Greetings from South by Southwest: Extremes at the Four Seasons, Ruthie Foster to Hanson

By | March 22, 2011

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South by Southwest

Missive Five

Extremes at the Four Seasons

At South by Southwest, everyone needs to get in on the action – and for the Texas branch of the National Academy of Recording Artists & Sciences, the perfect time to throw their annual block party. For the people responsible for the annual Grammy Awards, these parties are a way to celebrate the best of their chapters’ music, and the Lone Star chapter is easily one of the organization’s most vast.

Ruthie Foster, a solidly built black woman with a hard lean to the blues, is an obvious choice. A voice that is dirt and sweat and reclamation, she plays that oversized guitar like she means it – and leans back to make the songs come to her.

Come they do. A mixture of Texas blues and gospel, she’s the kind of natural singer that doesn’t have to think about pulling the truth out of her gut, and just throws open her throat and offers up what she’s seen along the way. It isn’t showy, isn’t jaw-dropping, but it seeks the horizon line in ways that create bonding between singer and listener.

That’s the deal really. Of the blues, of the roadhouse, of the gospel according to open tunings. Show up, throw down, put forth what you’ve seen or feel – and wait for the heads to start nodding.

Foster knows this, for certain. Even with the hobnobbing hoard beyond the front row exchanging cards and theories abut the future of a business clearly gasping at its own exhaust fumes, she is undenianle. And the best part – like a mastercraftsman – Foster feels no need to flex.

Ironies are what they are: they make you smile for their obvious contrast. To move from Ruthie Foster, so secure in her place and talent, to former teen sensations Hanson is a study in whiplash on too many levels. But it demonstrates the realm of what is going on here.

Once upon a time, they were cheery moptops beating on drums, grinning at the camera and yelping their Jackson 5-esque “Mmm-Bop” with the effervescence of cheap champagne; now they are grown ups trying to use the forum to get the movers and shakers to recognize they had talent beneath the momentum of squealing girls and a schedule that moved faster than the speed of sound.

Not that those who’re paying attention seem to notice. The ones who’re hanging on every beat – and it’s the beat more than the melody – are about that moment when they were young and on-fire with hormones. Twenty-somethings shriek along with the songs of their childhood, bouncing in place and hoisting their drinks in the air.

It is awesome: that rush of being alive. The young women – and some men – thrill to it. They older ones who had children or grandchildren who they’d used their connections to get tickets, meet & greet passes for, they nod along, too – remembering when they were the man who could deliver.

Gamely, the three brothers play along, still smiling and grateful for the people who care. But it’s obvious they want more. They don’t want to ride the novelty single into middle age. They play with conviction, delivering a set that is almost flawless – grounded in soul music, a bit of post-punk pop.

They realize to eschew fun music is a death knell, but they know they want, no need more. They see what Stevie Wonder did, Michael Jackson… that sort of brilliant expansion of the sweet r&b that gave them hits in their youth.

The question remains: is there a place in the world for Hanson? Beyond the same kind of nostalgia surf that keeps acts from Poison to Fleetwood Mac to Great White on the road? Something more than selling packets of who we were to people who remember their most shining moments?

With radio being a hybrid for the Disney delivery system for the teen stars they make’s music, urban/beat-driven hits and vast Adult Contemporary ballads, is cheery, bright soul-tinged euphoria enough? Is Taylor Hanson’s decidedly post-Stevie wonder kind of vocalizing going to make sense in a world of Eminem, Rhianna, even Bieber.

Heck, even Kid Rock, a true Motor City outlaw of the white trash/braggadicous rap rock, has gone country!

For some, though, they’re born to play. The Hanson kids were coming to South by Southwest long before Steve Greenberg signed them to Mercury and helped springboard them to sensation. They were three cute kids who could play – and they were determined to get to their dream.

Now that they woke up from the rollercoaster, they still dream in 3 minute 30 seconds blocks – and they’re here to keep the faith. Obviously, Lear Jets and network tv is better, but they’re not just about the fame, they’re about the playing.

There are on the banks of Ladybird Lake, a five star hotel rising behind them, that’s what the brothers did. They played. To the ones listening, the ones bopping, the ones talking over steamer trays of very high quality quesadillas and taquitos, even the ones afraid that there’d be no place for them here next year.

What Hanson understands is that as long as you’re here to play, there’s always a place. Maybe not headlining the big room, but still connecting with people who care. As the world of excess adjusts to more realistic norms, the ones who understand that are going to be the ones who last. It’s a long way from the white hot center of “MmmmBop,” but the former teen beats figured it out.

Now to create a way to invest people in the new music that they make.