Leave it to a 40-year-old white guy from Detroit to show up at music’s trendiest festival of emerging talent and curate a three-pronged showcase of a style of popular music that barely exists anymore, or at least hasn’t thrived commercially for a few decades – namely, blues-based hard rock. It all went down at Austin’s Speakeasy Friday on March 18, assisted by co-sponsors Jim Beam and pandora.com. Kid Rock mainly stayed by the sidelines, coming on stage only briefly before each band to introduce them, make inebriated jokes, and, at one point, complain about American Idol. And though even the bourbon-marinated throng of music and beverage industry hangers-on and lucky RSVPers in attendance might not have grasped it, the show wound up being one of the highlights of SXSW – though it might well help to have been a 40-plus white guy from Detroit (as this writer is) to fully appreciate it.
First up was Ty Stone, a rotund and bespectacled blue-eyed soul-rocker and laid-off steel worker from Detroit’s Downriver suburbs with vocal pipes for miles, a masterful high register, and big silver belt buckle, backed by a five-man band of neatly facial-haired fellows who mostly looked a few years older than him. Kid Rock had said he’d found out about the singer after being handed a CD at a Pistons game. The music was funky blue-collar stuff that anybody weaned on the Silver Bullet Band would find familiar, heavy on big-hearted ballads but really finding a pocket whenever the tempo and volume picked up. Stone rhymed “vacation” with “Greyhound station” and “Arizona” with “Oklahoma,” sang about riding for however far 100 bucks would take him, did a song listing his influences (“We got any Bob Seger fans?” – Seger being to Detroit what Willie Nelson is to Texas – plus George Jones, Hank Sr., Rolling Stones, Stevie Wonder, Stevie Ray, Marvin Gaye). His set ended with the two best numbers: “American Style,” a dead ringer for mid-Eighties John Cougar Mellencamp down to its big-muscled drum pound and recession-era laments about steel mills and farm ploughs and jobs being outsourced overseas, and the even tougher grooving “Down River,” where Stone insisted on standing his ground as the water rose and promised “I don’t work for pesos, son.”
Stone was followed by something considerably less down-to-earth, but even more gritty: a heavy blues power trio led by California-born longtime Shooter Jennings sideman Leroy Powell, whose band (though not billed as such that night) is apparently called the Messengers, and who (coincidentally?) shares his name with a Fifties big label baseball player from Flint, Michigan. (Kid Rock talked about Flint in his master-of-ceremonies intro, but didn’t seem to mention baseball – weird.) Anyway, Powell looked like a total cosmic snakeskin cowboy up to the feather in his black hat, his bassist was dressed similarly in white for contrast, his drummer had real long hair, and they played occasionally prog-leaning 16th-note boogie metal that flashed back to Cactus, Mountain, and Seventies Ted Nugent and ZZ Top. So when they sang about shaking hands with the devil and being born in a desert tornado and killing a six-pack just to watch it die and driving 90 miles an hour down dead-end streets, their instruments supported those claims. Their jamming got somewhat lost in the ozone by the end, but until then, they were fairly monstrous. Awesome song titles too: “Moonshine Deathride,” “Blood In The Sky,” “Gravedigger Blues,” the latter a sort of boogie dirge that the three dudes stretched across cactused vistas for what must’ve been 10 minutes or more, over a strong repetitive pulse.
Last came the Taddy Porter Band, from Stillwater, Oklahoma – “They got long hair, and they play good rock’n’roll,” praised Kid Rock. He was absolutely right about the hair – the two young guitarists (one of them singer Porter himself) and the even more babyfaced curly-auburn-locked bassist had tons of it, like say Metallica in 1983. Tight clothes and shirts unbuttoned to display budding chest plumage, too; women a decade or two older in front of the stage were entranced, which might explain how the band placed a song on TV’s Cougar Town last year. And their rock’n’roll was good enough – workmanlike if rather stodgy and not quite memorably songful Free-like blues-metal, not really blessed with the physical or intellectual attributes to pull off the more pastoral Zeppelin passages, but they got by, and they’ve got time to develop. They closed with a cover of the Beatles’ “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” wherein the red-haired kid fingered his bass like a guitar and Porter stretched out the title for maximum sex appeal, so he knows where his bread is buttered. What the men don’t know, the middle-aged ladies understand.