I arrived at SXSW looking for signs of a popular culture-based uprising against the Trump administration. I found nothing resembling that kind of unified thinking. The thousands of young musicians, filmmakers, technophiles and gamesters were all furiously networking in their particular specialties. A lot of business was getting done, which is what SXSW was designed for, and despite the seeming chaos and cacophony the conference remains an efficiently run series of events.
Though I didn’t see much organized anti-Trump activity I found anger at the Trump administration in particular and Republicans in general everywhere I went. As individuals people were appalled at the administration’s policies and Trump’s ham handed methods but they were there to do business first. Though the festival’s founding sponsor, the weekly Austin Chronicle, devoted a special section to the way the state Republican government was screwing Travis County, where Austin is located, SXSW itself seemed to go out of its way to avoid any sense of possessing a political agenda.
As a result the festival took some unnecessary heat and suffered some bad publicity when several groups scheduled to play the event were denied entry to the country based on what appeared to be arbitrary decisions made by Trump-enabled border guards. It’s a perfect example of how context influences perception. The issue of musicians being turned back at the border certainly didn’t start this year, but Trump’s animus against foreigners makes every case larger than life.
Getting into the country was foremost on every foreign musician’s mind, especially those from Central America, but the problem even extended to Canadians, not all of whom made it past the border police. Those who did brought a great vibe from north of the 49th parallel – one of my favorite moments of the festival was the afternoon showcase of north country bands, Canadian Blast, at Brush Square park right behind the old O. Henry house. The bill included an outstanding indigenous people band from Ontario called Digging Roots led by vocalist Sho-Shona Kish and string wizard Raven Kanatakta, who dazzled the crowd with his dobro playing. At other showcases I was impressed by the woman-led bands Sad 13 and Hurray for the Riff Raff.
The first band I saw after arriving in Austin was an Australian group called the Heart Collectors who were playing at an Irish bar on Sixth Street called B.D. Riley’s at 11 o’clock in the morning. I was still drinking coffee but the pub was filled with merrymakers chugging pints of Guinness as this charming acoustic quartet played Celtic tinged folk songs with four part harmonies in the manner of 1960s and 70s English groups like Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. The group of joyous, smiling neo-hippies also played the ‘60s standards “Woodstock” and one of the anthems of the “Summer of Love,” “Get Together.” Their optimism was a tonic in these dark days. But even they were spooked on the way into the country.
“We are not Mexican or Muslims,” noted cellist Mobius Barnaby, “but apparently we are the next least desirable group, musicians.”
Lissa Hattersley is a member of the legendary Texas band Greezy Wheels, which also includes her brother Cleve Hattersley and his wife Mary. Lissa is tall and thin and always has a trace of a wistful smile on her face, giving the sense that she’s enjoying the kind of secret take on the world you might expect from someone who spent her teenage years running the candy counter at the Fillmore East and witnessing historic performances by Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, the Band, the Who, Procol Harum and Traffic.
Hattersley gave me a copy of the latest Greezy Wheels release, String Theory 2.0, with a bunch of great Cleve songs including “Rumble at the Corner of Church and State.” I went to hear her own band, a jazz quartet called TripTrio, play a magic set on a blue sky afternoon at Freedman’s, a University District barbecue joint with the best chili I’ve had in Texas. Hattersley’s wry sense of humor came through on songs like “The Butter” and her positive attitude toward life was epitomized in “Swim,” a song she says was inspired by Warren Zevon’s immortal phrase “Enjoy every sandwich.” Her band –guitarist Mike Barnes, bassist Brad Taylor and percussionist James Fenner — gave Lissa admirable backing. After the set she suggested we head out to an all-woman showcase in South Austin where the terrific Robin Wiley played a showcase featuring songs from her album Texicali, recorded with Scooter Jennings’ backup band.
Lissa offered to give me a ride to the airport and I noticed she had a placard in the back seat of her car reading “I WISH THIS WAS FAKE NEWS.” She chuckled by way of explanation:
“I went to the anti-Trump march in Austin the day after the inauguration,” she said. “There were a lot of people there. There were so many people that when the march started in front of the capitol building it stretched all the way around the grounds until to doubled back on itself.
“I kept the sign,” she suggested, “because I might use it again.”
John Swenson has been writing about popular music since 1967. He edited the award-winning website jazze.com for Knit Media and has worked as an editor at Crawdaddy, Rolling Stone, Circus, Rock World, OffBeat magazine and been published in virtually every popular music magazine of note over that time. He was a syndicated music columnist for more than 20 years at United Press International and Reuters. Swenson has written 14 published books including biographies of Bill Haley, The Who, Stevie Wonder and The Eagles and co-edited the original Rolling Stone Record Guide with Dave Marsh. He is also the editor of The Rolling Stone Jazz and Blues Album Guide. His most recent book on New Orleans music after Katrina is called New Atlantis: Musicians Battle for the Future of New Orleans. In another role Swenson is a veteran sports writer who covered the New York Rangers for 30 years, writing pieces for outlets from Rolling Stone to the Associated Press. Swenson is also a veteran horseracing columnist and handicapper who covered the New York racing scene as a columnist for the New York Post and the New Orleans Fair Grounds meet for The Daily Racing Form. His profile on jockey Steve Cauthen: Rise To Stardom, Fall From Grace in Spur Magazine was nominated for an Eclipse Award.
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