New Nashville Riverboat Roadshow: A Curated Lineup of Music Ringers Presented by Bose REVIEW+PHOTO: New Nashville Riverboat Roadshow on Lady Bird Lake on SXSW 3/15/23
AUSTIN, TX- Boats have always been a mixed blessing to me. The freedom of an unmoored watercraft is exhilarating but the claustrophobia of not being able to get off the damn boat can sometimes drive me nuts. A riverboat music cruise? This could be agony or ecstasy. Thankfully, the day trended hard toward the latter.
Apparently, the first rule of a riverboat party isn’t all that different from the first rule of any party: food and booze. Before we shoved off and drifted gently away from shore, most on board had a burrito in their hand and a drink in their mouth or vice versa. Provisions were plentiful and the people smiling as the boat eased out from under a grove of trees on the banks of Austin’s Lady Bird Lake. By the time our waterborne dirigible was midstream, we made our way upstairs and onto the upper deck where sunshine and a gentle breeze greeted us for band number one: King Margo.
Guitar, Bass, Harmonica, Voice. That’s all you need when you have skills. King Margo’s Lucciana Costa and Rachel Coats, a duo predestined by the anagram that is their respective surnames, have skill. In abundance. Seasoned musicians who have found in each other and their sometime collaborators a collective voice that oozes the power of a struggle we can all recognize, whether it be as mundane as dishes undone or as monumental as love lost. As somehow exemplifies an ethos omnipresent at SXSW, King Margo christened our ship with a performance that was so rife with talent that we all felt lucky to be there and yet so unpretentious that we all felt like we belonged.
Technology didn’t hurt. The showcase was sponsored in part by Bose, which normally I could give less than half a shit about because no one pays me to plug their brand (not yet), but as we sailed slowly under the First Street Bridge, King Margo sounded immaculate. Singer, sound system, and a moving landscape. The three elements combined to effect a haunting, almost eerie ambience as King Margo peeled out a melancholy and meditative country dirge. So, high fives to Bose. The outdoor sound on a moving boat was exceptional. You’d have thought the river itself was singing. Slow smooth crisp cool water drifting at the speed of music. Nashville tinged nostalgia resonating at the frequency of the river. Slow and strong moving water; velocity that ebbs and flows but obedient to gravity; that doesn’t stop until it runs dry. Much like the lyrics of a sad song.
As beautiful as it was, thank god the ladies could read the room because as soon as we crossed under the bridge and the sun was back on us, they took a swig of beer, cracked a smile that spelled party, and belted out a story about crime sprees, acrylics, chardonnay, and highway thievery. Floodlights and Sequins is the song. And what is it about a woman getting her bangs cut that creates such a tectonic shift in energy? A couple snips across the brow line and suddenly mugging your date and getting chased across state lines by the cops is a chain of events that is not beyond the realm of reason. I wonder if getting your bangs cut has ever been raised as a defense in a criminal case. “I know I look good, your honor, but it just makes me kinda… wild.”
Special shout out to Gabe Lee, who joined the ladies for a few songs. The man exudes a quiet and confident gravitas and clearly has the respect and love of his peers. And I can’t say I’ve crossed paths with too many Taiwanese-American country singers. Reinforces my heartfelt belief that all genres, at their core, offer an opportunity to connect. But it feels a bit reductive to get identitarian when Gabe is the authentic article. So while I think more diverse representation in the orbit of country and americana is an interesting topic more than worthy of discussion, that’s a rabbit hole — or river — we can dive down another time.
Next batter up was Zach Meadows and, like the tide, we moved. Literally. While one artist performed upstairs and outside, another set up downstairs and inside. In the handful of minutes between the sets, the passengers poured up and down the not-quite rickety but not-quite sturdy steel spiral staircase connecting one floor to the other. And yet no bottlenecks at the chokepoints. It was such a chill vibe. Perhaps we were a reflection of the artist themselves. Case and point, Zach Meadows. Zach was the first of the downstairs performers and he was the epitome of chill. Well worn boots, old jean jacket, trucker cap, and very non-threatening tattooed flowers growing up the side of his neck. A voice that was soft and sweet as salted butter and as tender and delicate as the foliage inked around his nape. Music that begged one to question who might’ve inspired him to tattoo a permanent garden of leaves and petals on his skin; leaves and petals that won’t wilt the way a love sometimes will.
