What a Way to Make a Living: Taking on SXSW with Hurray for the Riff Raff

Published  April 2014

You’re in the same boat
With a lot of your friends
Waiting for the day your ship’ll come in
—“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton

Cynical types, jaded insiders, and snarky journalists have come to loathe South By Southwest over the years. It’s become fashionable to dismiss this annual gathering of music industry amateurs and pros alike as a bloated and over-hyped jerkfest, where hordes of half-baked bands and their hangers- on from across the world descend on Austin every March to hustle their tunes and dream of hitting the rockstar lottery. What once may have been a cozy convention for bands to congregate and network—goes this sorrowful tale of decline from the indie rock elite—is now a major industry event, with everyone from Lady Gaga to Seth Meyers (or at least his face, pasted everywhere this year) dropping in to inflate SXSW to mass culture proportions. Some writers even deride the event’s shorthand, “South By,” as if by invoking a convenient nickname for such a long-winded name was in itself another stab at this onetime precious conclave.

Personally, I’ve never had anything but a great time at South By. In the previous years I’ve gone, I’ve been both observer and performer, always for unofficial events that crop up outside of Austin’s downtown. It’s an area I’ve dubbed the Green Zone in previous stories, as the official showcases always seemed to be inside a fortified citadel, with us bottom-feeders camped outside the gates. Still, I’ve always found something to be excited about in Austin every Spring. The nucleus of SXSW might be a corporate monster, but the orbiting circus outside the Green Zone and the fact that the entire city seems to embrace this week of music worship makes it, for me anyway, well worth the hassles.

I was resigned to sit out this year’s SXSW until fortune smiled down on me in the form of an early Sunday morning text from Andy Bizer, the manager and longtime champion of New Orleans’ own Hurray for the Riff Raff: “Can you come to SXSW? We leave on Tuesday and return Saturday.” Turns out the band needed a combination driver, roadie, and merch girl on late notice. Rubbing the sleep from my eyes, I woke up enough to type an immediate “Yes,” which in reality was more of a fuck yes.

It’s been a magical year for Hurray and the woman at its center, Alynda Lee Segarra. Hurray’s latest album, Small Town Heroes (and the first on ATO Records), has been receiving phenomenal reviews from Rolling Stone and The New York Times to NPR, while tours opening for Americana power outfits like Alabama Shakes and Shovels and Rope have exploded their fan base. Segarra has even been compared to icons like Woodie Guthrie and Bob Dylan—quite a lot of praise and pressure to heap on such tiny shoulders.

So unlike previous years, when Hurray would hustle for gigs outside of the Green Zone, as we headed west on I-10 towards this year’s SXSW, Bizer announced that this would be a victory lap for the band. Sure, there would be a lot of shows to play in a few short days, many people in the biz to meet and business to conduct; but overall this would be a year to enjoy Austin and finally, reap some of the rewards after several albums and countless tours.

antigravity-magazine-new-orleans_Page_17_Image_0002This year’s SXSW was also an opportunity to showcase the latest lineup of the band. Joining longtime Hurray fiddle player (and psychedelic advisor) Yosi Perlstein was bassist Callie Millington, keyboardist Casey McAllister, and drummer David Jamison. They had just come off a Southern tour with Shovels and Rope and were primed for the gun-and-go pace of SXSW.

The ride up was pretty uneventful save for a stop at the Chicken On The Bayou & Boudin Shop, in Henderson, for a taste of home before we headed into taco country. I also white-knuckled it the whole way there as I realized that the safety and punctuality of New Orleans’ most important band lay in my hands. Earlier, I asked if the van had a name and it was Goldie, Goldie Van (in honor of the great actress Goldie Hawn). Thanking the traffic gods and decent weather, we arrived in Austin without incident. We proceeded directly to the food truck lot on East 6th Street for some tacos, where we kicked off what would become a week-long binge of the official food of Austin—another tradition of SXSW I always look forward to.

