AUSTIN, Texas — Mississippi’s Como Mamas took the stage of downtown Austin’s Moody Theater on Thursday night and transformed the new state-of-the-art venue into an old country church. The a cappella gospel group was opening a showcase for the hip New York-based retro R&B label Daptone Records at the South by Southwest music conference, which kicked off on Tuesday.
After more than a quarter century, the annual industry conference has increasingly come to worship at the altar of big names, celebrity brands and corporate sponsorship. Yet for those seeking simple unadorned musical pleasures, there was also much to enjoy among the more than 2,000 acts performing as part of the four-day event.
With so much of South by Southwest based on the kind of hype and artifice endemic to show business, the Como Mamas’ appearance served as an antidote. Here were three middle-age African American women, armed with only their voices and a joyous faith, singing simple hymns, but with as much power as any rock band blasting through a wall of Marshall stacks.
The Como Mamas are a family affair: led by Ester Mae Smith, and her cousins, sisters Angela Taylor and Della Daniels, they were first discovered by Daptone during the sessions that yielded the 2008 compilation Como Now: The Voices of Panola Co., Mississippi. The Mamas have recently stepped out with the release of their debut album, Get an Understanding.
As their festival set proved, Smith is quite possibly one of the most powerful singers on the planet, her voice a commanding howl that resonated up through the rafters of the Moody. Along with Taylor and Daniels — who wove harmonies, delivered sharp call and response, and stepped up for individual lead turns — they summoned up deep traditional numbers like “God is Able” and “Peace of Mind” that had festival goers clapping, rollicking, and bathed in the spirit.
The scope of local and regional music was fully on display during the first few days of the festival, which saw Memphis represented by an eclectic mix of performers, from avant-rock band Cloudland Canyon to female crunk rapper Gangsta Boo.
But the proceedings were highlighted by the presence, in absentia, of the late Jim Dickinson. On Wednesday, his sons Luther and Cody Dickinson got things off to a rousing start with a set by with their blues-rock combo the North Mississippi All-Stars. On Friday, the whole family — including their mother Mary Lindsey — appeared as part of a daytime symposium titled “I’m Just Dead, I’m Not Gone: Life and Times of Jim Dickinson” examining the career of the Memphis musician and producer.
But it was Luther Dickinson’s solo appearance at the St. David’s Bethell Hall on Thursday night that seemed to synthesize both music and history in a manner most befitting his father’s legacy. Playing a set of instrumental acoustic guitar numbers, Dickinson worked through some of the material of his recent Grammy nominated album Hambone’s Meditations. The songs served as a launchpad for a larger lesson, as Dickinson told personal stores and drew musicological links, while filling St. David’s with the haunting country blues of Furry Lewis, Fred McDowell and Mississippi John Hurt.
Elsewhere, a group of Southern studio musicians were given the rare opportunity to bask in the spotlight. The session players that made northern Alabama a hotbed of R&B recording in the ‘60s and ‘70s were celebrated in director Greg Camalier’s new feature length documentary “Muscle Shoals.” As part of the film’s screening at SXSW, a crew of veteran Shoals players, including guitarist Jimmy Johnson and bassist David Hood, took to the outdoor Stage at Sixth for a packed and charged performance.
Working through many of the hits they’d played on — including classics by Percy Sledge, Wilson Pickett and the Staple Singers — the set was studded with guest appearances, including a memorable spot from Native Alabamian and longtime Memphian Spooner Oldham, who played piano and sang a couple of his famous songs that he co-wrote, “Sweet Inspiration” and “I’m Your Puppet.”
Another significant studio outfit will receive a similar treatment over the weekend as Memphis’ Hi Rhythm — the house band put together by Willie Mitchell and responsible for backing Al Green, Ann Peebles and others — performs a rare live set, following the premiere of a new documentary on Hi guitarist Mabon “Teenie” Hodges.
The South by Southwest festival runs through Sunday.