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‘Road to Austin’: Music, history and a tribute to Stephen Bruton

Peter Blackstock
pblackstock@statesman.com

“What I’m REALLY doing here is launching the Austin Wellness Program,” said “Road to Austin” director Gary Fortin after Thursday’s screening of his music documentary at the Convention Center’s Vimeo Theater. That confession explained why the hour-and-a-half movie never quite could decide what it wanted to be: It’s part concert film, part Austin music history primer, part Stephen Bruton tribute and, yes, part sales pitch for the AWP (artistwp.org), which aims to help artists get early detection of serious diseases.

If that mongrelization diluted the film’s focus, each of its parts were still of interest and worthwhile. Bruton, who died of throat cancer in 2009, was one of Austin’s most talented and beloved musicians, and the footage of the massive May 2007 “Road to Austin” concert on Auditorium Shores that fills the film’s last hour is a fitting tribute to the guitarist and songwriter, who was the concert’s musical director. Searing scenes such as a guitar duel between Eric Johnson and David Grissom, singer Malford Milligan belting out one of Bruton’s songs, and the entire cast joining Kris Kristofferson for the “Me and Bobby McGee” finale still lingered after the credits, with promise of the concert’s full three hours coming available on DVD this spring.

The introductory history lesson about Austin music, narrated by Turk Pipkin, stretched back to Kenneth Threadgill’s early days in his original North Lamar gas station and restaurant and touched upon the city’s long traditions in country, blues, Latin, psychedelia and other forms. A whole movie could easily be made about that; this isn’t it, but it’s a decent place to start if someone wanted to launch a larger historical project.

Afterward, the audience (as well as the general public) was invited upstairs to the Convention Center’s Austin Ballroom for a musical celebration starring many of the artists featured in the movie. Such a music/film double-event made “Road to Austin” a natural for SXSW; indeed, flm festival director Janet Pierson introduced it by saying that it was “the easiest film to book into SXSW this year.”

Pierson’s introductory remarks also included a request for an extended moment of silence in memory of the victims of Wednesday night’s tragedy on Red River Street; the capacity crowd in the theater respectfully obliged.