Playback: ¡Uno! ¡Dos! ¡Tré! ¡Cuatro!

SXSW Music begins coming into focus

Maybellene, Why Can't You Be True: Mascara man Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day
Maybellene, Why Can't You Be True: Mascara man Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day (Photo by Gary Miller)

No calm precedes the South by Southwest storm. Two weeks out from the world's most talked about music conference, and the matrix only now begins to emerge. Monday brought the news that Green Day will perform on Friday, March 15, at the Moody Theater, the same location Bruce Springsteen & the E Street Band took over for almost three hours at SXSW 2012. The Bay Area punk trio, now in its fourth decade, also comes promoting two documentaries at the festival: ¡Cuatro!, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the band's three albums last year, and Broadway Idiot, which details frontman Billie Joe Armstrong's work in the American Idiot theatrical production. It was the first announced show since Armstrong went off at the iHeartRadio Music Festival in September, announcing, "I'm not fucking Justin Bieber!" and smashing his guitar. In the wake of the meltdown, Armstrong entered rehab for substance abuse, and the band canceled one tour and postponed another.

No word yet on whether punk rock's illegitimate fathers – Iggy & the Stooges – will attend SXSW, though rumors have been flying given April's Ready to Die, a follow-up of sorts to the James Williamson incarnation of the band's Raw Power in 1973. Fat Possum, which hosts eight acts at this year's March madness, is releasing the new LP, the Stooges' first new material since 2007's The Weirdness.

When I sat down for lunch last weekend with SXSW General Manager James Minor, a smart guy and live music veteran who booked Emo's in its glory days, he politely fielded questions about yet-to-be announced headliners with whispers, so as not to start any speculation with nearby diners. At least two more will surface in the coming weeks, both legends in my book. In Minor's first year as music Fest team leader, helping fill the role of SXSW's longtime Creative Director Brent Grulke, who died unexpectedly in August, the numbers remain strong with some 2,030 artists performing in roughly 110 official venues.

Also this week, SPIN magazine announced Kendrick Lamar for its annual Stubb's day party, thus tipping off hip-hop heads to the rising star's pair of SXSW showcases. My money's still on Killer Mike as the Fest's best MC, though the lineup comes thick with complementary marquee names, including Dead Prez, Trae tha Truth, Slim Thug, Mystikal, Z-Ro, and Master P. On an either similar note or completely contradictory one, Tenacious D RSVP'd for Austin as well. Waterloo Records, for its part, unveiled an impressive list of SX in-stores, including a signing by Nick Cave on Wednesday prior to the Bad Seeds performance that night at Stubb's.

Free shows at Auditorium Shores stacked up fast, with two of Mexico City's biggest acts, Cafe Tacuba and Molotov, slated for Thursday; the Flaming Lips, My Morning Jacket's Jim James, and Britt Daniel's Divine Fits on Friday; and the grand finale of a Levon Helm ramble on Saturday. Recall the Lips (also performing at the Belmont) and their Parking Lot Experiment from 1997, when they conducted a bizarre symphony coming from the tape decks of 30 cars.

Speaking of star power, how about ol' Edward Scissorhands playing guitar with a local on national TV? Johnny Depp pulled double duty on the Late Show With David Letterman last Thursday, taking the chair to talk about his new Lone Ranger movie, then turning out some slide guitar with Bill Carter & the Blame. The cat who penned the Stevie Ray Vaughan hit "Crossfire," Carter performed a beautiful West Memphis Three tribute called "Anything Made of Paper." Carter and Depp, close friends since the local filming of What's Eating Gilbert Grape, collaborated with Gibby Haynes in the band P, whose surprise music spot at the 1993 Austin Music Awards ranks right up their with the Boss' cameo last year.

Catch Carter this year on an AMA bill starring irrepressible popster Ben Kweller, the Dixie Chicks-like Trishas featuring Raul Malo, and Latin powerhouse Brownout. Get there early for a tribute to Brent Grulke, whose friends the Wild Seeds will back a succession of musicians including Robyn Hitchcock, Alejandro Escovedo, Susan Cowsill, Adrian Quesada with the Grupo Fantasma horns, and Spoon's Britt Daniel. The local music prom begins sharply at 7:09pm on Wednesday, March 13, at the Austin Music Hall.