The next day, our excitement started before we had even hit the first show. On the gridlocked I-35 into downtown Austin, we had nearly watched a chihuahua squashed to death by an 18 wheeler’s tire as it tried to cross the highway, darting frantically in between the cars. Amazingly, Bizer himself jumped out of the van and shooed it the rest of the way across the road. The hapless pup bound into the adjacent neighborhood without a trace of remorse and we all cheered and breathed a sigh of relief. It made me think of the lyrics to “Crash on the Highway,” (found on Small Town Heroes) which begs of the listener, “Man, it could be you out there / so you better say your prayers / and take it easy on the narrow way.”

As part of a playlist to rev up for the show, Alynda played the iconic Dolly Parton anthem “9 to 5” and we marveled at the ding of the typewriter punctuating the beat—reason #4,596 that tour is awesome. You can hear a song a million times but when you’re immersed in a musical expedition, your ears are bound to pick up something new.

The first show of Hurray’s South By tour was a show put on by Seattle radio station KEXP and Distiller Promotion, at Mellow Johnny’s, a high-end bicycle shop (owned by Lance Armstrong) in a converted factory space. The gleaming, high-end bicycles and geared-up enthusiasts in tight-fitting über cycling suits roamed through a more relaxed-dressed crowd who had come for the music. It felt like an alien environment for a band rooted in the dusky corners of Bywater bars and Frankenstein bikes.

Earlier in the morning, Alynda had expressed some frustration with her voice, as if the month of previous touring and the dry Austin air had conspired to take it away. It made for a tense morning, but by the opening verse of “SF Bay Blues,” a song she’s been opening Hurray sets with as a solo performance, it was clear that any pre-show jitters were long gone and her signature, earth-toned voice was resilient and ready. Despite the cavernous atmosphere, Hurray filled up the room to an appreciative, early afternoon crowd. They warmed up the cold, imposing space with a well-honed setlist that borrowed mostly from Small Town Heroes and its predecessor, Lookout Mama, including “The Body Electric,” a song that is garnering much attention for its challenge to the Americana tradition of romanticizing violence against women.

antigravity-magazine-new-orleans_Page_18_Image_0001Manning the merch booth afterwards, I was approached by a friendly couple. The husband told me he played Hurray a lot on his radio show, “The Boudin Barndance,” from where else but that Cajun hotbed of Kingston, Rhode Island.

It was also great to see this relatively new lineup of supporting musicians mesh really well. While newest member David held down a steady beat on drums, Callie was the band’s piston, pulling and prodding the bass lines out of her upright, while Casey (who’s played with everyone from Happy Talk Band to King James and the Special Men) alternated between keys and a dobro to infuse Hurray’s sound with that smoky, slightly sinister New Orleans swagger. Meanwhile, Yosi and his fiddle provided the sauce over Alynda’s guitar playing. Team Hurray was locked in on every song.

The later show of the day took us to the ATO party at Weather Up, a high end cocktail lounge, where we were greeted by Alynda’s face on the cover of the March/April issue of American Songwriter, which was placed all around the venue. A few sets before Hurray’s, I caught Les Claypool’s Duo De Twang, a raucous, bouncy two piece with longtime collaborator and guitarist Bryan Kehoe. Claypool opened his set by asking the crowd, “So y’all are all industry folk?” Their cover of the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” was so strange and cool it took a minute to place.

When it was Hurray’s turn, Alynda mused to the crowd, “This is like a wedding or a birthday party. Doesn’t feel like your regular gathering.” During “Crash on the Highway,” despite its tale of highway tragedy and existential dilemma (“All dressed up with nowhere to go / like the last stand at the Alamo”), a couple of ladies danced together to its swaying waltz. Following them was J. Roddy Walston & The Business, and I had to give it to the ATO organizers for mixing it up. J. Roddy’s America- fuck-yeah cock rock blasted out in stark contrast to Hurray’s more introspective, progressive folk.