As it happened, Zach pointed out that his fiancee was with us on the boat. So forgive my projections if they were off target. Music takes us where it will. And sometimes where we will it.
But maybe I wasn’t too far off the mark. His next song, Texas Two Step, pointed out that where love is lost, hope may be born. Sometimes even with the same person. But I project once more…
Back upstairs, Shelly Fairchild took the mic and hot damn the lady hustles. She came hard with a sound forged at the intersection of country and high velocity retro rock and blues. A sound that explains why musicians so often don’t really care about how we might want to categorize or describe them because they care more about getting off. And she got off. Irresistible. She could be in Nashville, Detroit, LA, doesn’t matter. She’ll make a body move and quite possibly put a few people in that baby making mood that great music is so wont to do.
It was about mid-set when a shirtless bro in a cowboy hat, feet planted on a stand up paddle board, oared past his way past. He glanced up at us on the boat. A few of us glanced down at him on the water. Two ships passing in the afternoon, on a lake, that’s really a reservoir, on a river, in the middle of Texas.
The rapid fire but steady pace and seamless transition from one great artist upstairs to another great artist downstairs, it forced reflection on the amount of pure talent huddled up in Nashville and Austin and dozens of other pockets across and around the nation. So many scenes. Communities of artists. So much human talent. So much shared inquiry into beauty, sadness, joy, and pain. And yet we still find so many ways to not listen to each other. Weird.
Downstairs, Gabe Lee took the mic solo for a full flex. I felt hints of young John Prine in his voice which I found tremendously comforting. I also loved the phenomenon of artists watching artists. When you can tell that they really respect and appreciate each other. Zach Meadows watching Gabe Lee. Gabe Lee stepping in with King Margo. Everyone digging each other. It makes their own music more legitimate when they recognize and support their buds. Because music is kinda like pie — the taste is sweet and there’s plenty for everyone. And even when there isn’t enough, at least for the artist, when opportunities are finite, no one gets ahead by putting anyone down. You could argue rap battles are the exception but even then, there’s honor among emcees. On this boat, it was sink or swim together. Really a special dynamic to witness.
Back upstairs, The Minks spun the ship around with a punk assault on the placid waters of Lady Bird Lake. I am a dead sucker for a punk band with woman lead singer so I was all about it. Especially when it’s just melodious enough to keep it all from falling into the depths of unhinged rage. I mean, I love for a hard punk band to punch me in the mouth but sometimes I just wanna have … fun. The Minks do that. And maybe punk isn’t the right word. Grunge? Psychedelic? I don’t know. It all works. And punk is a state of mind as much as it is a sound. So many artists forget to have fun or, even worse, they actively shun it. But damn. If you wanna go to a live show and thrash around and sweat and smile … this, right here.
Much to my earhole pleasure, singer Nikki Barber unleashed near the end of the set. And her voice is good. As are the best. Which leads me to believe good things are in store for The Minks. Because you can’t hide behind the grunge. Not forever. See Gwen. Punk root bona fides are unimpeachable but she separated from the pack and eventually evolved. Because she could. Had the quality of voice. Had the skills to stretch beyond the pigeonhole of a single musical style. But right now? The Minks? Timeless. Could imagine an east village throng of Gen Xers circa late 80s digging this as much as any current day Green Point z/illennials. (NB: for those too young to recall, the east village used to be a legit bohemia before NYC devolved into a star trekkian borg of gentrified doucheholery, which I still love… but also hate… but mostly still love. Okay, I’ll save the get off my aging hipster lawn stories for another post). Parting thoughts on The Minks: good now, with great potential for growth. I’m bullish. Keep yer eye on em.
And thus ended my first New Nashville Riverboat Roadshow. Big ups to Jamie Kent who hosted this floating festival of Nashville’s newest. SXSW can be a curse of riches with gems getting lost in the overabundance of options. Having someone curate a lineup of straight up ringers was a midday blessing. I’ll wrap with some Jamie Kent trivia: Did you know Jamie helped pass the indoor smoking ban for Nashville music venues? He did. And you know who supported him every step of the way? Musicians! As a part time asthmatic, much respect.