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Detroit musicians make their mark at SXSW conference
Josh Epstein of the Detroit band Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. declared the trio’s last performance at South By Southwest – on Saturday, March 19, as part of Rachael Ray’s Feedback day party – “the most fun” of the group’s ?? shows during the conference.
But it wasn’t because the band was tired of being in Austin.
“All the music people in the music industry went home,” Epstein told the crowd assembled by the indoor stage at Stubb’s Bar-B-Q. “You all want to have fun.” Then he added, “I didn’t mean that as a diss – or maybe I did. I don’t know.”
One thing Epstein and his bandmates could be sure of was that Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. made a successful run at SXSW, winning a buzz as it prepares for the April 26 release of its full-length debut album, “It’s a Corporate World” and leading a formidable Detroit delegation – from rockers to rappers to a septegenarian Motown legend – at the 25th installment of the conference. All played their ways through official showcases, day parties and other opportunities Austin presents during the week – and there were even Detroit musicians who showed up just to be there and figure out things to do when they arrived.
The Earnhardt boys, riding their reputation-making EP “Horse Power,” played five shows and also participated in an online benefit for Japanese earthquake victims hosted by Hanson. At Stubb’s the group finished on a strong note with a half-hour set that flaunted its quirkly melodicism and soaring vocal harmonies – sublimely displayed on a version of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows.” But if the run got more people to pay attention, Epstein said he didn’t notice.
“I try really hard not to read anything about us,” he explained. “It’ll stress me out if something’s bad, so I don’t really pay attention. But I think we had a reason why we came to South By Southwest. Our manager says he thinks we’re doing well, so I took that to mean that maybe we made an impact.”
As for maintaining performing energy over the course of five shows, Epstein credited that to being “the most boring band in the world. We don’t get drunk. We try to sleep as much as we can and try to stay healthy. It hasn’t been an issue at all.”
Dennis Coffey, the 70-year-old Detroit guitar hero with a Motown pedigree, wowed a couple crowds of funk aficionados on Saturday with a pair of shows previewing material from his upcoming self-titled album, due out April 28. Backed by Detroit’s Will Sessions Band and vocalist Kendra Morris, Coffey’s fingerwork – lyrical but with a sharp, electric bite – was in fine form during his evening performance, letting loose on covers of Funkadelic’s “Don’t Know My Love” (sung by Mayer Hawthorne on the album) and 100 Proof (Aged in Soul)’s “Somebody’s Been Sleeping in My Bed,” as well as the new original “Miss Millie” and his shredding 1971 hit “Scorpio.”
Ann Arbor-raised soul singer Hawthrorne, meanwhile, was part of rapper Snoop Dogg’s Funk n Soul Extravaganza on Saturday, playing with his band, the County, and then guesting throughout Snoop’s nearly 75-minute headline show, including featured vocals on “Beautiful,” “Gin and Juice” and “Gangsta Luv,” which Hawthorne remixed for the rapper last year. “I think we both just share a genuine love for classic soul music,” Hawthorne said before the show. “We really just connect on that level.”
Hawthorne said he’s mixing and mastering his second album, which he partly recorded in Detroit, with Coffey guesting, and hopes to release in the fall. During his set Hawthorne previewed one of the new songs, the Detroit ode “A Long Time” which segued into a cover of the Doobie Brothers’ “What a Fool Believes.
Rapper Big Sean, riding high with “My Last” – a collaboration with Chris Brown that’s the first single from the MC’s major label debut, “Finally Famous – hit Austin for a couple of SXSW shows, along with fellow MC Black Milk and a collective of Detroit hip-hop artists such as Ro Spit, Danny Brown and others who presented The Revival: SXSW, an afternoon session on Friday, March 18, at Austin’s Carver Museum.
Other Detroit and vicinity acts that made the scene at SXSW included the Terrible Twos, Human Eye, American Secrets, Whitey Morgan & the 78’s, among others, along with a corps of music business and media figures. Artists Jessica Hernandez and Don “Doop” Dupree came to Austin without sanction shows, while former Bump member Yorg Wilson and his new group, Flashclash, were featured on a local TV outlet.
Former Detroit Red Wing Brett Hull was spotted checking out Widespread Panic on Thursday, March 17, while a Ford bearing the logo of Eminem’s Shady Records label and the Lipton Brisk iced tea he endorses, was spotted in the streets.
Chyrsler also had a strong presence at SXSW with a program that allowed drivers to sample different vehicle models on a one-block route around the Austin Convention Center. The auto maker also had a display inside the SXSW Trade Show.
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