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Pulling Out All the Stops: Mike Flanigin’s B3 Shot

Posted by mcorcoran on April 8, 2017

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin at the Continental Gallery, where he plays every Friday and Saturday night.

Mike Flanigin was a guitar player, a real good one. In 1992, the Denton native toured the country with the Red Devils, the L.A.-based blues band whose debut King King was produced by Rick Rubin. After the Devils broke up in ’94, he moved to Austin because this is where guitar players go to chase work and tail and, maybe in the process, get a real education.

And then one night at Antone’s, in the corner of his eye, he saw the Hammond B3. Flanigin was playing an organ song- Big John Patton’s “Let ‘Em Roll”- on a steel guitar and he asked himself why wasn’t he playing it on that B3? Which was all it took. The first time Flanigin pressed his fingers down on the B3, he was no longer a guitar player. “Even when I didn’t know how to play, I knew this was the instrument I was meant for,” he said from the 1960’s house he rents in Rollingwood. “The B3 required all my attention, so I didn’t have time for the guitar anymore.” You don’t dabble with that four-legged cabinet that holds an empire of sound- it takes over your life.

Flanigin’s debut solo LP The Drifter, which comes out August 21 with special guests Gary Clark Jr., Billy Gibbons, Kat Edmonson, Jimmie Vaughan, Rev. Gean West and Alejandro Escovedo, is the culmination of two decades of learning how to lock it down on the B3. But it also tells the story of his life in lyrics that this son of an Air Force pilot has been accumulating through his travels in the wild blues yonder. The title track of The Drifter is a Gatemouth Brown cover sang by Gibbons, but the other nine songs are Flanigin originals.

When he was still quite green, with his only organ experience in Doyle Bramhall Sr.’s band for a few months, Flanigin opened for B3 kingpin Jimmy Smith at the Mercury. Considering that Smith had recorded nearly 40 classic soul-jazz records for the Blue Note and Verve labels beginning in 1956, this would be like opening for Richard Pryor with knock-knock jokes. But Flanigin, then 32, got the gig because the club needed to provide a B3 and Flanigin had one. Luckily, this was the ground-floor version of the Mercury, not the one upstairs that’s now called the Parish, because hauling a 425-lb B3 and a Leslie speaker almost as heavy up a flight of stairs has caused many a roadie to consider another line of work.

mike_flanigin

Mike Flanigin in Marfa. Photo by Ashley McCue.

“I hoped and prayed that Jimmy Smith would show up right before he went on and miss my set,” said Flanigin, feeling insecure about his pairing with the absolute genius of grit n’ soul. “At one point I looked over and there he was. JIMMY SMITH WAS WATCHING ME PLAY THE ORGAN! I just froze up, man. I stopped playing,” Flanigin was able to compose himself after a long minute and finished the set.

The B3 actually belonged to Mike Judge, who Flanigin knew from Dallas, when the Silicon Valley creator played bass for Anson Funderburgh. Since Hammond stopped producing B3s in 1975, the organ had to be over 20 years old, but it had never been played in public when Judge bought it. Smith, who’d been playing every beat-up piece of shit organ the clubs provided on his tour, loved the pristine instrument.

After the crowd had cleared out, Smith went back onstage and sat at the organ. Flanigin was up there to get the B3 ready to move, but Smith motioned for him to sit next to him on the bench. And for the next 30 minutes, the master showed the novice a few things on the B3.

“I had heard that Jimmy Smith could be difficult and moody- that was his reputation,” said Flanigin, “but he was nothing but nice to me that night.” Flanigin would, a few years later, see the temperamental side of Smith, when the icon refused to go back onstage at Antone’s after the club’s B3 temporarily died on him. But that night at the Mercury was a magical experience that will stay with Flanigin forever.

“It’s all the blues, man,” Smith told the kid after one adventurous run. “I was thinking ‘that’s not like any blues I’ve ever heard,’” Flanigin said with a chuckle. The legend’s impromptu tutorial showed Flanigin just how much he had to learn.