More tacos for dinner and then it was time to turn in because the next day was going to be the crown jewel of Hurray’s Austin trip: a set at Willie Nelson’s Heartbreaker Banquet. Taking place just outside of Austin, the Heartbreaker is part working ranch, part abandoned movie set from the film Red Headed Stranger, which was based on Nelson’s theme album of the same name. It was Hurray’s second time playing the banquet, and with fond memories of the past year, Bizer made sure to clear the day of any other obligations so that the band could enjoy themselves in Texas hill country.

Everyone was pretty jazzed as we drove out of the shit and into the countryside. Hurray played the small church on the grounds, which oddly capped its occupancy at 49 souls. Naturally, the pews filled early and the line extended past the door, with extra folks crowding around the church’s open windows to catch Hurray’s acoustic set.

Afterwards, the crew dispersed to catch the rest of the evening ’s lineup, which included tour buds Shovels and Rope. It’s no secret that this fiery two-piece is an AG favorite, and with great grins and zero shame—I had made a firm decision to be that guy and wear my S&R shirt to the banquet—I rocked out to their set, even though it was riddled with all kinds of gear problems. Said Cary Ann Hearst, “We thrive on technical difficulties. We made a career of it.”

Closing out the evening was the host himself, Willie Nelson. Accompanied by his son, Luke (who shreds on guitar, by the way), Nelson blasted through classics like “Whiskey River,” “Mama Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys,” and a Hank Williams trio. He closed out with “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” and tossed a heap of bandanas into an eager crowd.

antigravity-magazine-new-orleans_Page_17_Image_0001Friday was our last day at South By, and after another round of tacos, we headed to Hotel San Jose for their SXSJ showcase. While Hurray played to a packed crowd, a fan in the front sketched out a drawing of Alynda, later presenting it to her after the set. While it wasn’t the most flattering rendition, it just goes to show the surreal power she and the band can sometimes summon.

That night was the official showcase. Presented by the Americana Music Association (and sponsored by Pandora), the show was held at the Gatsby, and it was potentially the most stifling atmosphere of the whole trip. Companies like Revlon and St. Ives handed out free gak to the patrons, while smoke machines chugged away during Sons of Fathers, another dude band—what I’ve come to find out is a staple of the Americana genre and one reason why Alynda and crew are making such waves in it. But even among all of the commercialism and pageantry, there were divine rays of fortune, as Sons of Fathers ended their set with “Don’t Let Me Down.” Alynda, a self-described John Lennon freak, cracked a smile. Taking the stage in pink shirts—Alynda herself in a white suit with a big glittery red heart on her back (not quite “on the sleeve” but you get the idea)—the band launched into its final set, declining the smoke machines. After another flawless, inspired performance, it was clear that this band creates its own fire.

On the ride home the next day, we came up on a white van with Louisiana plates, and as we passed it, who was it but none other than King Louie himself, high-tailing it out of Austin with the Missing Monuments. We exchanged some friendly hand gestures for a moment before Louie pulled ahead and swerved in front of us, and for a moment I had visions of a fiery two-van crash, where two of Louisiana’s most prolific, powerful and polar opposite singer-songwriters died on a Texas highway, like some bizarro version of the Buddy Holly-Ritchie-Valens-Big-Bopper plane crash. Knowing Louie, I was prepared for such a stunt and was already gripping the steering wheel tightly. As they drove off to find the world’s largest gummy bear, we headed straight home. At one point, Neil Young ’s “Down By The River” came up on shuffle and I realized, after hearing “The Body Electric” so many times that week, I was never going to hear this Neil Young classic the same way ever again. As I pulled the van back into the Bywater, I breathed a huge sigh of relief, as everyone was alive, safe, and happy, my own part of this great mission complete.

So another SXSW under the belt and as always, I came back inspired and happy to be a part of such a huge community with one thing in common: we all love music enough to devote an unhealthy chunk of our lives to it. And it turns out that this latest trip to Austin was fruitful for me in more ways than one. You see, I get to continue my adventures with Hurray for the Riff Raff and shepherd them through this great big country of ours, white-knuckling it with Goldie from shore to shore and doing my part to help spread a new, radical gospel.

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