When I wake Thursday morning, I pull myself together, head down Congress Avenue, grab a breakfast taco from a street vendor, and walk a few blocks to the convention center for keynote speaker Robert Plant.
Back in the’80s, one of my two older sisters, Tracy, raised me on glam rock. She was one of those metal chicks who tore through an entire can of Aqua Net super-hold hair spray every week. I used to worship at the altar of her silver General Electric record player as Ratt, Motley Crue and Van Halen blasted from the shiny speakers. (Oh, misguided youth.) These glitzy bands were influenced by the hard-rock revolution Plant and Led Zeppelin spearheaded, but it wasn’t until the summer between sixth and seventh grade, when my eldest sister, Doreen, spun me the first Zep record, that I had my mind blown by the Real Thing. Looking back, from the third grade on—tell me a band and I’ll tell you the year of my life it defined. When I was 12, the band was Led Zeppelin, hands down.
Last year, while on assignment for Paste covering Merlefest in the Appalachian hills of North Carolina, I met John Paul Jones backstage at the annual midnight jam session. So with Jones down and Bonham gone, that left Page and Plant. So I'm certainly jumping at the chance to catch a live interview with the music legend and “Golden God” who inspired scenes from Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous. But before Plant takes the stage, I'm visited by an angel of soul.
“I used to be a Beyonce,” says Mavis Staples, warming up the crowd before the keynote, “And if Beyonce keep on livin’, she’ll be a Mavis.” The crowd belly laughs. After regaling us with tales of her childhood with Pops Staples, she belts out a beatific version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” and a satisfied hush falls over the room. Perhaps I was killed last night, barreled over by a phantom pedi-cab, and this is heaven. With Mavis’s voice, washing over me, it’s hard to tell the difference.
Accompanied by country artist Marty Stuart’s mandolin strumming and guitar pickin’, she runs through a few powerful gospel tunes. Between songs she pauses to call out the record industry (in a room full of label execs) on its practice of putting older artists “out to pasture.” Then she thanks her new label president—Alligator’s Bruce Iglauer—for putting out Have A Little Faith, her first album in ten years, when no one else would give her a chance.
Mavis breaks back into song. “Ain’t Nobody Cryin’,” she sings, radiating positivity with her biggest hit, The Staple Singers’ “I’ll Take You There.” It’s the perfect morning music. Mavis gets everyone singing backup on the chorus; we become honorary Staple Singers. Afterward, she’s called back to the stage by a standing ovation, and launches into a reprise of “I’ll Take You There.” Even in a roomful of industry folks (read: tough crowd), there’s plenty of clapping along. They have nothing but respect and admiration for Mavis. And it’s hard to think of an artist more deserving.
The keynote kicks off with a short documentary on Plant’s life—his early soul recordings, testimony about how the blues “saved him from becoming an accountant,” The Band of Joy with John Bonham, how—while fronting this group—he was discovered by Yardbirds guitarist Jimmy Page, “Stairway to Heaven” becoming the most-played song in U.S. radio history (with over 4 million spins), how Led Zeppelin has to-date sold over 200 million albums worldwide, Plant’s solo career with outfits like The Honeydrippers, his ’90s reunion with Jimmy Page, and an utterly ridiculous video of Plant parading through the desert in a bathrobe. This laughable clip begs the question—will the former Zep frontman be a pompous, self-serious, burnout rock-star wanker? I have my suspicions.
Recording Academy president Neil Portnow introduces Plant, and presents him a Lifetime Achievement Grammy for his work with Led Zeppelin, an award he was unable to pick up at the official ceremony in February. It’s the first Grammy Led Zeppelin has ever received. Plant surprises with his modest, thoughtful responses—reminding all in attendance that it’s now been nearly 25 years since the passing of Zeppelin drummer John Bonham. Following his acceptance speech, Plant sits down with interviewer Bill Flanagan, senior vice president of MTV Networks. Flanagan wastes no time, going for the jugular with the kind of hard-hitting question that might easily lead to a Pulitzer.
