SXSW Saturday: Willie Nelson is Still King, While The Defibulators Host Cactus Blossoms, Robbie Fulks and The Deslondes
While Willie Nelson still rules Austin, Texas, a host of newcomers is waiting in the wings for their chance in the spotlight.
Make no mistake, this is Willie's town. All week long, I've heard young and not so young musicians talk about the chance to play at Nelson's Austin ranch in reverent tones that would make you think they were talking about a beloved figure head of American music. Of course, Nelson has earned that stature, and proved it, yet again, at his SXSW gig Saturday at the Moody Theater.
Not content to trot out rehashed versions of his classic songs, Nelson is more inclined to keep his adoring audience guessing, tossing in time signature changes and mash-ups that would leave other performers quaking in their $450 cowboy boots. The ovations Nelson receives here are something in and of themselves, a testament to a love affair decades in the making. Could there be a better way to close out "South by" as most performers call it? Well, there is a worse way. After the restraint and balance of Nelson's set, listening to the sonic sausage that was Keith Urban's headlining set (yes, top billing over Nelson) was akin to a Guantanamo Bay interrogation session.
If that's being too rough on Urban, the critique comes after four days of non-stop music, mostly heard in small venues, just feet from the acoustic-based performers. No doubt Keith could get under your skin if you put a Martin in his hand and forbade him to let a sound man pump up the volume to such gargantuan heights as were heard at the Moody.
Earlier in the day, the sounds were decidedly more focused, and a single venue sufficed for all an acoustic guitar fan could hope to find. Dubbed "The Brooklyn County Cantina," the New York-based group the Defibulators put together a city-meets-country showcase that featured a whole lot of great picking. Stand-out performances from the all-day-and-night event included the Deslondes, the Cactus Blossoms, Humming House, and one of our favorites, Robbie Fulks.
"I'll play anywhere," Fulks told the crowd just after the rain had stopped and he began an amazing solo set.
While Fulks threw down the gauntlet in terms of what could be done on guitar, the other acts found a way to make their own mark, with the Defibulators bringing the event to an energetic climax. None of these acts is mainstream country, and thank goodness for that, no offense, Keith Urban.
In retrospect, SXSW remains a vital place to come and see emerging talent as well as tried and true performers. Though it has gotten huge and overrun by corporate sponsors (Apple backed the Nelson/Urban finale), it remains a respite from everyday life, an oasis where you can focus, if but for a few days, on the art of music.