The Holmes Brothers, Antone's, Wednesday, March 15, Bobby Rush, Antone's, Thursday, March 16, Ike Turner Revue, Antone's, Friday March 17

Live Shots: South by Southwest 2001

Ike Turner at Antone's
Ike Turner at Antone's (Photo By Gary Miller)

The Holmes Brothers

Antone's, Wednesday, March 15

Bobby Rush

Antone's, Thursday, March 16

Ike Turner RevUE

Antone's, Friday March 17

Although its presence waxes and wanes from year to year as more fashionable musical trends come and go, the blues is still very much alive at South by Southwest. Thursday's panel, "The Art & Commerce of the Blues," included the heads of Alligator and Fat Possum Records and two booking/management people, who lamented dwindling record sales, a lack of optimum exposure for the music in mainstream media, and the absence of another crossover sensation like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Nonetheless, panelist and artist Bobby Rush talked about still being able to make a comfortable if not extravagant living working 150-200 nights a year on the ever-viable "chitlin' circuit." Alligator Records honcho Bruce Iglauer differentiated three distinct blues categories and audiences: the highly produced, soulful Southern blues sound of Malaco Records, which sells primarily to middle-aged African-Americans, mainly women; the loud, house-rockin', guitar-dominated Alligator sound bought by middle-class, middle-aged white guys; and the traditionally based young artists who infuse modern elements into their sound and draw in younger listeners from the alt.rock and jam band scenes. They all seemed to be represented to some degree at SXSW 2001. Early in the week the Holmes Brothers were hard to miss. Within an 18-hour period they showcased at Antone's Wednesday night, provided the "preclude music" to Ray Davies' keynote address the next morning, and played the day stage at the convention center trade show in the afternoon. On Friday morning, brother Sherman Holmes' grimacing face was splashed across the front page of the local daily. Only time will tell whether any of this exposure translates into increased album sales, but the crowd at Antone's was certainly soul-shaken by the no-frills guitar-bass-drums trio that served up a gospel-drenched, earthy blues sound. Their slow-simmering, three-part harmonies on the O'Jays' "Love Train" and the stompin' title track from their new Alligator release Speaking in Tongues were highlights of a strong, well-received set. The following night, veteran Bobby Rush brought his funky and highly entertaining revue into the same venue. Part singer, harmonica player, preacher, and first-rate storyteller, Rush has a long, prolific track record and he remains an energetic and engaging performer. Playing before a modest but responsive crowd, his tight band, with two basses and two guitars, alternated between the fatback funky and deeply soulful strains of Malaco hits like "If You Can't Stand the Heat, Get Out of the Kitchen" and low-down, Muddy Waters grinders like "Hoochie Coochie Man" and "She's Nineteen Years Old." Every few songs, out came his buxom and big booty-shaking dancers in various form-fitting attire to accentuate whatever sassy sermon he was preaching. A good but not virtuoso harp player, Rush used the instrument sparingly but effectively to complement storytelling. It's too bad that first-rate artists like Bobby Rush don't frequent Antone's more often. After his set, I caught the last few minutes of his fellow Magnolia statesmen, the North Mississippi Allstars at La Zona Rosa. Augmented by a steel guitarist whose slashing attack helped fill out the sound, the young trio gorged the room with waves of thunderous blues extrapolations and offered a bracing contrast within the rich Delta tradition that encompasses both Bobby Rush and upstarts like themselves. Speaking of the Delta blues tradition, one of the more hotly anticipated showcases of the entire conference was the return of Clarkesdale native Ike Turner. Love him or hate him, Turner's seminal contributions as a musician, bandleader, producer, talent scout, and songwriter in the development of rock & roll cannot be overstated. Making his grand entry after an opening Jimmy Smith chicken shack blues by his horn-embellished eightpiece and decked out in a charcoal coat with a black fedora, Turner sat down at the portable piano, greeted the audience as "Houston" instead of "Austin," and then promptly launched into a blistering, high-powered boogie-woogie not unlike the ones he used to record at Sun Studios in Memphis with the likes of B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, and his own Kings of Rhythm way back when. Instead of trying to keep up with the latest musical fads, Turner stayed close to his roots throughout the night. Keeping him honest was childhood pal Ernest Layne, one of two pianists onstage with whom Turner exchanged licks. When he wasn't alternately pounding and tickling the ivories with remarkable aplomb on classics such as "Caldonia," "Swanee River Rock," "Blues After Hours," and "Rocket 88," arguably the first rock & roll record ever and one on which Turner played as well as produced, the 69-year-old bluesman plucked out torrents of raw blue notes on his Fender Strat. Turner's most stunning exhibition on guitar was a clean and stinging version of the Leon McAuliffe Western swing anthem "Steel Guitar Rag." This segued into a round-robin band showcase on the country classic "Momma Don't Allow," and then back into "Steel Guitar Rag. "It was an impressive lesson in the interconnectedness of the blues and country traditions that define American roots music, as well as a not-so-subtle reminder of how Ike Turner has mastered them both. Surprising to some was a medley of Tina Turner songs, including "Nutbush City Limits" and "River Deep Mountain High," sung by a beautiful young woman with a more-than-passing resemblance to you-know-who. Los Lobos' Cesar Rosas joined the fray for a tune, and the band closed out the set as a chugging funk machine on "Sex," a tune that will reportedly appear on Turner's forthcoming album, Here and Now, his first of new material in more than 20 years, due out in May. Whether Ike Turner can parlay this SXSW event into a jumpstart of his amazing but checkered career is yet to be seen, but he certainly proved to the packed house that he can still deliver the goods. Any claim he may have to Blues Royalty is assured.

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