“So, do you really come from the land of ice and snow?”
Plant cracks up at the “Immigrant Song” reference and launches into a weather-and-climate/geography lesson on his native England. Never one to shy away from his beloved blues for too long, after a few minutes Plant ventures, “In truth, I did got to the Cross Roads. It was somewhere outside London, I think. But I never tuned the guitar properly, so I got away alright.”
Plant is humble, gracious and witty, and Flanagan is a top-notch interviewer, coaxing intimate and rarely heard anecdotes. The best of which recalls Plant driving outside of Portland, Ore., listening to old Jive Five b-sides on the local NPR affiliate, which was conducting a sponsorship drive, begging callers to pledge money and save the station. Then Plant heard something that caught his attention. “Send whatever you can afford. We promise we’ll never play “Stairway to Heaven!” Plant immediately picks up his phone and dials the station.
“Hello, I’d like to make a pledge.”
“Plant. Robert, care of Atlantic Records.”
The legendary rock ’n’ roller can be hilariously self-deprecating.
Flanagan plays a Middle Eastern-flavored clip from Plant’s forthcoming album Mighty Rearranger. And it’s actually pretty damn good.
The conversation veers into a story about Plant and Zeppelin meeting Elvis Presley in L.A. back in the day. The band went to see Elvis perform. At some point during the show, The King botches a song. He stops the band and says, “Wait, hold on. We’ve got to get this right. Led Zeppelin’s here tonight.” The shout-out shocked Plant, who idolized Presley as a youngster. So Zeppelin was invited to hand with E at the hotel after the show. “There were no snakes or motorbikes,” laughs Plant, “but Elvis—even though at that point he wasn’t supposed to be—was so cool.” The musicians chatted it up for three hours, talking about—you guessed it—the blues.
“Elvis knew he was locked in self-parody” says Plant, “But he opened the door to my love of music.” Through the people Elvis covered, Plant discovered many of his biggest influences. “I wanted to get as close to Son House and Charley Patton as I could,” the Zeppelin lead singer continues.” Naturally, Plant’s parents were terrified of his youthful obsession with black American blues music. So terrified in fact, that they cut the plug off his record player and canceled his guitar lessons. But he still did OK with that singing thing.
Throughout the interview, Plant displays a true love and understanding of the blues. But as I’ve often wondered—if he loved the blues so much, why didn’t Zeppelin credit all those starving, impoverished blues icons they stole lyrics from? It seems hard to believe, and when Flanagan gets to this important question, Plant answers frankly that Led Zeppelin didn’t really know what was happening with its publishing at that point. And that most of the musicians in question didn’t have the rights to their own music, so they wouldn’t have seen the money anyway.
“Old blues artists—they did the same thing [in regards to un-credited borrowing], the threads go way back,” says Plant, before praising drums ’n’ guitar indie-blues duo The Black Keys. “So there’s no end to plagiarism, really." Although his answer leaves much to be desired, Plant seems sincere.
When Jimmy Page asked Plant to join his band in the late ’60s, the singer balked. “I thought the Yardbirds were washed up,” says Plant, who was 19 at the time. “I mean, they were in their mid-’20s!” When The Yardbirds came to visit their young prospect, Plant was wowed by the beautiful women who followed them around. He was in.
For the first few years, Plant says he didn’t have much to contribute to the songs, other than lyrics about Gollum in the Misty Mountains. He actually grew up where Tolkien wrote Lord of The Rings. Reflecting on his early work as a writer, he says, “Couldn’t I have written something else?” Looking back, he values the more political lyrics of the era’s American music. “You can dismiss it as hippy shit,” he says, “but really it said that artists had more to do than get dressed up during a lengthy drum solo.”
The solo reference leads to a remembrance of John Bonham—along with The Who’s Keith Moon and, I‘d venture, Nirvana’s Dave Grohl—one of the three greatest rock drummers ever. Bonham’s death helps put the Zep legacy into perspective for Plant. “With John’s passing, Zeppelin was gone,” he says. “There was no point anymore. The band’s peak was beautiful, but after that, it was over.”
