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SXSW Special Shows Define Festival's Spirit

Of the Oakland Press

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AUSTIN, Texas -- With hundreds of performances every day, its identity as a festival is pretty easily established. But three particularly special performances on Thursday (March 15th) marked the South By Southwest Music + Media Conference's second day and will likely still be the most talked-about shows when the event wraps up on Sunday (March 18th).

At the end of his showcase set in the wee hours of Friday morning (March 16th) Rage Against the Machine/Audioslave guitarist Tom Morello proudly told an ebullient crowd at The Parish that "I hope you enjoy the rest of the weekend, 'cause you ain't gonna top that s***." And he was probably right.

What was supposed to be a solo acoustic set by Morello, under the guise of his protest-singing alter ego The Nightwatchman, turned into a plugged-in all-star throwdown with a guest list that included Guns N'Roses/Velvet Revolver guitarist Slash, Jane's Addiction frontman Perry Farrell, MC5 guitarist Wayne Kramer, Extreme guitarist Nuno Bettencourt and Primus leader Les Claypool, among others. Morello, in fact, didn't even hold back the surprises, starting the show with the ensemble thundering through the Jane's Addiction favorite "The Mountain" and promising more where that came from.

He did play several songs from his politically charged Nightwatchman debut album -- "One Man Revolution," coming April 24 -- but Morello and company also rocked their way through the MC5's "Kick Out the Jams," Rage's "Guerrilla Radio" and a fierce, set-closing rendition of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land," complete with electric guitar solos and the final, censored verse that's unfamiliar to most listeners.

It was a ragged but unquestionably right set of songs, exactly what the spirit of SXSW as a music festival is supposed to be. And Morello reveled in the ramshackle, improvised nature of the show. "You can look at is as unrehearsed," he told the crowd. "I look at it as a gift. You not only hear music being played -- you get to hear music being made!"

Earlier in the evening, Pete Townshend and his girlfriend, Rachel Fuller, presented a more subdued but even more ambitious series of collaborations with a special edition of their Attic Jams concert series at La Zona Rosa. With fellow big names like R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck and Robyn Hitchcock looking on, the duo worked with a collection of younger artists -- including Martha Wainwright, Massachusetts troubadour Willy Mason, new British sensation Mika, British singer-songwriter Alexi Murdoch and Joe Purdy, a Los Angeles artist with whom Townshend performed a duet version of his solo hit "Let My Love Open The Door."

Townshend, along with Fuller -- who likened the show to "a hootenanny" -- served generously as a sideman for portions of each artist's set, happily playing a support role even though his mere physical presence eclipsed anyone else on stage. For his own performances, Townshend dipped into the Who songbook, launching the evening with a solo acoustic rendition of "Drowned" from the "Quadrophenia" album. He then closed the show with a spare voice-and-piano version of "In The Ether" from the Who's latest album, "Endless Wire," and "I Can't Reach You," a Who chestnut from the '60s that he told the crowd at La Zona Rosa "not only have I never played in public, nobody I know has played this song in public."

Americana music icon Emmylou Harris was the subject rather than the performer of another special show, a tribute concert held Thursday afternoon in the ballroom of Austin's stately Driskill hotel. Harris -- who had played four songs during an earlier public interview session with film director Jonathan Demme at the Austin Convention Center -- watched and even mouthed lyrics as a procession of friends and admirers played selections from her catalog, part of a promotional effort for a boxed set, "Songbird," that's coming out Sept. 18th.

Charlie Louvin, one of country music's grand old men, started things off with a plaintive version of "When I Stop Dreaming," while newcomer Elizabeth Cook, joined by longtime Harris collaborator Buddy Miller, picked up the tempo on "If I Could Only Win Your Love." Miller was the tribute's MVP stepping up with Paula Cole on a moving "Green Pastures" -- arguably the show's best performance -- dueting with Allison Moorer on "Love Hurts" and taking the lead for "One of These Days." Other highlights of the set included Charlie Sexton's haunting solo take on "Red Dirt Girl," Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison's rendition of "Boulder to Birmingham" and the Watson Twins' lush harmonies on "Blue Kentucky Woman."

Afterwards, Harris was presented with a plaque commemorating sales of 15 million copies during her career. "I think I might have a career," she quipped. "I know I'm having a helluva good time."

On Thursday, however, she was hardly the only one at SXSW who could say that -- especially if they witnessed any of these three shows.

Send your thoughts and comments to Gary Graff


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