South by Southwest | Fri. 03.20.15

sxsw redu_75SXSW’s presence in East Austin has grown tremendously over the last five years, following the waves of gentrification as any number of old tejano bars and venues gave way to rock bars and venues.

 

 

 

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Rae Sremmurd [photo Jason Mellard] 

SXSWet was the quip that echoed through social media Friday as rains that had been predicted all week finally arrived. Spirits dampened, venues muddied, but it never stormed so hard as to stop things cold. People didn’t range as far and wide in seeking out showcases, perhaps, and anything indoors proved instantly attractive.

Following that logic, I started the day at the Convention Center, where public radio stations held a live broadcast with a stacked bill: Twin Shadow, Gang of Four, Ryan Bingham, Best Coast, Madisen Ward, and Courtney Barnett. I didn’t make it early enough for post-punk pioneers Gang of Four, but have it on the good authority of Jesse Sublett (of Austin punk veterans the Skunks) that it was the best thing he’d seen. I did make it by Best Coast, who played material from their forthcoming album California Nights—the song “Heaven” was the standout.

A lower level of the convention center houses Flatstock, a poster art and printing exhibition. Austin’s a good spot for it. In the ’60s and ’70s, venues such as the Vulcan Gas Company and the Armadillo World Headquarters made the city a center of rock poster aesthetics, as documented in Alan Schaefer’s new book Homegrown from the University of Texas Press. And, of course, no room in town would be complete without its own stage, so there’s a Flatstock stage running concurrently with the radio and international stages in the Convention Center. Friday’s music featured, among others, country act Sam Outlaw of Los Angeles. Outlaw voiced what is likely a common sentiment in town by this moment in the festival, apologizing for wearing sunglasses indoors. He wasn’t trying to look cool, he said, it’s just that “these lights are fantastically bright if you’re nursing a hangover.” It’s fitting that the man’s drinking hard. It fits the classic country sound that shined through in a set tinged with humor and wordplay and included a Patty Loveless cover, songs influenced by Alan Jackson and Don Williams, and the clever and sad “She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid of).”

After a brief jaunt across downtown to catch the last of the Contemporary Austin’s high-concept DJ series with Peanut Butter Wolf, I returned to the public radio broadcast for Australian rocker Courtney Barnett. This was her band’s eighth and final SXSW set. Many bands overwork themselves that way, but it didn’t show a bit with the good-humored Barnett. And she had just come from a gig playing outdoors in the rain. In searching for that “She’s like ‘X’ meets ‘Y’” formula so common to SXSW snippets, I ended up—and you’ll have to forgive me here—thinking that live she sounded just a little bit—just a little, little bit—like Sheryl Crow and Courtney Love in a blender. That’s a horrible thing to say, I know. But it sort of fits. There’s definitely an amped-up, guitar-driven, grunge-inflected energy here, and I embrace any and all smart guitar bands at a festival where it increasingly seems the rule to have at least one MacBook on stage. So, there’s her indisputable rocker status on the one hand, but a rootsiness and approachability, on the other. Here’s hoping she doesn’t mind the comparison, which, to borrow her own words, is “Pedestrian at Best.”sxsw twerps_250L

Covering real estate I hadn’t quite hit yet this SXSW, I decamped to my home turf of East Austin for the evening. SXSW’s presence there has grown tremendously over the last five years, following the waves of gentrification as any number of old tejano bars and venues gave way to rock bars and venues. The Hotel Vegas is one of these, an old fleabag hotel turned into a group of clubs with a kind of faded picturesque appeal. The complex’s Volstead Lounge has low ceilings, chandelier-like light fixtures, and taxidermied heads of the ugly odds and ends of the animal kingdom: a tapir here, a warthog there. I walked into a full-on party driven by LA-based Aussie rock duo Gooch Palms. Singer-guitarist Leroy Macqueen was down to his skivvies, and he and drummer Kat Friend were delivering a music they describe as a mix of “GG Allin, Iggy Pop, Roy Orbison, and Olivia Newton-John.” I buy it. The Death Valley Girls followed, a garage band in the guise of a South California girl gang straight out of some lost Russ Meyer or Roger Corman film. They were all reverb and jangle, cutesy squeal and flirty menace, and kept the Gooch Palms rumble going strong. Of the acts that I was seeing for the first time tonight, they were my hands-down favorites.

