[Our thanks to Brandon Tenold for the following.]
The Texas capitol of Austin is called "The live music capitol of the world", and as the opening montage of Nathan Christ's documentary "Echotone" reminds us, has been home to notable musicians like Janis Joplin, Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The city has undergone rapid economic and population growth in recent years, with several high-rise buildings and condo's being built in historic live music hotspots such as Austin's Red River and 6th Street districts, leading to tension between the city's live music venues and the resident's of these new buildings (at one point during a city council meeting, a speaker describes being "terrorized" by the music coming out of the venues). Throughout his documentary, Christ documents not only this tension,, but also what happens when art and business collide and the compromises that need to be made in order to ensure the survival of both.
Shot over a period of a couple years, "Echotone" follows a select group of up and coming Austin musicians, such as Joe Lewis (Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears), Cari Palazzolo (Belaire) and Bill Baird (Sound Team, Sunset), and throughout the film we hear their thoughts on success and keeping the essence of their city intact in the face of rapid gentrification. Lewis has gotten praise from magazines like Spin and NME, and has a successful album launch at Waterloo Records, one of Austin's biggest music stores, yet he still spends his days delivering fish for a seafood company, all the while wondering when the day will come where he can quit his day job and make his living solely from music. Baird meanwhile saw his band Sound Team picked up by, and subsequently dropped from, a major record label before breaking up and now has a more cautious and cynical approach to the music industry with his new band Sunset. Music is a big part of Austin's allure, and its annual South by Southwest festival alone brings in more than one hundred million dollars into the city's economy, yet the majority of Austin's musicians struggle. This begs the question, if music forms such a large part of Austin's growth and economic success, why is it so difficult for bands to benefit from their music? Many of the musicians interviewed in the film share their thoughts about artistic integrity and are worried about "selling out", yet also lament that they aren't able to make their livlihood solely through their music. Although Christ doesn't really present any concrete solutions to these problems, "Echotone" essentially suggests that Austin's musicians and it's new downtown resident's with both have to learn to co-exist and adapt to change in order to thrive.
On a technical level, "Echotone" is a great looking and sounding film, with Robert Garza's cinematography even making construction cranes somehow seem beautiful. It also features performance footage from a diverse set of Austin musicians, showing a good range of what the city has to offer, from the soul drenched rhythm & blues of Black Joe Lewis to the hard edged indie rock of Ume and the psychedelic garage rock of The Black Angels. However, most of these performances are cut tantilizingly short, with Christ almost never showing a complete song. Here's hoping when the film is released on dvd/blu ray it includes some uncut performance footage in the extras.
Given that "Echotone" deals with issues facing Austin and its musicians, the film will be of most interest to residents of the city and those familiar with its bands, but its subject matter could also easily apply to any musically and culturally rich city going through a period of change. This, combined with its great soundtrack and performance footage of some of Austin's musicians in action make it well worth checking out for music fans.
Review by Brandon Tenold
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