South by Southwest | Sat. 03.21.15

Pee 75I had high hopes that Friday’s rains would break for the last full slate of SXSW shows Saturday, but it didn’t happen.

 

 

 

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TURBO FRUITS

General sogginess kept things at a crawling pace, including the cancellation of the free Auditorium Shores showcases along the river. Though the drizzle cleared by nightfall, it still seemed to keep things out of rhythm a bit.

I began the day with Mali’s Songhoy Blues (right). The band is on its first American visit, coming on the close of a tour opening for Songhoy7Alabama Shakes. Fellow Malians Tinariwen had been one of my highlights of both SXSW and Fun Fun Fun Fest last year. This was different. They aren’t Tuareg, for one. They’re also more self-consciously modern with the inclusion of a full drum kit. Both bands harken back to those earlier Malians who reminded the West of the continuities between American blues and West African string music. Songhoy Blues made this explicit in dedicating a particularly rocking song to Ali Farka Toure, “our father.” Despite the exhaustion that can set in by SXSW Saturday, the band had a group of jaded attendees dancing, clapping, and otherwise carrying on as if they hadn’t been out all day and night for a week straight. All that rollicking guitar work and infectious rhythm, though, came alongside the reminder of the temporary tattoos sported by two of the band members: They Will Have to Kill Us First. This is the title of the SXSW documentary featuring the band that had premiered earlier in the week. Like Tinariwen, Songhoy Blues’ story intertwines with the political turmoil of its homeland. When jihadists took over northern Mali, one of their very first edicts outlawed music, and the band’s members were among those displaced. Their appearance in Austin, in a sense, extends this exile. “World” music is not just some exotic soundtrack, the film reminds us, but a set of cultural expressions deeply connected to the complicated histories of very specific places and peoples.

Seminal British post-punk band Gang of Four had been my white whale this festival. I missed several performances over the week due to scheduling or weather or random happenstance but finally tracked them down Saturday. They followed the dynamic but unfortunately named Diarrhea Planet at Empire’s outdoor (but covered) stage. When it came time for Gang of Four’s 4:45 set, though, there was no one on stage. I feared that the jinx would hold, but after a half-hour delay, the group arrived. They’re a fairly young assemblage to carry the name of the late-’70s Leeds band, with guitarist Andy Gill being the only original member. Vocalist John Sterry fits the new incarnation nicely, looking and sounding the part of a British post-punk star (with a hint now and again of a Twilight vampire). Gill mugged through the performance with a face that radiated cold-blooded murder. The set started off slowly, with a few sound snafus still in store, but it built in intensity and tempo toward the end as they mined the band’s classic material; “Damaged Goods” alone erased any lingering boredom from the band’s technical troubles. This Gang of Four proved their enduring relevance as one of the first guitar bands to absorb disco’s danceable groove rather than rebelling against it, a gesture deep in the DNA of hundreds of other artists at SXSW.

The bio of Oakland bluesman Fantastic Negrito frames his work as black roots music indebted to Lead Belly and Skip James. This is true to an extent, but Fantastic Negrito’s band on stage at the Lucky Lounge leapt forward at least a few decades on from that acoustic folk to a more electric, gutbucket rhythm and blues. Material from his 2014 self-titled EP figured heavily. The Mississippi Delta native who haunted the set most was not Robert Johnson or Charley Patton, but Ike Turner. A great start to the night’s official showcases.

By this time, darkness had descended on SXSW’s final evening. While Fantastic Negrito played at a club a bit off the beaten path on West Fifth Street, the next few acts took me back to Sixth, the belly of the SXSW beast. At the Parish, Brooklyn performance artists Prince Rama prowled the room and hypnotized with florescent green jumpsuits and glittered faces. Their web site sets the scene nicely: “Sisters Taraka and Nimai Larson have lived in ashrams, worked for utopian architects, written manifestos, delivered lectures from pools of fake blood, and conducted group exorcisms disguised as VHS workouts.” True? Perhaps. The band’s high concept has taken them to the Whitney and PS1 in New York, but in this Austin rock club they came off as a damn good intergalactic dance band—a bit disco, a bit Kraftwerk, a touch of “Let’s Get Physical,” limned with close readings of Zizek and Baudrillard. By the time they sang-chanted “Those Who Live for Love Will Live Forever,” I was ready to hand over my credit cards to the cult.

