Brent Grulke, SXSW Music Creative Director, Passes Away Suddenly!

(Brent, left, and Javier Escovedo, right, then of True Believers, for whom Grulke was tour manager in 1987)

If your band has ever played the South By Southwest Music Festival, then you know that, for a festival with literally thousands of bands playing all over town, it's an extremely tightly-run ship.  It's also one of the few festivals that's worth going out of your way to play as a band, which hundreds of both major label and indie artists do every year.  That's because SXSW, despite its mammoth size, is a festival that still manages to cater to the diehard music fan.  Managers may bring their bands to the festival to get signed and labels may do so to promote an upcoming release, but bands themselves come here for the fans and the prospect of connecting with hundreds, even thousands of new ones.

That SXSW remains a music fan's festival is a testament to the "love of the game" that creative director Brent Grulke maintained even as the breadth and scope of the festival grew over the years.  Some argue that the festival got too big and had too many bands, but Brent was a consummate music lover whose ideology was that you can never have too much of a good thing.

Brent attended the University of Texas in Austin and quickly became involved in the local music scene, eventually becoming sound man/tour manager for the likes of the True Believers (featuring Alejandro and Javier Escovedo), the Wild Seeds, the Reivers, and Winter Hours, among others.

Back in '89, my band toured briefly with Winter Hours, playing small bars across the east coast.  Brent and I met at Chicago's Lounge Ax after our sound man failed to show.  I asked Brent if he could run sound for us and he obliged with the resigned smile of a man who was already trying to fit 28 hours into a 24-hour day.  To our surprise, he didn't just give us the usual "opening act" treatment (i.e., muddy sound) so as to make the sound of the headliner that much noticeably superior.  Instead, we sound-checked for two songs and turned in a blistering set because, for once, we could actually hear ourselves through the monitors.

 After the show, Brent told me that we blew Winter Hours off the stage.  I took it with a grain of salt considering he'd consumed half of our complimentary backstage beer supply in lieu of cash payment for his services.  During our brief conversation, he struck me as someone who was in this line of the music business for all the right reasons.  Most sound guys you run into seem to be musicians or recording engineers who fall back on running live sound as a way to make a buck until something else pans out.  While he may have been no different in that respect, he wasn't a musician or would-be producer.  He was a tour manager/sound guy and his "love of the game" seemed to really shine through, so much so that I still remember our brief interaction some twenty years later.

Only in comparing notes with a journalist friend of mine who went to college with Brent was I able to piece together his past and make the connection that the same man who ran SXSW was the same guy who'd run sound for us.  He also reminded me that Brent had worked with True Believers and had actually been pictured in a Spin article on the band, sitting on a motel bed behind Javier Escovedo (see above).  That article was one I greatly remembered because its tales of debauchery and record label shenanigans had filled in a lot of blanks after their record had floored me upon first listen a few weeks earlier.

While it is nice to reconnect the dots and get a clearer view of Brent's early career, I just wish it hadn't taken his sudden passing for me to do so.  Something tells me that today, the flags in Texas are flying at half mast.  If they aren't, they damn well should be.

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