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Songs matter. A week ago when the WERS team heading out for Austin, Texas we anticipated warm weather, good music, and some 6th Street foodcarts. We came back with that fairly simple but important message: Songs matter. Everybody has their press kits—or more accurately bandcamp.com urls—beards, and cowboy hats at the ready, walking 6th Street anticipating Clive Davis to bump into them in a divebar line and offer them a six-figure advance. But the real musicians of SXSW are interested beyond all else in the song they are playing in and of the moment. In his keynote address, Bruce Springsteen noted that the true songwriters and players were the ones who are forever trying to “fight Lester’s prophecy” inciting Lester Bangs’ Elvis Presley eulogizing article in which he announced that with the loss of Elvis we would never again be able to come together as an entire culture or country around a single sound or song.
We found that fight in some new discoveries, Mont Lyons from Oklahoma City and King Tuff, and old friends Apache Relay and Joe Pug, and of course the Boss himself. SXSW is not for the faint of heart, musician and observer alike, but if you can stomach the three hours of sleep a night and the total sensory assault that comes from every band’s and venues’ multimedia attempts to capture attention you are bound, as we were, to be struck by the awesome power of music to imprint a sense of place, destination, and travelling curiosity all at the same time. Exhausted and with no less than three bruises I still can’t explain, we sat in St. David’s Sanctuary at one a.m. as Joe Pug started his set with the commanding “Nobody’s Man”. Bruce stated the next day that “there is no right way of doing it. No pure way of doing it. There is only doing it,” and Joe answered that call with poise and ease. To be moved to dance in the pews by an acoustic guitar well after midnight was just one of our many moments of embracing the solemn truth of SXSW. Songs matter.
The fight against Lester prophecy took many forms, on stage and off. And often times the distinction between the two was blurred. We found ourselves at the center of it all as Tom Morello wielded his franken-Strat like a machine gun mowing down The Man, whose city ordinances and legal authority stand are nothing to the power and persuasion of the song, trying to shut his show down from the street outside. What began as just another rock and roll show became a mosh pit, and then moved outside for an acoustic sing-along and impromptu Occupy Austin gathering when the cops finally did pull the plug. Tom spread the good word, that music is for the people, and there’s nothing anyone with a badge or cushy Wall Street office can do about it. It was a quintessential SXSW show, or was it two shows? In an environment like this it’s hard to tell where one show ends and the other begins, even between separate performers. Place dissolves away in the real sense and the song replaces the street, the stage, the cops, and the pain of the mosh pit. Songs matter.
As if we needed any further evidence, when Bruce emerged for his intimate Moody Theater performing with a wink and a nod to the sky, “Happy birthday Woody,” we were all taken to a nonplace in a nontime where the song not only mattered, it was all that did. A more immediate expression of my time in the Moody can be found here and it was an experience to have had in an immediate sense.
6th Street as a whole has that kind of immediacy behind it. It’s a place of worship for some, whimsicality for others, and wonderment for most. But it’s a place of the now wholly and truly, which most definitely appeals to the strong place of music deep in the heart of Austin, even after SXSW is wiped away. The songs that really matter do not inhabit the street but give it credence and weight. The memories of SXSW live in Joe Pugs’ heavy strumming, Apache Relay’s rock and roll injection into Americana, Trampled By Turtles’ “Where Is My Mind” cover at one in the morning, in Bruce’s “Death To My Hometown” during the performance of which the entire Moody Theater stood shoulder to shoulder with the Boss and created a new hometown out of the ruins and ash on 6th Street. SXSW exists in the songs and the songs exist with an amped up intensity that only music can create. Songs matter.