AFF 2010 Review: Echotone

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In the late 1980s, I was heavily involved in the Houston music scene due to my stint at a college radio station and later at a pub that featured nightly live music. However, the music scene there became stagnant and our establishment dropped to two nights a week with a meager budget to pay the bands. Local band Fab Motion captured the plight of many musicians with a lyrical response to the standard "Hey hippie, get a job!" with "What? I have THREE jobs." All ears turned to Austin, where bands such as the True Believers, The Reivers, Ian Moore, Joe Ely and Stevie Ray Vaughn had audiophiles wondering if our capital city would be the next Athens, Georgia. When I moved to Austin in 1993, I enjoyed the freedom to see live music any night of the week in the "Live Music Capital of the World" and play from a diverse range of local artists while deejaying at UT Austin's 91.7 KVRX.

Now that Austin has high-rises rising up amongst our downtown skyline, how are our local musicians impacted? Director Nathan Christ examines this important topic in his documentary, Echotone, as he and cinematographer Robert Garza follow Austin's independent music culture over a two-year period, featuring musicians, venues, promoters and others within the city landscape. Echotone is a poignant reminder of the abundance of talent and passion in the Austin music scene, along with the challenges and frustrations faced by creative artists and local music venues.

Echotone features so many artists that some viewers may be overwhelmed, but the filmmakers' focus on a select few and diverse musicians paint a colorful masterpiece of a precious part of our Austin culture. Cari Palazzolo of Belaire is one of the artists that strikes a chord with her frankness and carefree approach. She is very vocal about not caring about making money, but does care about the extra personal effort of creating one of a kind liner notes for the CDs that are sold at their shows. Watching Palazzolo as she explains to the rest of the band how she wants particular notes to sound like stars falling is humbling, as we witness the flow of creativity.

Another featured artist, songwriter Bill Baird of Sound Team and Sunset is a bit more jaded -- having experienced the dark side of a major label deal, Baird is passionate about maintaining integrity with his current projects. His thoughts on what is success are worthy of reflection and discussion by anyone who considers themselves an artist and are worried about "selling out" -- something Palazzolo discusses with band manager Daniel Perlaky as well in regards to a Belaire song being used in a shower creme commercial. Perlaky is a champion of quality independent bands, including The White White Lights and Ghostland Observatory which are also seen in Echotone.

The most engaging and entertaining musician featured in Echotone hands down is Joe Lewis of Black Joe Lewis & the Honeybears. He has learned cardinal rule number one of becoming a musician -- don't quit your day job -- as he continues to work as a fishmonger for Quality Seafood, even as his band experiences success.  While driving on his daily delivery rounds, Lewis observes, "It seems like everyone makes money off music except the artist." Also endearing is Dana Falconberry, whose high-pitched voice enchants listeners, even though she doesn't make it into SXSW Music Festival that year. She works as a barista since she's unable to earn a stable income through music. Falconberry admits that there's no reason for her to quit music because after a few months she'll be restless and begin writing music again.

Echotone filmmakers intersperse conversations within the music scene with images of the urban invasion of high-rises going up downtown and input from one of the developers. It would be all too easy to have portrayed the ugliness of concrete and steel, but instead we are presented with a bird's eye view that portrays a graceful mechanical ballet. Additionally, members of the band Machine are seen collecting urban sounds including construction sites and a train passing through downtown. Here are musicians who have created a way to embrace the urbanization in their art.

Thie increase in condos being built along Red River and other areas downtown contribute to the struggle for venues as new residents complain about loud music. The uglier side of the cultural conflict is seen briefly in Echotone at Austin City Council meetings where residents complain about being "terrorized" by the noise, while others express their beliefs that supporting local musicians should be seen as synonymous with economic development and growth. One of the most vocal supporters seen in this film is Troy Dillinger, local musician and founder of Save Austin Music, a grassroots organization that is working to develop and support best trade practices and act with government to increase the financial and cultural impact of Austin's music.

Echotone is a brilliant kaleidoscope of color and sound. The cinematography, art design, and editing combine to create a visually stunning experience for viewers. In regards to the content of the film, don't expect a documentary of the politics or potential solutions to the issue. Audience members in the special screening I attended wanted to know, "What's next? What is the call to action?" Producer Nicholas Jayanty answered that building an infrastructure that supports artists is critical. With the announcement today of SXSW's 2010 impact of $113 million to Austin's economy, and Austin City Limits Music Festival's impact estimated at $83 million, it would seem prudent for Austin's decisionmakers to build a strong and stable foundation for our local music community.