Good golly, Little Richard

March 19, 2004

BY JIM DeROGATIS Pop Music Critic


AUSTIN, Texas -- At a time when almost everything about the music industry is changing or up for grabs, it's reassuring to know that the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference remains focused on the mission it's pursued for 18 years.

With more than 1,000 performances on over 50 stages in the Texas capital that started on Wednesday and continue through Sunday, the conference is not only the music business' largest annual gathering -- its versions of the Cannes or Sundance film festivals -- but a celebration of great music and the independent spirit.

One or two dominant themes emerge at every SXSW, and this year is no exception. With the traditional music industry undergoing ever more troubling corporate consolidations, and emerging technologies dramatically changing the power structure, the festival is placing a renewed emphasis on indie labels, which presumably work in partnership with artists (who have more power to disseminate their work than ever before, thanks to the Internet) rather than exploiting them.


As always, Chicago area artists are a major presence at South by Southwest -- in fact, the Windy City seems to have the largest contingent of artists represented here outside those from the state of Texas.

Among the most anticipated local acts are pop-punks the Alkaline Trio; John Stirrat of Wilco's side project, the Autumn Defense; glam-popsters Caviar; up-and-coming rapper Diverse, and red-hot garage rockers the Redwalls and the Last Vegas.

Other local artists who are performing include Atombombpocketknife, Baseball Furies, Andrew Bird, Break the Silence, Cheer-Accident, Dollar Store, the Goldstars, Grand Ulena, Kill Hannah, Kill Memory Crash, Jon Langford's Ship & Pilot, the Lawrence Arms, Lying in States, the M's, Mahjongg, Manishevitz, Matador Down, the Mekons, the Narrator, Nora O'Connor and the Opus.

Also: Palaxy Tracks, Pelican, Bobby Pharelle, Jonny Polonsky, the Ponys, the Race, the Reputation, Silkworm, Sally Timms, the Nicholas Tremulis Orchestra, Troubled Hubble, Umphrey's McGee, the Webb Brothers, Yakuza and Rachel Yamagata.

Jim DeRogatis

Of course, this isn't always the case in a famously unscrupulous industry, and this was one of two key points hammered home on Thursday morning when the conference formally kicked off with the keynote speaker, the legendary Little Richard.

Resplendent in a bright red jacket, a wild mane of curly black hair and dark black shades, the 70-year-old co-founder of rock 'n' roll urged a capacity crowd of aspiring musicians and music industry insiders to take control of their business.

"Sign your checks!" Richard repeated a dozen times, a passionate refrain as unforgettable as those in his classic '50s hits, "Tutti Frutti" and "Good Golly Miss Molly."

Born in Macon, Ga., as Richard Wayne Penniman, the ageless rocker also urged young musicians to devote themselves to their craft and avoid taking any shortcuts.

"Master what you're doing -- be the best, nothing less!" Richard said before breaking into a musical tirade that was part preacher and part rapper.

"You're doing this 'cause you believe in it. It's you and it's real; you didn't steal, you didn't kill, and now you're not even ill. 'Cause you got the real feel, and that's the true deal!"

Richard was theoretically being interviewed by Dave Marsh, but the singer hardly let the veteran rock critic get a word in edgewise. Marsh, like those in the worshipful audience, simply sat back and basked in the energetic glow -- until the end of the session, when the writer asked a question for the ages: What exactly did the rock great mean when he sang, "Good Golly Miss Molly/You sure like to ball"?

"It didn't mean that at all!" Richard exclaimed, explaining that Molly simply "liked to party -- to have a ball."

These comments tied in to what is emerging as the other dominant theme of SXSW 2004, as highlighted by the conference director, Roland Swenson, during his opening remarks: the responsibility of the artist to fight for freedom of expression, especially in an election year, and especially during the right-wing backlash and growing cultural conservatism prompted by Janet Jackson's "nipplegate."

No doubt plenty of artists will do exactly that in the days and nights to come -- one prominent punk-rock showcase has been branded as "Rock Against Bush" -- while others, as is always the case, will simply hope to leave Austin with a ticket to fame and fortune.

For a full report on Jim DeRogatis' highlights from South by Southwest 2004, see Monday's Showcase.