1, 2, Tres, Cuatro: Dear Diary
At 3:35am during South by Southwest, Downtown Austin sounds urban, like Houston or Dallas, with the ongoing wail of sirens and a resounding din of life on the streets round the clock. I see it and hear it constantly during March given that the Chronicle Music writers and the Austin Music Awards show staff headquarter annually at the Omni for life in the Festival trenches. Planning both the paper's daily SXSW supplements and the AMAs is something akin to a military operation – precision in the face of the unpredictable.
We executed the last steps of the Austin Music Awards in this hotel suite, set up for nearly a week's occupation with about 45 people in and out of it at different times. And we had ourselves a show this year all right, the likes of which make me want not to retire from its production but to kick the ante up instead. During my moment with Robert Plant, he griped about the AMAs. The presenter wasn't allowing time for proper speeches for the winners. It sounded dreadful inside. Spend some more money.
I wasn't speechless, diary dear. We did this 30th anniversary show on trade, grateful for the support from SXSW and our sponsors, and with four weeks notice for the venue. There's money out there, Robert gestured. There are fifty-something categories, I told him, how long should speeches be? I don't think he heard that. He was giving me that flinty, my-rider-has-not-been-properly-fulfilled look, his chiseled jaw with the famous cleft cut deep and sharp like his words.
Of course he was right on some accounts – more money for better production values! – but I'm chalking up my first local encounter with Robert to him being a good boyfriend and wanting more stage time and glitz for his girlfriend. After all, it was Patty Griffin's moment in the spotlight.
While performing, she was vivacious and electric (see "Live Shots: 2011-12 Austin Music Awards," March 16), and backstage, Patty radiated happily with her Hall of Fame plaque as she talked about the last time she was at the AMAs. Pinetop Perkins had also won, so she felt in good company. How I wanted her beau not to be upstairs at this moment. I wanted him backstage to meet Paul Ray because I know Robert's a fan of Twine Time on KUT-FM.
A night or two after the Austin Music Awards, back at the Omni where I run our dailies Downtown headquarters after the first night (Anne Harris runs the room the night of the AMAs), all the writers had gone when one of our new draftees Luke Winkie left with the last of the Threadgill's meat loaf we had for dinner. It's important for the writers to have something hot to eat when they come to file their stories for the daily issues. This is the only time the Music staff meets and communicates now that there's literally a 40-year difference between our oldest Music writer (me) and the youngest (Zoe Cordes Selbin). We seldom know the same scenes or have the same musical interests or friends or connections. But once a year, we all meet on common ground, tap into our assignments at odd hours, scarf Fritos, and swap war stories of who we saw in the trenches in 15- and 30-minute increments; then it's back into the night, sometimes not to meet again for a year. Most of them asked one thing: Did I know Bruce Springsteen was going to play the Austin Music Awards?
Most of them are also too young to fully appreciate Eric Burdon, dear diary, and I was totally jazzed about his appearance at the AMAs, intending for him to present Gary Clark Jr.'s award for Best Blues Act. The Animals' frontman was affable, charming, and a pro, especially when Clark was held up and missed his stage time. Burdon radiated an inner peace that was palpable and turned electric when I shook his hand. He'd sung the first real rebel anthems that I understood when I was young, and his presence backstage was immensely gratifying and show-affirming. Burdon's music helped get me to that moment. Yet it wasn't Burdon they were asking about.
Did I know Bruce Springsteen was going to play the AMAs?
When news first broke that he would be the SXSW Music keynote speaker, I had a crazy thought: What would it take to get the Boss to the AMAs the way Pete Townshend guested with Ian McLagan in 2007? Jump forward to the night of the AMAs this year, when Alejandro Escovedo began his last set of the evening. The operations manager for the show, Andrew Ramsammy, was on one side of the stage in the production room printing lyrics to the Rolling Stones' "Beast of Burden" by management's request. (Escovedo and Springsteen share management.) "Beast of Burden" is the song Springsteen joined Escovedo for onstage at New Jersey's Stone Pony in 2010.
I texted Omni vet Chris Gray, who had to leave early and file for the Houston Press, tapping on my unhip Blackberry, "We're printing lyrics for Beast of Burden!"
Chris zinged back immediately: "Dammit! Don't those two know the words yet?"
A copy of the lyrics were sent to Bruce on the other side of the stage, where the dressing rooms are. A messenger, Jacob Stetson, returned with a request: The lyrics are too small to read.
Andrew dispatched much larger lyrics. Jacob returned summarily. "The lyrics are too big."
Andrew looked up. "What is this, Goldilocks?"
"Would you like me to set them?" offered Angela, Andrew's wife and the AMAs' indispensable guest services coordinator. Papa Bear rolled out of the chair and Mama Bear took over. Her lyrics were just right. We also printed lyric sheets for Alejandro's "Always a Friend," which Bruce first performed with our True Believer at an E Street Band concert in Houston in 2008, as well as Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Midnight Train." When we were done, I rifled the pile of rejected lyrics and squirreled them away.
Did I know Bruce Springsteen was going to play?
Three weeks ago, I interviewed with Russ Hartman, who printed an offhand comment of mine in Austin Daze: "Mr. Springsteen, if you're not busy on Wednesday night before your keynote address, I've got a place for you to be, because Alejandro is going to be workin' it up at the end of the show and you're not going to want to miss that. Not that you don't have a million things to do. But remember, Bruce, if you're not busy: Alejandro Escovedo, Music Awards, Wednesday night before your keynote address."
It wasn't as brash as it sounded. I saw two of Springsteen's shows at the Armadillo (see "'The Wild, the Innocent & the E Street Shuffle,'" March 16), witnessed during my own life-changing era around age 20. That time bled for me in a way only possible when you're young – suicide, betrayal, breakup, abortion. One performance I remember for the moment his violin player stepped into the lone spotlight and delivered her heart-aching solo, hope in the darkness that I grasped. Nothing in life would be easy, Springsteen reassured, but we have ourselves and each other. I believed him and his music.
Did I know Bruce Springsteen was going to play?
At about 3pm on Wednesday, Alejandro and Garland Jeffreys were hanging around the staff production room, decompressing from rehearsal as Alejandro was nursing a broken rib. I sat across from the two, eyes closed, being made up by Brandi Cowley and listening to them talk. Even though I was just feet away and we were connected by the energy of the show to come, Al and Garland were in their own sphere.
"I really enjoy playing music more than ever before," the latter enthused, leaning on the door, the joy evident in his voice. He was in high spirits, effusive after singing "Beast of Burden" during sound check, hat perched at a jaunty angle on his curly hair. Garland wasn't saying it for anyone's benefit but his own.
Alejandro, sitting in a chair below him with his guitar resting on his knees, just nodded his head. "Me, too."
That's when I knew.