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Ben Fong-Torres
The Facts on Larry Ching
May 2003

'Better Luck' This Weekend
April 2003

Old Memories, a New Museum
March 2003

'Twixt Teen and Michael Jackson
February 2003

In a Confused State of Mind
January 2003

In the Trenches with Trent, Jon Lovitz, and Johnny Rivers
December 2002

The Pioneering Performers of The Forbidden City
November 2002

A Letter to Writers, and How the Wiest was Won
October 2002

A Singing Career? I Think Not.
September 2002

Sheryl Crow: All She Wants to Do is Have Some Lunch
August 2002

Bruce Springsteen: Still the Boss
July 2002

Commencement Speech at Thurgood Marshall College
July 2002

A Senior Moment and a Reunion with a Pop Star
June 2002

We Love New York, Part 2002
May 2002

A Flick, a Rock Fantasy, and An Alternative to the Laptop
Apr 2002

March Madness, the Musical, and a Joint Effort with Willie Nelson
Mar 2002

Bringing in 4700 with a Parade of Wild Horses
Feb 2002

Taking a Q from Quincy Jones - It's His Party
Feb 2002

Asian American Males on TV: Old News is Bad News
Dec, 2001

Life's Lessons from a DJ and a Songwriter
May 2001

Gawk and Roll at the Hall of Fame
Apr 2001

Shakin' It Up at Harvard
Mar 2001

Creole Ladies and Crazy Times Down in New Orleans
Feb 23, 2001

A Parade of Dragons, Lions, Serpents -- and Strippers?
Feb 5, 2001

March Madness, the Musical, and a Joint Effort with Willie Nelson
by Ben Fong-Torres

AsianConnections is proud to present the adventures of Ben Fong-Torres, our very own Renaissance man: author, broadcaster, and former senior editor and writer at Rolling Stone Magazine. This guy's our hero! Ben was a featured character in the movie "Almost Famous," the Oscar and Golden Globe-winning film by Cameron Crowe.

I just survived my second South by Southwest Music Conference (SXSW) in Austin, Texas, and that is neither an easy feat nor easy on the feet. I think the X in "SXSW" stands for excess. In four days and four long, long nights, you have to choose from among some 900 bands, from hometown country pickers to speed bands from Japan and Sweden, playing on about 50 stages, from bars to barn-sized music halls, from 8 p.m. to at least 2 a.m., or, as most of us do, dash from one place to another. And that's not counting the non-SXSW artists who play on streets, in alleys, backyards, and private parties, many of those beginning around lunchtime. As we used to say at Rolling Stone: Wheh!

Robbie Robertson and Ben

I was there to conduct an onstage interview with Robbie Robertson, the lead guitarist and songwriter of The Band, whose farewell extravaganza in 1976, The Last Waltz, became a landmark rock film, directed by Martin Scorsese. Now, it's being reissued as a spiffed up DVD from MGM and a vastly expanded soundtrack from Rhino. (It'll also have a theatrical run starting April 5th in San Francisco, where The Band debuted in 1969 and signed off that Thanksgiving Eve in '76.)

That session went fine, thank you, but the real reason for hitting Austin is the music, the parties, the schmoozing, the friends you get to see, and, of course, the barbeque.

It's a time and place for musical discoveries. Especially given the crises facing the music industry, with labels complaining about online downloading of music, and musicians suing labels over contracts, and fans tiring of prefab pop stars and soulless boy toy bands, it's exhilarating to witness some promising beginnings. Watch, especially, for Norah Jones, 21, from Dallas, quietly assured and possessed of a voice both evocative and unique. Shades of Sade, and informed by jazz the way Shelby Lynne is informed by country.

On the rockier side, Jesse Malin, out of New York City, has moved from the punk of D Generation to a muscular, melodic rock sound, which knocked out the packed house at the Continental Club. Two years ago, I saw the rockabilly legend Wanda Jackson there, and she was at SXSW again, this time to bask in the spotlight of a film, Welcome to the Club: The Women of Rockabilly, by Beth Harrington, and a book, Shake, Rattle, and Roll by Holly George-Warren, who put together a panel, "Rockabilly Fillies," including both Jackson and Harrington.

