Days of Heaven

If you tally up the St. Louis connections to this year's South by Southwest, held March 17-21 in Austin, Texas, the findings are somewhat grim: One St. Louis band performed. One Festus band performed. One transplanted-to-Atlanta East St. Louis trumpeter performed. One reference was made to St. Louis in a song by Tom Waits during his performance. One Beatle Bob was there, surprise, surprise -- he was seen running from club to club in the pouring rain, was spotted dancing (surprise, surprise) at a barbecue, was propositioned by Rennie Sparks of the Handsome Family during their show ("I want to know you carnally, Beatle Bob"). When Beatle Bob gets mentioned during a SXSW scorecard, you know the St. Louis offerings are scant. Herein, the facts:

The nuts and bolts: SXSW is the Sundance of the music industry: Ten thousand registrants from all over the world (though leaning heavily toward those from NYC and LA). Eight hundred-odd bands from all over the world. Sixty-plus panels with more than 300 panelists. I ended up with 16 business cards at the end of the week, about three of which I actually wanted. Pawned off about 30 of my cards.

Most transcendent day: Thursday. Lucinda Williams began the day with a rambling keynote speech that could have been pared down to the following sentence: "Stay true to your beliefs and integrity, and don't co-opt your art for the sake of money." Instead, she blabbered on and on. She made up for it with a smooth rendition of "Sweet Old World," thereby giving us the beginning of one of the most glorious musical days in memory. The song is inspiring without being sappy; written for a suicide victim, it lists the tender pleasures of this world: "The breath from your own lips/the touch of fingertips/a sweet and tender kiss ... the sound of a midnight train/wearing someone's ring/someone calling your name."

The sentiment carried through the day; I was bombarded with heaven during a documentary of the German band Can and from a Nordic Blue Oyster Cult/MC5-esque band called Motorpsycho. Dutch club-hoppers Arling and Cameron spun records, which led to what I thought would be the perfect closure for a day that started with that Lucinda song. In the middle of a DJ set in which Arling or Cameron (couldn't tell who was who) spun new electronic songs, he popped on Iggy's "Lust for Life," which, amidst the bleeps and bumps, sounded positively revolutionary (though it always does). Think back to words to the Lucinda song as you read these: "I'm worth a million in prizes/I'm through with sleeping on the sidewalk/No more beating my brains/no more beating my brains/with liquor and drugs." The song is as life-affirming, if not more, than "Sweet Old World," and as I thought of the two, I decided that, well, here I was in Austin on the company tab, dancing (at least in my heart), drinking, experiencing a kind of bliss -- I decided that life was good.

And then it got even better! Even if it was a waste of his time! Russell Gunn cut his teeth on the trumpet while he lived in East St. Louis. His new record, Ethnomusicology, Vol. 1 (Atlantic) had just been released, and he played the Victory Grill at 1 a.m. Friday morning. All SXSW sets are supposed to be 45 minutes; Gunn played for two hours, and the audience of about 50 was treated to true transcendence: Lucinda Williams and Iggy Pop can tell us about life-lust in a sweet world, but Gunn didn't say word one: With his octet -- including himself on trumpet and cornet, a Fender Rhodes organ (James Hurt: phenomenal), alto sax, trombone, drums, bass, percussion and turntables (DJ Apollo), he showed us lust for life.

Imagine a combination of jazz, hip-hop and funk that just is -- not philosophical experimentation but emotional revelation, a combination that grows organically out of the passions of the musicians. The problem with most musical amalgams is that intent overshadows inspiration. Gunn's inspiration was the intent: A groove as electric as a bolt of lightning zipped through the ears and struck the heart. When I sat down at 1 a.m. as the show was beginning, I was tired. When I left at 3 a.m., I was wide-awake and ready to pull an all-nighter with the band. Real-life tears of joy welled up in my eyes during their show, a sensation I've only experienced one or two other times in my musical life. Shivers of heaven throughout. Why? Because of the tidal wave of organized bliss that Gunn and company created, something that each person at SXSW, despite his or her agenda and intentions, craves.

Alas, Gunn was kinda cranky afterward about the gig, which took place a few miles outside of town, a fact that nearly defeated the purpose of performing during the festival. "I thought it was a great big waste of time," he said after the show. "But thing about it was, my record company really, really wanted me to do that, and I didn't want to do it because it's such a pain in the ass to get together. And because it's just South by Southwest, it's not like they pay for anything -- you have to pay for all that shit. So I had to get all these people together from all these different parts of the country, get all this equipment, and it's all on you. And then to get there and do that and then play at a place that's really not centrally located and nobody's really there, and then the weather's bad."

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