Mind Playing Tricks on Me

Gathered in a South Austin apartment, Matt Strmiska, Zach Ernst, and Scott Nelson prepare to jam. Bushwick Bill ambles in with a beautiful woman, throws a leopard skin rug over his shoulders, and checks a cordless mic. Time for band practice. The trio hits a classic funk groove by the Meters, and Bill comes alive: "I'm Bushwick Bill/I'm takin' it back to the days when you used to learn something from rap!"

One of the genre's greatest characters, the break-dancing dwarf MC from Nineties hip-hop Houston icons the Geto Boys ("Mind Playing Tricks on Me"), smiles and proclaims, "I don't need anymore processed music. Live music is where it's at." Bill arrived in Austin for the Geto Boys Jan. 26 date at Emo's and never left. Thank his friend T. Murphey, a partner at Arlyn Studio who compelled him to stay and has introduced Bill to some of his favorite local musicians.

Bushwick Bill and the Disciples
Bushwick Bill and the Disciples (Photo by John Anderson)

One Monday night, as bluesy dub duo Sit Down, Servant was jamming at the Continental Club Gallery, guitarist Gordie Johnson looked over and saw Bushwick Bill grab the vocal mic.

"He asked if he could rap and just started freestyling," Johnson recounts. "It was great."

Initially, Bill wasn't sure about the crowd.

"There was a bunch of white people there who looked like they'd rather be listening to Beethoven or Bach," he says, "but they were responding to what we were doing, so it felt good."

So good, in fact, that Bill was eager to record the collaboration. That night Johnson, who works as an engineer at Arlyn, and drummer Stephane Beaudin joined him for a late-night recording session that yielded four songs. Bill then joined up with another core group of musicians, an old-school funk trio dubbed the Disciples, who frequently backs soul musicians. They too have collaborated with Bill in the studio and at impromptu shows.

The wordsmith says the tracks he's cut with both Sit Down, Servant and the Disciples will be the basis for his next album, tentatively titled Checks and Balances. On his first extended stay in the music capital, Bill's found what a lot people before him found in Austin – inspiration.

"I didn't even know Stevie Ray Vaughan was from here," marvels the one-eyed rapper. "I'm in my own hazy world, not even knowing all about music, and out here I get to meet real musicians where their feelings come through their fingertips into their instruments, and they mean it! It's not programmed or sampled or stolen."

His lyrics too demonstrate a new freshness.

"The character people always wanted me to be was 'Chuckie,' the 'Mind of a Lunatic,' 'I wanna die,' 'I'm insane' kind of guy. It's this matadorial kind of mode I've been stuck in. Now I'm breaking away, and they see there's more of me."

Half Notes

Tim Kerr, guitarist for skate punk pioneers the Big Boys, shows off his vibrant civil-rights influenced paintings at End of an Ear records on Saturday. The group art show, beginning at 6pm, features music by fellow Big Boy Chris Gates as well as Up Around the Sun, Kerr's new project with banjo man Jerry Hagins. Attendees can snag new vinyl of the Big Boys' Fun Fun Fun and Where's My Towel?/Industry Standard freshly reissued by Chaos in Tejas organizer Timmy Hefner's 540 Records and Light in the Attic Records, respectively. Kerr, who's heading to L.A. next week to show off a line of skateboards he illustrated, seems to have all of his creative planets aligning at once. "It just shows you never know what might happen if you stay open to the choices that present themselves."

› Public documents on reveal that Spider House Patio Bar & Cafe has filed a petition for relief under bankruptcy laws. "We're still pushing strong," owner Conrad Bejarano assured me. "Both businesses are still thriving and we're going to continue bringing awesome culture to Austin." He says filing Chapter 11 will help him renegotiate "super expensive interest rates" on both the Spider House Ballroom and the Eco Clean/I Luv Video building, which he also owns. "We're getting ready for South by Southwest," he explained. "We've got some crazy weird stuff planned."

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Green Day, Bushwick Bill, Tim Kerr, Spider House, Nick Cave, Kendrick Lamar, Master P, Flaming Lips, Bill Carter, Johnny Depp, Geto Boys, Big Boys

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