By ED CONDRAN
Special To The Courant
April 6, 2014
AUSTIN, TEXAS — South By Southwest was once the music equivalent of Schwab's Drugstore. It was the place where fledgling recording artists were discovered. But much has changed over recent years in a fractured, mercurial industry.
The music business is a shadow of what it once was. However, independent bands still flock to Austin in mid-March to showcase ad nauseum dreaming of jumping to another echelon.
Ignore Lady Gaga's empty SXSW keynote speech and her defense of the corporate invasion, which has hurt the enormous festival. "Without sponsorship, we won't have any more artists in Austin (for SXSW)," Gaga uttered.
Tell that to Hartford's Bronze Radio Return and about 2,000 indie bands, which crossed the country and more than a few acts from remote cities from around the world to play SXSW. Those bands livin in vans or sleep on friend's floors in Austin. Bronze Radio Return returned for the third year in a row to play 10 shows in three days.
"It was a lot of fun," singer-songwriter Chris Henderson said. "It's a lot of work in a short period of time but young, unsigned bands like us go down and give it our all hoping to make an impression."
About 200 curiosity seekers experienced the energetic rootsy rock rendered by Bronze Radio Return at the Palm Door on Sixth on the first night of the music festival for a spirited set, which commenced at 1 a.m. BRR offered 45 minutes of its sonic potpourri, which ranges from rock to country to blues. However, things can go wrong at South By and they did the following night. Bronze Radio Return, which also includes guitarist Patrick Fetkowitz, keyboardist Matthew Warner, banjo player Craig Struble, vocalist Bob Tanen and drummer Rob Griffith, were slated to hit the stage at 1 a.m. However, due to delays, BRR didn't perform until 1:40 a.m., so they only had 20 minutes until the plug was pulled in front of about 25 music fans.
"Our view is that it doesn't matter how many people are there," Henderson said. "You just have to go out and give it your all. You never know who is going to be out there."
That attitude helped BRR score a future festival gig. "One of the guys in that little audience was booking a show in Charleston," Henderson said. "So we'll be performing in South Carolina in April because we went all out at the show, but we always go all out."
Henderson loves playing SXSW even though it's challenging. Schedules can change and recording artists seldom get to sound check. "It's what we call the throw and go," Henderson said. "You just go out there and it's usually not the best situation since you're not all set to go but you make the most of it. You learn that SXSW is not like a regular show and you just go for it. Every year we make some nice connections."
South By Southwest is like the garden of eden for bands, music fans and industry types. Free food, typically tex-mex and barbecue and drinks, margaritas, beer and wine and an endless array of music, is ubiquitous at the myriad of parties on and off the city's fabled Sixth street. "There's so much to do and see," Henderson said. "There are so many great bands playing. I really wanted to see St. Vincent, who is just so great but we had a conflict. That's the problem if you're a performer down there, You just don't have the chance to see who you'd like. That's usually how it is but you do you're best to have a good time." (Unfortunately this year's festival included a tragedy: Four people were killed and 23 injured when a suspected drunk driver crashed into a crowd outside a venue during the festival.)
The Gig List Grows
Henderson and the band did find time to the chance to indulge in some culinary delights. "It wasn't Tex-Mex or barbecue that was my favorite but I had the best dinner in ten years at a place called Sway. It was a Thai fusion place and there was incredible flavor in every bite. That was a bonus."
So Bronze Radio Return has nailed that festival date for Charleston, April 15, and has some other possibilities. "It sometimes take time after you play South By to hear from people," Henderson said. "We just got back home. It's good to be back in a familiar place as opposed to a city in which you can't catch a cab at 5 a.m. I was looking for a cab for two hours. It's so good to be back home making my own eggs and coffee and being in this familiar space."
They recently added two additional festivals to their schedule this year: Lollapalooza in August in Chicago and Firefly in June in Dover, Del.
Bronze Radio Return is writing and hanging out in West Hartford until it returns to the road in late April. "We're working on some new songs and we're hanging at our favorite place called 'The Spigot Cafe,' which is close to where I live. It's got a great selection of beers. We love it there."
The band embarks on a mid-western tour in late April, which will stop in Minneapolis, St. Louis and Kansas City. "We're hard workers and we're going to do all that we can so that people will hear about us," Henderson said.
Hartford is where Bronze Radio Return has crafted three albums in five years. "We've been pretty prolific," Henderson said. "It's been a blast. We're inspired here."
Each of the band's three albums are filled with eclectic cuts, which are sometimes funky and typically full of deep grooves. "We've always liked to mix it up," Henderson said. "There shouldn't be any boundaries."
Chad Copelin (Andrew Belle, Ben Kilgore) has produced each of BRR's three albums."We love having him aboard," Henderson said. "He's like the seventh member of our band. He has great musical skills and an amazing perspective."
Henderson is looking forward to taking that next sonic step. "It'll be interesting to see where we go next," Henderson said. "But before we go in whatever route we go in, we had to take that trip to Austin for South By Southwest. You never know what will happen to you down there If we have the chance to play down there, we will. It's worth all the trouble."
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