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SXSW: True Believers and John Fogerty
BY ANDERS SMITH LINDALL
For the Sun-Times
Shiner bock, barbecue and Alejandro Escovedo. No visit to South by Southwest can be complete without these Austin essentials. My required dose of Escovedo came Saturday night at the Moody Theater, where his reunited roots-rock band True Believers played on a bill with John Fogerty.
Affectionately called the Troobs and known for the songwriting and fearsome three-guitar attack of Alejandro, his brother Javier and Jon Dee Graham, the band made two records in the mid-Eighties, flirted with major labels and broke up. Little known outside of Austin, they remained beloved there.
Arrayed with their axes from left to right across the stage were Javier, the technicolor gaucho in a red embroidered Western shirt and black hat with a long red scarf on it, lithe Alejandro like a silent assassin dressed head to toe in black, and the big graybeard Jon Dee, stomping on the terra and barking lyrics in a growl.
They didn’t linger, tearing off one song and then the next, passing lead vocals between them. “Before the checks are cashed,” Alejandro sang, “the money is all spent.” It sounded like an epitaph for a band that commercially speaking barely made it out of the gate.
But before they closed with “Hard Road” and left the stage amid shrieking arcs of feedback, Alejandro made clear the reunion wasn’t about looking back. “It’s not like it used to be,” he told the crowd, smiling. “It’s better.”
Following True Believers to the stage, the legendary Creedence Clearwater Revival front man John Fogerty stacked a 90-minute set with swamp-rock landmarks like “Bad Moon Rising,” “Proud Mary” and “Fortunate Son.” The Rock Hall of Famer proved impressively energetic for a man of 67, playing fiery lead guitar and belting out everything in his sharp, soulful tenor that remains unmistakable and remarkably unchanged.
But here’s my quibble. Although a guy with a catalog as big and rich as this may feel obligated just to play the hits, doesn’t a legend’s status confer some latitude to stretch out? And isn’t the occasion of SXSW, the preeminent global gathering of obsessively passionate music lovers, a perfect chance to do something uncommon and truly memorable? Fogerty’s set was excellent on the surface, but apart from a handful of more recent songs sprinkled in the set, there was little to distinguish it from any nostalgia act playing any night anywhere in the world.
Well, except for one song. Giving a glimpse of the approach behind his forthcoming album Wrote A Song for Everyone, for which Fogerty invited younger artists to help rerecord his classics, he brought L.A. folk-rock band Dawes on stage to back him on “Someday Never Comes.” Why not plan a show with lots of such guests? Other album participants were already in Austin, including Jim James of My Morning Jacket and Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters, who brought Fogerty to Grohl’s own Sound City showcase a few days before.
A note about the venue: Recently constructed and first used for SXSW last year, the Moody Theater sounds good and looks great. It has a roomy main floor and two balconies that wrap around three sides. But for the shows I saw there this week, it was just plain too big.
I eyeballed its capacity to be somewhere in the range of 3,000 to 4,000 fans, making it one of the largest SXSW venues. It’s a beautiful and comfortable facility with better ambience and far superior sound quality compared to some other venues in this tier–especially the hangar-like Austin Music Hall, which I managed to avoid entirely–but there are few acts big enough to fill the joint when facing so much competition.
Even the crowd for a big star like Natalie Maines seemed paltry in the space, while Iron and Wine was simply swallowed up. The same thing happened to True Believers, and I couldn’t help thinking that they knew it. It might help explain why, during what should have been a loose and celebratory set, the Troobs seemed terse and played for less than half an hour.
Theater staff got wise by the time Fogerty took the stage. They drew enormous black curtains across much of the second balcony, hiding the embarrassing expanse of entirely empty sections and consolidating the crowd. But schedule-makers need to rethink their use of the space next year to prevent doing a disservice to artists badly outmatched by the room.
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago music critic.