Austin or Bust
Zach Parrish spreads the Zion blues at South by Southwest 2001.

AUSTIN—Diane the cabdriver is near the end of her rope, and it’s only Wednesday—four long and noisy nights away from the finish line of South by Southwest 2001.

“Why do all these bands have to think up such damned stupid names? I mean, Genitallica? Hillbilly Werewolf? Evil Beaver?” she asks, shaking her gray-tinged dark hair in these-kids-today disgust. “Whatever happened to just calling yourself ‘Joe’s Band’ or something?”

“If it’s any consolation,” I offer, hoping to keep Diane from mowing down jaywalking SXSW people as we’re barreling through the streets of Austin, “I’m here from Salt Lake City with the Zach Parrish Blues Band—his name is Zach Parrish, he’s got a blues band, and they’re playing at Antone’s tonight.”

“Now that’s more like it,” she says happily, skidding around the corner of Congress and 5th. “And if they’re at Antone’s, they’ve gotta be good. Not just anyone gets to play that club.”

True—throughout SXSW last week, the legendary Texas blues joint hosted musical stars-of-varying-fame like the Holmes Brothers, Bobby Rush, Ike Turner, Delbert McClinton, Eric Johnson, local hero Bob Schneider (known outside of Texas only as Sandra Bullock’s boyfriend, but he swept this year’s Austin Music Awards) and more. As the first man up on the opening night of SXSW, Parrish warmed up Antone’s boards for all of them.

“The stage at Antone’s kind of smells like urine—very authentic,” Parrish laughs the day after. “But everybody was really nice, and they seemed to like us. Plus, I was told the amp I played through once belonged to Albert Collins, which is pretty cool.”

The mustachioed singer-guitarist and his Blues Band (keyboardist Jerry Lee Stong, bassist Larry Alexander and drummer Goran Miletic) actually played two sets on Wednesday, March 14. The first, at 9 p.m., was enthusiastically received by a sparse early-bird crowd; the second, filling in for a last-minute cancellation, closed the bar at well past midnight. Needless to say, the late set was more relaxed, as the band had ingested some celebratory Lone Star liquor by then.

“Now that I think about it, I really don’t remember anything about the second set,” Parrish smiles. Looking for a better spin, Alexander clarifies, “It was a lot looser, but it still sounded good.”

In fact, the band’s stingingly eclectic Delta-by-Chicago-by-New Orleans take on the blues, led by Parrish’s hot licks and growling vocals, sounded so good that there was a noticeable (and, as history has proven, predictable) hush in Antone’s when the lanky singer announced the Zach Parrish Blues Band hails from Salt Lake City. After a rollercoaster year of upheaval and downsizing in the music industry, it’s good to know some things never change at SXSW.

The largest music-biz conference in the USA showed no signs of shrinkage this year but, perhaps as a reflection of several similar gatherings going out of business or calling it quits (like Portland’s North by Northwest, as of January), the South by Southwest Music & Media Conference didn’t seem to be any bigger, either. When the major must-see live buzz is about off-the-radar (but still very much kickin’) rock acts like the Black Crowes and ex-Dinosaur Jr. frontman J. Mascis, you know the star-power has dimmed. Point of comparison: At the concurrent SXSW Film Festival, they were just happy Quentin Tarantino showed up.

Despite 15 years of waxy cynicism build-up from the local press (especially the daily Austin American-Statesman, which nonetheless matches sponsoring SXSW alt-weekly Austin Chronicle in 24-hour coverage), SXSW is still all good with hundreds of indie and semi-indie bands looking to make industry contacts to get to the next level—even though that “next level” is no longer necessarily a soul-mortgaging major-label deal. For Parrish, another SXSW perk is playing for and hanging out with people who are there for a reason beyond the party.

“The audience here is different; they’re actually watching and listening to the bands. They know about music and they acknowledge what’s being played. It’s a totally different vibe than what we’re used to,” he says. “None of the bars here have clocks—have you noticed that? And most of them are all-ages, too. I was here five years ago, playing on the street solo. This is much nicer.”

“There’s one thing wrong here, though—none of these bands want to play Skynyrd!” jokes Miletic, who made the lateral career move from pounding skins for a rockabilly band in Bosnia to a blues combo in Utah. “But, I’ll never clean my cymbals again—the Holmes Brothers’ drummer used them for their set after ours. I’m going to hang them on the wall.”

DJ culture made more noise than ever at SXSW 2001, even though the majority of the mostly-interchangeable turntablists delivered more interesting names than mixes (the best: Austin’s own DJ Muppetfucker). As a self-taught, working guitarist and songwriter for over 20 years, Parrish is understandably dubious about industry-types touting DJs as The Future of Music.

“I don’t get the whole DJ thing,” he says. “I saw in City Weekly a few weeks ago that a certain club was now having ‘live music,’ so I went down and talked to the manager about booking the band there. He said, ‘Well, our live music is by DJs—we don’t have bands.’ What? I’d say you have to have instruments and players to qualify as ‘live music,’ wouldn’t you?”

“Yeah, but you can make a DJ to play some Skynyrd,” continues Miletic on his Lynyrd Skynyrd jag. “That would make it worth it.” [Mouths scratch mix of “Sweet Home Alabama.]

Not that the current blues market doesn’t have its share of problems as well, Parrish explains. “I’ve learned a lot this week. I went to a panel discussion called ‘The Art and Commerce of the Blues,’ and it was really informative,” he says. “Unfortunately, one of the only blues labels at SXSW this year is Alligator Records, and the guy from that company who was on the panel didn’t seem to have a handle on working with younger artists or reaching a wider audience.

“Someone from Fat Possum Records talked about how R.L. Burnside is doing really well now, selling all these units. But he’s 76 and can’t tour—he just had a stroke, too. He said, ‘In a couple of years, we’re not going to have any artists alive.’ I asked him if he ever considered signing any newer—or at least younger—players, and he said, ‘No, that’s not what we do.’”

Undeterred, Parrish is planning on traveling a lot farther than Texas for his blues. “I’m going to Europe in a couple of months. A blues label in England, JSP Records, has expressed some interest in us—too bad they weren’t here in Austin. We’ll have our next CD done by then, and I’m going to try and get us a deal for it over there.”

“The band isn’t going,” Miletic grins, readying the punchline. “We’re going to stay here and play some Skynyrd.”

Bill Frost
Salt Lake City Weekly
March 2001

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