Jimmy Smith

Jimmy Smith

James Oscar Smith of Philadelphia started off as a piano player, but switched in 1953 when he heard Wild Bill Davis play the Hammond organ in Milt Larkin’s Houston-based big band. A key selling point for music school graduate Smith was that the organ never went out of tune. The first great electric organ player of note was piano legend Fats Waller, who grew up playing church organ at his father’s Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. Waller taught Count Basie, who made the organ swing in the ‘30s. Chicago’s Les Strand earned the nickname “the Art Tatum of the organ” in the ‘40s and recorded with Coleman Hawkins, and there was also Smith’s Philadelphia neighbor Bill Doggett, who played a Hammond in Louis Jordan’s Tympani Five before forming his own band and having a smash with sax man Clifford Scott on “Honky Tonk (Pts. 1 and 2)” in 1956. But improvisational virtuoso Smith created much of the language of the Hammond B3 organ and anybody who’s played it after, even the rock and R&B players like Steve Winwood, Gregg Allman, Brian Auger, Keith Emerson, Jon Lord of Deep Purple, Greg Rolie of Santana, Felix Cavaliere of the Rascals and Booker T. Jones and Billy Preston, have got some Jimmy Smith in their heads. He is the Source, like T-Bone Walker on the electric blues guitar.

The B3 came out in 1954, just when Smith was starting out, and he pioneered the walking bass lines with his left hand and fleet-fingered single note runs on his right that emulated Charlie Parker. Smith’s hands clasped the relationship between the upper and lower keyboards, while his feet on the pedals colored the undertones like a mournful string bass. The 1956 LP, The Incredible Jimmy Smith, changed everything.

The Philadelphia area was as fertile for B3 players as Chicago was for electric blues guitarists, with Jimmy McGriff, Richard “Groove” Holmes, Charles Earland, Don Patterson and more coming from Philly and New Jersey. The Garden State is where Flanigin tracked down one of his favorite organists Big John Patton, in 1999. “As a blues guitarist coming up, almost all your heroes had passed away,” Flanigin said. “But when I really started getting into the B3, I found out that most of the greats who played on my favorite records were still alive.” He knew that if he was going to get better he had to apprentice with a total pro.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Big John Patton tutored Flanigin for almost two years.

Flanigin relocated to Boston at the turn of the 21st century when his wife at the time had a job there. Checking the New York City papers one day he saw an upcoming gig by Big John Patton at the Jazz Standard, so he took the train from Boston for the show. “He was a pretty dark cat, not really very approachable,” said Flanigin, but when it turned out that the older woman he’d struck up a conversation with was Patton’s wife Thelma, she introduced Flanigin to his hero. “I said, ‘I’d sure like to come to your house some day and learn a few things,'” Flanigin recalled, “and he said ‘sure, how ’bout tomorrow?'” Flanigin took the bus to Montclair, NJ, expecting to knock on the door of a mansion. After all, Patton, guitarist Grant Green and drummer Ben Dixon made some of the greatest jazz organ trio records ever at Blue Note in the ’60s. This man was musical royalty, so Flanigin was surprised to see the Pattons living in a one-bedroom apartment. Flanigin slept on the couch and every morning for a week, he woke up to Big John’s B3 sounds while Thelma cooked breakfast. “All John ever wanted to do was play,” said Flanigin. For ten hours every day, the jazz great would show the student some things, then watch him try them on his own. You can’t get training like that at music school.

Flanigin visited the Pattons regularly over the next two years, usually staying over for about a week at a time, before heading back to Boston. Some nights Patton took Flanigin to organ-centric jazz clubs in Harlem. “He’d say, ‘This is my man, Mike. He’s a great organ player,'” and I’d feel like a million bucks.”

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Flan and the Man. Billy Gibbons sings the title track on The Drifter, which comes out in August.

Patton died in 2002 at age 66 from complications due to diabetes. His Hammond B3, which he bought in 1963 at Macy’s, sits in Flanigin’s living room. “We tried to get the Smithsonian to take it, but they wouldn’t, so Thelma gave it to me,” said Flanigin, who paid about $1,000 to have it shipped to him in Austin.

