history as a drag performer, as well as how he found inspiration in the gay R&B singers Billy Wright and Esquerita, she makes it clear that Little Richard's personality was forged within Black queer circles—a notion that has often been downplayed within rock histories even when it's been mentioned. By shifting her focus away from traditional rock narratives—ones that treat the first wave of rock & roll as a preamble to the triumph of the British Invasion in the 1960s—and toward Black and queer history, Cortés offers a fresh take on a seemingly familiar tale. Of course, she's helped considerably by Little Richard himself, who remained a vivid, compelling onscreen personality into the 1990s. Whether he's a wildman rocker, a born-again preacher, or a loudmouth survivor, he's a pleasure to watch.
Aly & AJ—With Love From
The Disney Radio survivors call this a country makeover and I suppose there is the faintest wind of Nashville blowing through this breezy record. To my ears, it's all SoCal gloss, which is a pretty appealing sound. I dug deeper for Pitchfork.
As its own entity, I don't believe Songs of Surrender withstands close scrutiny—they're handsome, tasteful remakes that somehow don't surprise even when the arrangements are stripped to the bone and the words change--but the whole campaign behind its release is fascinating. Bono and The Edge have done the majority of the press for U2 over the years yet with Larry Mullen Jr having to sit out the forthcoming Vegas shows, there's a vague sense that U2 is being redefined as the singer and guitarist. It's one thing to do joint interviews, it's another to film a Disney doc with just two members of the band.
Anyway, the release of Songs of Surrender is the catalyst for this list of 40 Best U2 songs I assembled for The AV Club.
I wrote an obituary for the jazzy funk singer—or is that funky jazz singer—for the Los Angeles Times.