But then Nashville’s Turbo Fruits grounded us again with their brand of earthy and raw rock and roll. I first saw the Turbo Fruits at a leather bar during SXSW a few years back in a show that ended with the guitarist hanging upside down from the rafters. Their set Saturday began a bit more low-key and melodic than that, showing off what I take to be a more recent turn to lyrical songcraft. Before the show, the photographer next to me asked if I knew anything about the next band and whether they’d make for dynamic pictures, to which I gave an ecstatic affirmation. The early songs made me wonder whether that was going to be the case, but I needn’t worry. As with the Gang of Four earlier in the day, the set built, arriving at that more free-wheeling garage sound of such Turbo Fruit gems as “Mama’s Mad Cos I Fried My Brain.” The closer had the band members striding into the crowd, guitars aloft. Bonus: first SXSW sightings of (1) a guitar played with the teeth and (2) a bass played behind the head.

SXSW’s increasing embrace of hip-hop was very much on display this year, with many of Saturday’s best shows from icons and up-and-comers in that genre, from Ghostface Killah to horror-thrash rappers ho99o9. The segment of hip-hop that perhaps has had the longest and most fruitful relation with SXSW, though, is the Houston scene, and that continued in 2015. One of SXSW’s semi-traditions is Bun B’s Birthday Party, as the UGK legend’s special day just happens to be during the March festival. There must have been 50 or 60 rappers and crew, predominantly Houstonians, lining the Stubb’s stage from 10 p.m. to 1 a.m., taking turns with a track or two performed by each to a deeply Texas-inflected crowd. The segment I caught featured Houston artist Propane and Korean-American rapper Jackie Chain. A great party, all in all. I expect that the names got bigger as the night rolled on, but there was something else on the schedule that caught my eye.

Experimental Inuit throat singer Tanya Tagaq took the Swan Dive stage with a cheerful “Fuckin’ A, you guys.” She chatted a little in an unassuming Canadian accent and requested that no one take video footage. “I know it’s weird in this digital age, but what we’re doing is for those of us here in this room. Let’s get weird.” And it did, in the most beautiful way. This was less artist showcase than total immersive experience. There were no “songs,” as such, but a continuous, seemingly improvised soundscape of Tagaq accompanied by droning fiddle, drums, and a few electronic effects. And throat singing is a part of what went on—circular breathing, guttural vocalizations, rhythms that evoked heartbeat or blood flow—but this was never, ever just an archival rendition of a traditional Inuit style. Tagaq worked through the highs and lows of every imaginable emotional state, appearing now monstrous, then childlike, now terrified, then ecstatic. Possessed, animalistic, sexual. Tagaq held us rapt in that moment. This was quite a feat, coming as it did after midnight at the end of a week where we’d each stood in front of dozens and dozens of stages like this. And still, after all those bands, here was something new and different. It underscores just why live music performance is so vital, why SXSW, despite the occasional hassles of its evolution, remains invigorating. Tagaq through YouTube on an iPad simply would not work the same. And then, all of a sudden, the crescendo came, the instruments coalesced into a rock band for a final flourish, and Tagaq lett out a final, cathartic wolf howl. A resounding exclamation point for SXSW 2015.

 

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Sunday will be a time for wrapping up and recovery. Those artists still in town perform across a number of more low-key gatherings. Panache’s artists appear at Beerland. Jack White’s Third Man Records at the hot dog restaurant Frank. I’ll likely have another shot at Mother Falcon, as they’re scheduled for the annual Mad Tiger party hosted by Japanese comic-punks Peelander-Z (above). The skies have cleared by now, the visitors are streaming to the airport, and those of us who live here can turn back to Austin the city, not Austin the stage. | Jason Mellard


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