On a recent afternoon, Flanigin sat at Big John’s “desk,” which is what a lot of players call their B3s, and showed its features. Besides two 61-note keyboards, the organ has 24 foot bars, a volume pedal and 38 drawbars, also called “stops,” which a player can customize for his own sound. The term “pulling out all the stops” refers to an organ player who’s opened all the drawbars for crescendos. “It looks really complicated,” Flanigin said of the setup before him, “but it’s like driving a car. There are all those knobs and pedals, but after a while it becomes second nature.”

****

The electric organ was invented by Laurens Hammond of Evanston, IL in 1934 and advertised as an economical alternative to the massive pipe organs of churches, theaters and baseball stadiums. In that way, it was the first synthesizer. A non-musician, Hammond held 110 patents and had earlier invented an electric clock, which gave him his fortune, plus 3D movies and a card-shuffling contraption. Needing a new money-maker after the Hammond Electric Bridge Table ran its course, selling 14,000 units in two years, Hammond based the organ on the synchronized motor he used for his clock. He realized that it could produce tones that would never go out of tune. That was the gimmick, but Hammond’s accountant, a church organist, persuaded Hammond to go further and invent a new kind of electric organ. The sound on a Hammond is produced by 91 tone wheels, which revolve around a magnetic coil. Much of the appeal was that the keyboard action could be fast, like a piano, but it had the ability to sustain notes.

The B3's AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

The B3’s AC signal created a pop sound with each keystroke, which rotating Leslie speakers were designed to smooth out. The tremelo effect added to the Hammond sound.

In 1935, the first year of production, Hammond sold 1,750 organs to churches, but also drew the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which looked into a complaint by pipe organ manufacturers that Hammond was using deceptive advertising when it claimed that the $2,600 Model A could duplicate the sounds of a $75,000 pipe organ. A blind listening test was held and about 1/3 of the participants guessed that the Hammond was the pipe organ, which ended up being great publicity for Hammond.

Chicago-based Hammond introduced the BC model in 1936, the C model in ’39, the B-2 and C-2 in ’49 and the B-3 and C-3 in 1954. Besides churches, radio soap operas were early Hammond organ customers. Then, when Ethel Smith of Pittsburgh had a huge hit with “Tico Tico,” from the 1944 Red Skelton film Bathing Beauty, the home market exploded for Hammond, which produced the spinet organ in 1949.

Bobbie Nelson, who plays with her brother Willie’s band, got a job demonstrating Hammond organs in Fort Worth and paid the bills for years that way. Also up in Fort Worth in the late ’60s was Austin B3 favorite Red Young, “the Organizer,” who played organ on Wanted: The Outlaws in 1976, toured with Sonny & Cher, Dolly Parton and Joan Armatrading, recorded on sessions with Nelson Riddle and now plays all those great organ parts for Eric Burdon and the Animals. And we can’t forget Austin’s first great B3 player Dr. James Polk, who plays most Monday nights at the Continental Gallery with sax player Elias Haslanger.

During the ’70’s, jazz moved into a rock fusion sound that ditched the B3 in favor of clavinets, synthesizers and electric pianos. And the home market was taken over by cheaper digital keyboards. Hammond discontinued the B3 in 1975 and filed for bankruptcy 10 years later. But the B3 has gotten even hipper, especially after such acts as Medeski, Martin and Wood and Galactic introduced organ jams to festival crowds.

Hammond was bought by Suzuki Music of Japan, which produced a new B3 in 2009, but no self-respecting soul-jazz player would go for that digital model. Everybody wants to play what Jimmy Smith played. You’ve gotta have that attitude if you’re going to give your life to the B3. And this is the many-faceted instrument which is known to inspire such desire.

 

ORGAN PORN

Ethel Smith becomes a thing with “Tico, Tico”

Jimmy Smith delivers “The Sermon”

Unsung: the Billy Preston Story

“Let ‘Em Roll” by Big John Patton

 

 

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Los Lobos: How Have the Wolves Survived?

Posted by mcorcoran on March 27, 2017

HOUSTON 2012. Thunder and lightning and buckets of rain. In the hotel lobby bar of the Doubletree Hotel, members of Los Lobos are hanging out, waiting the word on whether or not their headlining set at the Houston International Festival is cancelled. Outside the window is a strobe-lit storm from a B movie.