“Right now,” continues Plant, “I’m doing exactly what I should be. I’m not in an airplane hangar anymore, trying to be this big thing. So now, I’m more at home.”
Poignant words from an insightful artist.
When the keynote wraps up, I book it over to the New west records party at Club Deville for some free tacos, beer and rock ’n’ roll. Last year’s party with Drive-By Truckers and the Old 97’s was one of the highlights of my inaugural SXSW. This year, though, I spent more time hanging on the patio and conversing with Nashville songstress Kate York and her friends. York’s forthcoming album—still in search of a home—is an amazing record, lushly produced and filled with great lyrics and melodies that stick. She’s a talented artist who deserves a multi-album contract. So all you label high-rollers—get crackin’.
The weather has done a 180-degree turn—gorgeous blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds, the warm sun beaming down. But after a few hours, it was time to head to the convention center for a panel I wanted to catch on race and music. On the way over, I shared a cab with a former Atlantic Records employee who worked with Led Zeppelin from the mid ’70s on. Now, he tells me, he's at Columbia trying to break British songwriter Mat Hales (a.k.a. Aqualung).
“It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold this Panel” is helmed by an impressive cast of journalists and artists including former Option and Rolling Stone editor Mark Kemp, esteemed rock writer Kandia Crazy Horse, singer/songwriter Otis Taylor and Creem co-founder Dave Marsh.
“We’re all on the hook for this panel,” explains Marsh. “Race shapes and distorts our music and our society.” To begin the discussion, panelist Peggy Scott Adams plays a recording of a song she wrote, following with the explanation, “I had to write this same song twice—both dealing with spousal abuse. One country-soul flavored song for the white audience, and one hardcore R&B tune for black radio.” Adams’ career began in the ’60s and she was part of the first African American group to use a sitar. But now, “because of stereotyping in music,” Adams continues, “I don’t know who I am. In the ’60s I was pop, now I’m blues.”
Amidst the discussion, a statement sticks in my mind—“music being a universal language isn’t a cliché, it’s true.”
Panelist Kevin Phinney, an author and Austin radio personality, picks up on the theme. “Music brings us together and divides us,” he says. “It happens in cycles.” Phinney possesses a mind-boggling wealth of knowledge about the history of African American music. He lectures on the Prince/Thug dichotomy—from Sam Cooke and Otis Reding to André 3000 and 50 Cent.
Crazy Horse chimes in on her eclectic tastes. “I have a schizophrenia,” she says. “I love Southern rock and write about that most.” But she also thinks black people should reclaim rock, since they created it. “But,” she says, “It’s okay to like Led Zeppelin and Otis Redding.”
She praises Duane and Gregg Allman’s marrying of hillbilly-music traditions with the African. “They were just living what they knew,” Crazy Horse says, “It’s different than [Mick] Jagger stealing African performance rituals and not giving credit.” She also discusses how Jimi Hendrix was perceived as a threat by his local-born contemporaries in swingin’ London. And how, back in the states, Hendrix was shunned by black audiences when he performed a free show in Harlem. “Black rock is still being marginalized," she says, "even 50 years after what’s considered to be rock’s inception.” More of Crazy Horse’s perspectives on race and music can be found in her book, Rip It Up: The Black Experience In Rock & Roll.
While Crazy Horse was one of the only black critics writing about Southern rock for the Village Voice, Kemp was one of the only white critics writing about hip-hop in the ’80s. He’d dismissed his Southern roots, feeling guilty about his heritage and the region’s history, but he eventually embraced the land of his birth. (see his book Dixie Lullaby for more on the subject). He also speaks of how the Allman Brothers’ authenticity made the Stones seem “bullshit” in comparison. The conversation moves to how “Dead Flowers” mocked a redneck character and “Brown Sugar” mocked black blues and soul. Some panelists nod in consent, while others disagree. “But Mick and Keith always tried to give props to black blues players they loved,” counters Phinney.