The Meatbodies appeared at Hotel Vegas’s outside stage and took the garage rock atmosphere even further out, with an intensity that brought on a rash of stage dives. Panache Booking had programmed all the bands this evening. They were definitely going for a gritty feel with these garage and psych-inflected acts, culminating later in the evening with the Bay Area’s Thee Oh Sees. What no one had really planned on were the puddles: annoying at first, growing over the evening, and isolating the crowd on small islands requiring some improvisatory bridgework. The Twerps’ melodic guitar pop made for a more downtempo set that fit the drizzle. It was pleasant, but I was also just itching for them to use the keyboard that sat teasing us in the middle of the stage. They finally did—just for “Back to You,” their second to last song—and it was the highlight as far as I was concerned. It was this single, and its new Wave bounciness, that had caught my ear in SXSW previews, so it’s unfortunate that they didn’t utilize the keyboards more. The Twerps went down well, but it wasn’t quite the way to propel the evening to the next level.

Which is exactly what I was expecting out of Vockah Redu…but he was running late. In a moment when subgenres go immediately global, the New Orleans bounce and sissy bounce scenes may well be some of the last intensely local subcultures to have the time to ferment in a single city, and to reflect that place, its temperaments, challenges, and history. For that, I have a special fondness for bounce. Oh, and bounce knows how to party. Still, I was confused as Redu’s 10:20 set approached and the only two people warming up on stage were a very young drummer and a guitarist with face paint. You could watch glances being exchanged between audience members looking for bounce outlandishness. The duo began noodling through some loosely structured busker-style rock back-and-forth, with the house lights still up and it being quite unclear whether we were in sound check or performance. When Vockah Redu arrived, he announced that he had been held up by the police. The car containing much of his equipment and costumes wasn’t able to make it to the club, and so “I’m doing this show from my phone, because this music is in my bones.” The guitarist and drummer were his, too, as it turned out, and the live band and phone tracks together got the Volstead turned up quick. The crowd filled with ecstatic dancers, jumping to nearly hit that low ceiling. Redu turned the cut-short set into an affirmation of rising above the challenges put in your path, like cops keeping your costumes from a gig. “If you’ve ever been bullied, if you’ve ever been policed…” he chanted before going out on a final fit of twerking.sxsw vockah-redu_250R

Keeping under the broader hip-hop umbrella as the rains picked up, I struck out for the Fool’s Gold showcase to see New Jersey’s Fetty Wap. After R&B singer Leaf turned in a tight 20-minute set, Fetty Wap was nowhere to be seen. And no wonder: He had been scheduled for a downtown show that ended at 11:25 and this East Austin appearance beginning at 11:30. This was an unlikely interval to make under the best circumstances, but SXSW congestion rendered it impossible. And so, predictably, Fetty Wap’s entourage rolled in late, busted out his hit “Trap Queen” to ignite the crowd, and rolled back out again. I kind of didn’t mind that it went down that way, actually: straight to it, all business.

Tardiness turned out to be the evening’s theme. Returning to the Panache showcase at Hotel Vegas for Thee Oh Sees, I found the set of Dutch producer Jacco Gardner had run over time. I’m glad to have caught him, as the band here sounds exactly like 1966-era psych, in the vein of groups like the Chesterfield Kings, or a mellower Black Lips. That keyboard fix I needed from the Twerps earlier was more than satiated by the organ here. The rain was coming down a bit harder by now, though, so sticking around in the mud to see when Thee Oh Sees might take the stage didn’t seem like the best of plans.

And so that’s how I ended up at Hype Machine’s Hype Hotel presented by Taco Bell Feed the Beat. This was a warehouse by the railroad tracks that had been turned into a spacious, comfortable, two-free-drink-tickets venue that nevertheless still made me feel a little gross. I really don’t want Taco Bell feeding me the beat, nor much of anything else, for that matter. London electronic group Years and Years was on stage when I arrived, pleasant and poppy enough. What brought me here, though, was curiosity to see Tupelo rap duo Rae Sremmurd. They’ve been riding high on the strength of their top-20 hit “No Type,” and brought the young party crowd out in force. Brothers Swae Lee and Slim Jimmy bounced around the stage like they owned it and, in a bit of showmanship, had crew holding up huge cardboard cut-outs of their heads bouncing behind them. As more and more rappers took the stage over the evening, their giant cut-out heads appeared alongside, all working up to that “No Type” moment that the crowd was hungry for.  

By the time I got back to check on Thee Oh Sees, the venue had reached its muddy capacity, badge or no. I joined a line of other out-of-luck fans, underage skate-punk style, standing on cinder blocks peering over the fence. In a moment that, to my mind, surpassed Miley Cyrus’s surprise Friday appearance with Mike WiLL Made-It at the Fader Fort, Bushwick Bill joined Thee Oh Sees on their closer, a garage rock rendition of the Geto Boys’ classic “Damn It Feels Good to be a Gangsta.” Of just such things are SXSW legends made. | Jason Mellard


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