These men have played together for over 40 years, from the flea markets of Pico Rivera to the top tier of festivals much bigger than this one. The appearance fee’s been paid, there’s the NBA playoffs on TV; why not just take the night off? But the mood in the lobby bar is one of desire. To play! Every ominous message relayed from one of their roadies is met with a sigh.

“If we don’t play, it’s like we came all this way for nothing,” says Steve Berlin, the band’s sax player and sometime producer. After Houston, the band will fly home to Los Angeles, then bounce back to New Orleans to play Jazzfest, and then it’s back to L.A. for their second annual Cinco de Mayo festival.

Houston was for the money, yes, but it was also going to be a fun two hours for a band that’s recently ditched the setlist in favor of reading the moment. Even during the time that “La Bamba” was atop the pop charts in 1987, the Chicano rock band has never toured for more than five weeks at a time. They’ve got their families and their other pursuits: chief lyricist and maiden drummer Louie Perez is a playwright and painter, guitarist David Hidalgo is an in-demand sessionista, saxman Steve Berlin is a noted producer, who recently wrapped work on the next album by Austin’s Grupo Fantasma.

But Berlin says Los Lobos is priority numero uno. When the band, which brought traditional Mexican music and Chicano pop to the indie rock world with sensational debut EP “…and a time to dance” in 1983, is onstage in full-on musical connection, it’s a beautiful thing to be a part of.

“OK, we’re on!,” the road manager tells the band and they’re all out the door and into the waiting van. Astronauts cleared for outer space. Unfortunately, this mission was called back when the storm got even worse. Having seen what they’d be up against, the members now seemed relived.

At the bar, where Berlin nurses a Fat Tire beer and watches the ending of a double overtime basketball game, he talks about how the new spontaneity of calling out songs onstage has given the veterans a new appreciation of their catalogue. Their next album, recorded live in New York City, finds Hidalgo, Perez, Berlin, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano performing acoustic versions of old songs not as well known as “How Will the Wolf Survive,” “One Time One Night,” Don’t Worry Baby,” “A Matter of Time” and “Let’s Say Goodnight.”

Los Lobos is mainly a nostalgia act these days- in the way that Pearl Jam is. They still make records, 2010’s “Tin Can Trust” was the latest, but the Wolves get their prey these days by howling the heck out of their “hits.” During the ‘80s, Los Lobos was arguably the best band in America and they remember that when they play now. But this band, formed in 1973 by four Garfield High classmates from East L.A., have always recalled the past. After they broke through to the mainstream with a Ritchie Valens cover from the ‘50s, they took their Latino legacy tour back even further with ‘87’s “La Pistola y El Corazon,” an album of traditional Mexican music.

“I think it was really smart to follow ‘La Bamba’ with ‘La Pistola,’” says Berlin, a native of Philadelphia who was accepted into the band of brothers in 1984. “We got right back to being who we are.” Whether they play R&B like “I Got Loaded” or a Norteno song such as “Anselma,” Los Lobos is a band of memory with purpose. Their music is the soundtrack of the Mexican-American experience, which makes them the perfect band for Pachanga Fest, which was started to give Hispanic musicians and fans the beautiful outdoor days enjoyed by predominantly-Anglo crowds at the Austin City Limits Music Festival (where Los Lobos was a first-year headliner).

Berlin first met the members of Los Lobos while a member of the Blasters, the L.A. roots rock kingpins of the early ‘80s. The band from East L.A. was signed to Slash Records, which was also the home of the Blasters.

“The Blasters was like a bar fight every time there was a big decision to be made,” says Berlin, a Jewish hornblower from Philly who migrated to L.A. in the mid-‘70s with the Beckmeir Brothers, a rock/soul band. “Then to work with Los Lobos, a very democratic band, was just night and day.” The Blasters were lead by brothers Phil and Dave Alvin, but Los Lobos felt more like a family.