I tend to agree. The Allmans might’ve made it clear the Stones weren’t authentic, but I don’t’ think the Stones were malicious—they tried, best as they could, to imitate the American music they loved. And, unlike Zeppelin, they gave credit and royalties to the artists they covered. And they often brought them on tour as opening acts.
Before I can get my comments out, though, Dave Marsh weighs in. “Who cares about someone’s intentions? It doesn’t make it any less of an important song," he says. "Did Ben E. King mean every word of ‘Stand By Me?’ Who cares? It sounds like he did.”
Kemp’s aforementioned book begins with the Martin Luther King assassination, viewed from the perspective of a non-racist, white southerner. “The music helped us get though this period,” says Kemp. He also speaks of how, after King’s assassination, black and white studio musicians stopped working together in Southern studios.
When his turn comes around, Otis Taylor raises some intriguing points—“Bob Dylan, Ani DiFranco,” he says, “singer/songwriters. But Otis Taylor—blues musician. White equals singer/songwriter and black equals blues singer. European is classical music, but everything else in the world is folk music. Banjo came from Africa, but Earl Scruggs [is associated with the instrument]—these things get confused. So many things came from Africa, but we forgot.”
Kemp adds, “Beck is seen as eclectic, while Mos Def is ‘going off the radar.’”
“Robert Johnson isn’t recognized as a singer/songwriter,” says Taylor.
“But neither is Hank Williams,” Kemp counters.
The small group who participated in this important panel, unanimously agreed it was one of SXSW’s best ever, addressing important issues that are often overlooked. The panelists challenged the engaged audience to take an active approach to addressing issues that came up during the substantive discussions. With such an open-ended topic, the panel should happen again next year, and when it does, let’s hope a lot more people show up.
Outside the convention center, I hail yet another cab, headed back to the New West party, which is still happening at Club Deville. The cabbie waste’s no time in telling me he wrecked his ’69 Harley a few months ago, knocking out all his teeth and breaking his neck in four places. But he seems to care more about the wrecked bike—which he’s now trying to restore—than his injuries. And the whole time he’s driving, he’s talking about how he can barely turn his neck. I sit back and tighten my seatbelt.
“I’m a quick healer, though,” he says. “I was walking in eight days; the doctors told me it’d take 30. I drink a lot of milk you know, about a gallon a day.”
I bid my ride adieu and hop out onto Red River Street, then flash my credentials as I walk back into Club Deville. Soon after I arrive, longtime Emmylou Harris collaborator Buddy Miller takes the tiny outdoor stage. As mellow a gospel/folk record as Miller's latest Universal United House of Prayer is, he comes out of the gates rockin’ full throttle, wearing his customary ball cap, straight gray hair poking out from the back and sides. He’s accompanied by bass, drums, guitar and accordion. In the crowd, beers are flowing and people are dancing as the sun begins to set on a gorgeous day in Austin.
Next, it's on to legendary Austin club Antone’s for Sugar Hill band The Duhks at the Americana Music Association showcase. I first met this talented bunch of Canadians at last year’s Merlefest. I kept bumping into fiddler Tania Elizabeth whose pink-streaked hair frequently caught my attention backstage. Later in the weekend I listened as The Duhks jammed with Reckless Kelly in the living room of a log cabin at a late-night, mountain-top shindig. Elizabeth told me her band, The Duhks, had just been signed to Sugar Hill and had an album on the way. Once the record—cut with producers Belá Fleck and Gary Paczosa—was finished, I interviewed the band for the “4 To Watch For” section of Paste’s February/March 2005 issue.
It’s only 8:00 p.m. when The Duhks hit the stage and Antone’s is almost full. The music is an interesting blend of various folk forms, funky world rhythms, country, bluegrass, jazz and pop. Jessica Havey showcases her soulful, strong vocals, while it’s obvious the whole band is having a blast onstage. Along with veteran Elvis Costello’s performance the previous night, this is the tightest show I’ve witnessed at SXSW so far, and the venue's sound is impeccable.
