This weekend at the Brown Hotel, it’s all about the comebacks. Thursday marks the return of the convention for radio programmers who work with noncommercial stations and the triple-A (“Adult Album Alternative”) music format. This three-day event — which includes a couple of opportunities for the music-loving public — had gone to Philadelphia last year (as had the event’s co-founder, former WFPK Program Director Dan Reed).
But in the details are more comebacks. One of the public concerts will have World Party — and how long has it been since we heard from Karl Wallinger and Co.? The convention attendees get the privilege of seeing a tune-up show from the legendary T-Bone Burnett, who for many years put the music of others before his own, resulting ventures such as the Grammy-winning smash-hit “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” soundtrack.
Saturday night has a public concert that features Alejandro Escovedo. His musical career has gone from California punk to the birthing of alt-country to much-lauded eclectic singer-songwriter records, tours and even theater collaborations. But his personal journey took harrowing turns in recent years, with the loss of his father and a long and difficult struggle to survive hepatitis C. Escovedo has translated these experiences into new music that may be his best ever.
According to convention production manager and local promoter Billy Hardison, the Brown will be hosting 29 musical acts for this sixth “NON-COMMvention” (nicknamed for the non-commercial bent of the participating radio stations). Among those who’ll be within public view this weekend are Los Lonely Boys, who made a splash at a previous convention and are returning for the Friday night concert at the Lyons Theatre, where the trio will preview songs of their summertime release Sacred. Mature-beyond-her-teens singer-songwriter Sonya Kitchell, just done with an appearance on Dave Letterman’s show, is giving a short set for convention attendees — but that’ll just amount to a warm-up for her own full gig (actually, a dinner concert) Saturday evening at the Rudyard Kipling.
The general public can also catch some music — gratis — with Susan Cagle on Friday early evening. As has become a tradition with this convention, one of the artists in attendance takes to the street for some public busking. This year it’s Cagle, who’ll take her Caribbean-influenced pop/rock to the Broadway sidewalk outside the Lyons Theatre at 6 p.m. One difference from previous buskers: This manner of performance is very much in line with what Cagle’s been doing in New York for several years. (Hint: her upcoming Columbia Records debut is entitled The Subway Sessions.)
The opportunities to see convention artists in public settings is generally better than in previous years — and part of the reason has to do with the financial state of radio and the record industry. Hardison says that almost all of the musicians are “routing in” — that is, they’re making the convention and/or Louisville part of a scheduled stop on a tour that they had already begun. “It used to be that the labels are flying them in,” he says. He’s already looking forward to next year’s convention, but wonders at the future of the event past 2007.
Dan Reed also sees some murk in his crystal ball: “Radio’s at an interesting crossroads: We’re under attack by a lot of things. Personal devices … entertainment alternatives, including what comes through the Internet,” he explains. But there are good things about the state of NON-COMM. We have a local bent, we have strong ties. If there’s one thing we’re learning, it’s that stations that are doing continually well are doing so based on their ties to the community. Indicators such as fundraisers show that stations like are doing fine. But I’m a realist … it’s incumbent on radio to continue to find and hold audience.”
These particular radio stations have adopted and nurtured triple-A music, which Reed believes is flexible and inclusive enough to grow with a loyal, maturing audience. He calls the format “‘ungeneric’ … We introduced a lot of our audience to world music. We play Van Hunt (Editor’s note: he’s another artist doing double duty this weekend — see sidebar), Prince, Gnarls Barkley. We’re much more diverse than the rock stations — just look at our charts. Sure, we’re not going to go into hardcore hip-hop, but we do pretty well.”
The convention has certainly done well. After its first year, attendance took off like a shot. A growth curve like that is no longer part of the picture, but Hardison knows why record labels continue to be excited about getting the artists who play this type of music to Louisville: “The business of NON-COMM is that this is a one-stop shop for record labels to get the station program directors for 40 WFPKs to see their artist all at once.” And the convention has brought some significant talent to light, he adds. “Los Lonely Boys are coming back because this is the event that broke them. Look at who we’ve had … Norah Jones. Jamie Cullum loves what we did for him — you can see his TV performance on ‘Austin City Limits,’ and he’s wearing his NON-COMM T-shirt.”
But if this weekend is for bringing out new talent, what about all the back-in-the-game stories in this year’s lineup? Reed is not surprised that it’s become a strong part of the mix. “It’s our audience — they don’t forget what people have done. And when they’ve got new music, we welcome them. Not just T-Bone Burnett, or Karl Wallinger bringing World Party. Look at Garland Jeffreys . He goes back to the ’70s, and now here he is with a great new record. This is a helluva comeback for him.”
The champion of the Comeback Kids, though, is surely Alejandro Escovedo. For a year after his diagnosis in 2003, he couldn’t pick up a guitar. Musician friends and fans (including Los Lonely Boys, along with Steve Earle and many others) released an album of cover versions of Escovedo songs (Por Vida) to help with medical expenses. Between the success of that effort and the sheer dynamic power of the new John Cale-produced The Boxing Mirror, the Austin singer-songwriter might now be more popular than ever. But when asked if this would be viewed with some ironic attitude by the young punk-rocker he once was, Escovedo finds instead some history — and a sense of satisfaction — that hopefully can be shared and accepted with those who are bringing this music to our city this weekend … and lots of cities, when we bother to turn on the radio.
“When I first picked up a guitar, it was for a movie — a movie about the worst band in the world. But we were into punk, and we got into playing punk. We knew what that was about — our favorite bands, like the Faces, the Velvets — they didn’t sell. The first Velvet Underground album — what did it sell, a couple thousand? But those were that said things that I understood. And that’s how I learned to say things in music,” Escovedo continues. “You know, I’ve heard it at times … ‘you should be more successful,’ they’ll say. But if you’re counting money, you’re keeping the wrong perspective. My concerns are pretty modest. If I can still be doing this — making music — it’s a pretty good blessing.”