After he co-produced the ’83 Lobos EP with T-Bone Burnett, and started sitting in regularly with the band, Berlin was asked to join and he jumped that sinking U.S.S. Alvin and got himself a good paying gig for the next 30 years. “David (guitarist/accordionist Hidalgo) is the certified musical genius of the group, so what he has to say goes a long way,” Berlin says when asked to describe the group’s decision-making dynamic. And Louie (chief lyricist Perez) has his say. It’s all very respectful. If anyone feels really strongly about something, that’s usually the deciding factor.”

It’s a band that, Berlin says, is always able to pull something out of itself when the occasion calls for it. He uses the making of “Colossal Head” in 1996 as an example. “We had just finished doing the soundtrack to ‘Desperado’ and we were pretty much spent,” he says. “We love Robert Rodriguez, but he sucked everything out of us. We gave him every idea we had.” The band arrived at the studio empty-headed, but once they started jamming together, the songs crept out. The parts added up to an amazing whole and “Colossal” was met with rave reviews. It didn’t sell, though, so the band was dropped by Warner Brothers. But “Mas y Mas” from those sessions has become a set-capping crowd-pleaser.

Among the band’s credits is an appearance on Paul Simon’s modern classic “Graceland,” but it’s an experience that Berlin described in an interview as “not a pleasant deal for us.” He claims that Simon took full songwriting credit for a song that Los Lobos shared with him in the studio. The song in question became “All Around the World or The Myth of Fingerprints.” Simon has denied the allegation.

 

 

 

 

 

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History of Hip Hop at SXSW From Keith to Khalifa

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

South by Southwest has become a Hip Hop Mecca in recent years, with seemingly everyone from big names to rising artists coming to Austin every year for the pub and the party. But that wasn’t always the case. “We’d hear the same thing every time we called New York,” says former SXSW booker Matt Sonzala. “’Why should I send my act to your hippie music festival down in Texas?’ But things started changing about five years ago.”

With the likes of Eminem, Jay Z, Kanye West, M.I.A., Public Enemy, Wiz Khalifa, Lil’ Wayne, Nas and on and on, perfoming at SXSW in recent years, Austin has become THE place to be in mid-March.

You have to credit Kool Keith’s Ultramagnetic MC’s, who came down from the Bronx in 1990 to play Raven’s (a country music club that would evolve into punk haven Emo’s), with paving the way. Then, Homer Hill’s Catfish Station on Sixth Street fostered an adventurous breed of hip hop artists, such as Del Tha Funkee Homosapien, Atmosphere and Hieroglyphics, who played SXSW at the beginning of their careers.

Sonzala recalls one SXSW 1995 show at Catfish Station as an especially vivid turning point. “We all know her as Erykah Badu, but back then she went by Erykah Free,” he says. “She got up and did a couple songs with (Dallas collective) Heads-N-Dreads that caused people to just lose their shit!” Kwasar from the Heads did a duet with Erykah on “Stay Away,” then yielded center stage to the then-unsigned singer, who performed “On and On,” which would turn the music biz on its ear two years later.

By 2000, rap had arrived with showcases (presented in conjunction with Hip Hop Mecca) featuring such rhymesmiths as Chuck D, Doug E. Fresh, Blackalicious, South Park Mexican, Dead Prez, Big Daddy Kane and Jungle Brothers.

If you’re looking for one entire show that started the rapfire, Sonzala says it was the 2004 showcase at Aussie’s featuring Bun B, Dizzie Rascal, Paul Wall, Chamillionaire, Michael 5000 Watts and more. “I pitched SXSW on a Murder Dog (magazine) showcase, with all the big Southern rappers,” recalls Sonzala, and I got back a email from Craig Stewart (of SXSW) that included only the subject line, ‘Do you really think you could do this?’” Although “Dirty South” hip hop, with its “screwed and chopped” remixes had exploded all over the world, there was no live tradition of the form. “These guys from Houston never played on a real stage before,” says Sonzala. “They might do a set at a car show or some shitty disco, but a music festival? What’s that?” The crowd at Aussie’s was about 50% white and about 20% badges- and the response was emphatic.