Jazzy banjo picking weaves between inventive percussion and impassioned fiddle. These Canadian misfits and the joyful, eclectic noise they’re cranking out are the real deal. And Elizabeth’s harmonies are beautiful, which I hadn’t realized on previous listens.
Two days in town and I'm already overwhelmed by Tex-Mex food. So I stop for dinner at Zen for some quality fast-food Japanese. After I finish my Teriyaki bowl, I venture next door to the Continental Club and spend a few minutes in the back of the club with Jesse Sykes, discussing the particulars of what makes a great live fiddle player.
Soon, the room fills up and The Moaners take the stage. This is the third time I’ve seen the band in the last two months (in three different states to boot), but I just can’t get enough of them. Their hard-rocking songs get lodged in your cerebrum and start multiplying like a virus. More volume! More rock ’n’ roll! I’m a music junkie and a live Moaners fix hasn’t let me down yet. Guitarist/vocalist Melissa Swingle is decked out in a camouflage top strumming her overloading, tuned-down SG and drummer Laura King is sporting a bright green “Drunken Irish Hooligan” T-shirt. Shit, I’d completely forgotten it was St. Patrick’s Day!
After the set, I say goodbye to the band and ride back to Antone’s, walking in the front door as Robert Earl Keen picks his acoustic through country shuffles and two-steps polished by slippery, twangin’ steel. Keen is one of the best country songwriters around, and by now Antone’s is so packed I have to camp out on the far right side of the stage. Still, the sound is perfect. With his seen-it-all drawl, Keen sings a song about “Hank Williams in drag” and the place goes nuts. At the end of the show, Lyle Lovett—clad in black leather jacket and wearing specs—makes a surprise appearance. The two songwriters perform a ballad together, both crooning into the same mic. And just when it seems like it can’t get any better, Todd Snider joins the pair onstage, blowing harp as they all trade verses on the traditional “Walkin’ Cane.” The club’s hardwood floors bounce slowly to the stomping of 500 feet. It’s the first time all three of these fine musicians have shared the stage, and I leave Antone’s buzzing, the crowd chanting “Robert Earl Keen!” over and over, pleading for an encore that—due to time constraints—never happens.
On my last leg after a busy day, I decide to hang on for one more show. In fact, there’s no scenario—short of being trampled by a pedi-cab—that’ll justify calling it quits without seeing this next band.
It’s close to 1:00 a.m. when I stumble into the Velvet Spade to find myself on the threshold of a childhood dream. “Castlevania!” someone screams. “No, Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!”
The Minibosses—a gimic band of the most holy and blessed variety—plows through note-perfect, math-precise, twin-lead-guitar-driven renditions of eight-bit Nintendo theme songs. What a concept. Even if I hadn’t played these games as a kid—and even subtracting the overwhelming nostalgia factor—the band rocks so hard and rips thrashing riffs so mind-boggling that it'd be amazing anyway. I have to admit the audience is mostly filled with twentysomething guys screaming like idiot fanboys. Yes, I’m one of the guilty.
We’re treated to the “Castlevania” theme. Upon each song’s conclusion, the band’s response is the same—“Okay, what’s next?” And a shouting match breaks out. “Metroid!” “Damn it! No! I said Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!” “Alright,” says one of the band members, “this is a new one.” They break into “Ikari Warriors.”
With close-cropped, military-style buzz cuts and trim beards, the two guitarists look like squeaky clean twins—the type of guys who might've been Eagle Scouts in hihg school.
Next comes the “Rygar” theme. All the members of this band are phenomenal players—you’d have to be to pull off the complex compositions of renowned video-game composer Koji Kondo with just a traditional four-piece (bass, drums and two guitars) rock band. “Goonies II” follows, then the much-requested closing number, “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out,” performed as a cleverly arranged, seamlessly performed montage of the game’s many themes.
“What a night,” I think as I crawl exhausted back to the safety of my hotel room.