Ukelele-wielding Petty Booka

Other highlights: Seeing Petty Booka, a ukelele-wielding pair of young women from Japan, on the sidewalk outside Yard Dog, posing for photos and prepping for their part of Japan Nite....Getting a CD from the Japan Nite people of Love Psychedelico, who weren't at the festival, but whose cool Sixties music and pastiche of English, Japanese, and mysterious tongues are still ringing happily in my head....Soaking in some of Alejandro Escovedo's musical, By the Hand of the Father, which will connect with anyone from an immigrant family....Experiencing Courtney Love in the flesh, as she see-sawed between blasting the record industry for various wrongs and cracked up the packed ballroom with sensational gossip and histrionics....Gossiper Miss Truth offers a short report....After the Robbie Robertson session, I was greeted by a woman who remembered meeting me in 1975, when I was in town with Bonnie Raitt for a Rolling Stone cover story. Natalie Zoe was a fledgling singer then; now, she's one of Austin's most beloved jazz-pop vocalists. When she popped up at the Continental that night, totally by coincidence (I swear!), we became inseparable, as she whisked me by van to the Steamboat, a dazzling new location for Danny Crooks' legendary club, where local industrial rock faves Pushmonkey were threatening to bring down the walls. Much more genteel was Natalie herself, doing a Saturday night showcase at the Elephant Room, where for her finale she was joined by Malford Milligan, a sweet-singing personification of soul, on a gorgeous Zoe song, "Feels Like Home." You can sample it on her site, www.nataliezoe.com.

The legendary Willie Nelson and Ben

After another stop at the Steamboat, for excellent sets from Abra Moore and Sixpence None the Richer, Natalie invited me to drop by Threadgill's for a "gospel brunch." Other friends had already hipped me to the brunch. What we didn't know is that the three performers every Sunday are Milligan, Natalie, and long-time soul singer Donna Hightower, who did "When the Saints Go Marching In" as Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey, and Louis Armstrong. What a way to say goodbye, and God bless, to the live music capital of Texas, if not the world!

I had a chance to sit with Willie Nelson onstage at the Gavin Seminar, a music industry confab in San Francisco the other week. I'd last seen Willie 20 years before, for an article for Parade. He's as mellow as ever, and a better comedian than ever. He's on the best-seller lists with The Facts of Life and Other Dirty Jokes, a fascinating melange of on-the-road journal, love letters to friends past and present, memoirs, and, yes, risque jokes. And his latest album, The Great Divide, finds him paired with Rob Thomas, Sheryl Crow, Brian McKnight and, believe it or not, Kid Rock.

"I think a lot of people were surprised that Kid Rock and I did something together," he said. He recalled the producer of the CD suggesting the pairing. "I said itís a great idea, but can he sing?" Willie said.

Nelson, the composer of some of the most memorable songs in country and pop music, said he once wrote three songs in a week in Texas, while commuting from home to a nightclub gig. "I wrote 'Funny Home Times Slips Away,' 'Crazy,' and 'Night Life,'" he said. "It was a good week."

Itís been a good life for the 69 year-old Willie, who went on from San Francisco to sing in the closing ceremonies of the Olympics. He'd also represented, nicely, on Tribute to Heroes, the TV fundraiser for victims of Sept. 11. Willie led the all-star cast (which included Bruce Springsteen, U2, Mariah Carey, Neil Young, Celine Dion, Stevie Wonder, Wyclef Jean, Sting, Tom Cruise, Chris Rock, and Tom Hanks) on the finale, "America theBeautiful."

"That day," he said, "everybody was in a highly emotional state. I saw every artist go out and do what they did. By the time it was my turn to sing, it was hard to do."

As always, Willie came through. Like a hero.

For more insights by Ben, visit his official website at www.benfongtorres.com


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