Sonzala says the late addition of London “grime” pioneer Dizzee Rascal to the bill added a lot of heat and solidified hip hop’s international status. “Dizzee’s people didn’t want him on a showcase with rock bands, so when they saw that there was a bill with Southern rappers, especially Bun B of UGK, that’s where he wanted to be.” Rascal met Bun B at a party Houston label owner Randall Jamail threw for Slim Thug that afternoon and the pair became instant brothers. “Imagine” was the name of the two-minute spitfire recital that ended Rascal’s set that night and ended up on the B-side of his next single “Dream.”

The show at Aussie’s spiked Houston hip hop’s imagination. “It was, basically, on a beach volleyball court at a bar way off the beaten track,” says Sonzala, “but Bun B has said that show opened up the whole world for him. I think it was the first time they saw what kind of impact their music was having.”

 

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SXSW Stories: Night and Day With Van the Man

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

Celtic soul lion Van Morrison kicked off a short U.S. tour in 2008 with two shows in Austin on March 11 and 12, the first a private concert at the Austin Music Hall with tickets sold and the second an official SXSW showcase at La Zona Rosa. Morrison was promoting the new album Keep It Simple and why not stay another day and play for the industry? But according to gossip hound Perez Hilton, Van didn’t keep his room service order simple enough and when it was delivered all wrong, the room service tray went flying. (The Driskill issued an immediate and emphatic denial after the Perez post.)

Former Direct Events production manager Kyle Nelson, who handled both the Austin Music Hall and La Zona Rosa that SXSW, didn’t need to hear any more Van Morrison horror stories. The singer’s repute was as a tempermental perfectionist, nicknamed “Van the Man” because “Van the Tyrant” didn’t rhyme. “His management came in a couple weeks earlier to walk through the venues and they freaked out,” Nelson recalls. “(Morrison) was used to playing these beautiful theaters and the Music Hall and La Zona Rosa were the opposites of that. They told us ‘He’s gonna take one look at these clubs and turn around and walk out!’”

Nelson says Direct Events spent “a fortune, probably $25- $50,000” renting drapes, red carpet, nice furniture, paintings, plants, lamps, etc. for the green room and onstage. “We were just so terrified that he was going to cancel that we overdid it,” recalls Nelson, who even ordered faux landscaping for the La Zona Rosa perimeter. “I kept hearing the last thing Van’s people had said: ‘This had better be right!’” It was a lot of pressure for a 28-year-old from Kansas.

So here comes the the night of the Music Hall show and Morrison, who didn’t come to soundcheck, stepped from his limo to the walkway onto the stage, never even going inside the opulently-decorated dressing room and backstage area. After the show, he went straight back to the limo. “We did all that just for him, all that for nothing,” exclaims Nelson, who termed that opening night set “a debacle.” Morrison did only new material, refusing to play any of his hits for the crowd which had paid big bucks. “People were walking out, pissed off about spending their money on that show.” Nelson and his crew spent several hours that night moving all the backstage furnishings two blocks over to La Zona Rosa, which would host an early Morrison set, at 7 p.m. the first day of SXSW Music.

Maybe the word got out about the poorly-received tour opener or maybe everyone figured the 1200-capacity La Zona Rosa would be too jampacked and the lines too long to get in, but the Wednesday night show was not even close to being sold out. The crowd numbered only about 700, but the icon bounced around backstage like he couldn’t wait to get up there. He was overheard telling his agent it reminded him of the old days, and his setlist was similarly nostalgic. “He played a couple new songs, but after that it was just one big hit after the next,” says Nelson, who was finally able to relax a bit when the show started. “He gave those people an amazing concert. It was one of those times when you felt sorry for the people who were missing it.”

After the fantabulous showcase, Morrison’s agent and manager both approached Nelson and put their arms around him in a bear hug. “You pulled it off!” they said.

“It was my first South By Southwest,” says the baby-faced Nelson, now 35. “You talk about a trial by fire. Boy, I went from sweating bullets to tears of joy.”

 

 

 

 

 

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SXSW stories #4: Mumford and Who?

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

The stories of huge headlining acts playing SXSW when they were nobody are well-told, with Billy Ray Cyrus (year two) leading a breakout army that includes Green Day, White Stripes, John Mayer, Kendrick Lamar, MIA, the Strokes, LCD Soundsystem, Skrillex, Uncle Tupelo, Florence + the Machine, Death Cab For Cutie, Black Eyed Peas, Gary Clark Jr. and so on.

Then there was a folk-rock band from England that played a day party at a pizza joint in March 2009, just a couple years before they were headlining Glastonbury. Here’s how Mumford & Sons were booked to play SXSW before they had a record deal or any press in the States:

New Zealand native Cary Caldwell, who works for SXSW Planning Dept. and has been part of the artist submission review process for a number of years, was living in Brighton UK in 2008 and had popped into a bar called Prince Albert on his way home from dinner. Mumford and Sons were playing to a packed house of 150 and, quite simply, blew Caldwell away.

He gave Marcus Mumford his SXSW card, got in touch with management and emailed Brent Grulke telling him SXSW had to book this act. “I told Brent that unless he wanted me hassling him every day, he may as well just book them and be done with it,” Caldwell says, with a laugh.
The first Mumford set, at Red House Pizzeria on Airport Boulevard, found the band performing without keyboardist Ben Lovett, who had to hastily exit the plane from London at New York City because peanuts were being served and he has an extreme nut allergy. Lovett arrived the next day, in time for two SXSW day stage performances- at the Convention Center and the Hilton Hotel lobby. That latter set was in front of about 30 people, but one was the person who went on to become their booking agent in the U.S. “They played their official showcase at Maggie Mae’s and the place was rammed, mainly with UK industry,” Caldwell recalls. Mumford and Sons left Austin on a mountain of buzz.
When they returned to England, Cary Caldwell became their temporary tour manager. His first assignment was to drive Mumford and Sons to the Universal building in London, where they signed their recording contract with Island Records.

– Michael Corcoran

 

 

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Biggest SXSW “get”? SXSW stories #2

Posted by mcorcoran on March 9, 2017

Who’s been the biggest “get” of SXSW thus far? Johnny Cash in ’94 and Tom Waits in ’99 really helped put the Austin conference on the map. Norah Jones had the No. 1 album in the country when she played SXSW in 2002, Metallica at Stubb’s in ’09 was huge, as was Bruce Springsteen in 2012. Eminem, Lady Gaga, Foo Fighters, Lil’ Wayne, Jay Z, Smokey Robinson, Kanye West, Tony Bennett, Justin Timberlake and many more big names have played Southby in recent years. Adele was on the schedule in 2008, but cancelled.

But in terms of fame, talent, respect and influence, no SXSW booking has been more spectacular than Prince at La Zona Rosa in 2013. Samsung brought in the genius of sophistifunk for a fee rumored to be a million dollars to play their party, but plenty of badgeholders also got in. “Samsung worked with us and did a really great job with the set-up,” says Roland Swenson of SXSW. The smartphone giants build a new stage for Prince and his 18-piece band.

“As long as I can remember, every year we have a gaping hole in the schedule in February,” Swenson recalls. In 2013, La Hole was at Zona Rosa. “That year we just couldn’t confirm Saturday night at La Zona Rosa.” The venue’s manager informed SXSW that they had an offer to host a private party that night, if the festival would release the date. All he knew was that Samsung was the sponsor.

Since Samsung was involved in other sponsorship at SXSW that year, the point person was called and asked what was the deal. “They said it was a special artist and they wanted to make sure it was confirmed (before they notified SXSW), so we said ‘Who is it?’ And when they said ‘Prince,’ we said, ‘you’re kidding, right?’” Nope, they got Prince. When that show was announced, just a few days before it happened, the news cut across generations. The guest list included Michael K. Williams, best known as Omar from The Wire.

“Someone on our staff was saying ‘he’s just going to play an hour,’ and so we weren’t really expecting what we got,” says Swenson, “which was an incredible three-hour concert.” Prince didn’t pick up a guitar all night, just playing keyboards, but as he told the crowd after his second or three encore, “Don’t make me hurt you Austin. I have a lot of hits.”

Sometimes a hole becomes a beautiful thing.

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