South by Southwest | Thurs. 03.19.15

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In the internet age, global music is always omnipresent and accessible, but it’s rarely live and in the flesh.

 

 

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Wednesday may have felt like the SXSW crowd had slackened from years past, but that proved illusory as Thursday dawned. Peak SXSW is rolling in, the rising tide that blows all eardrums. I could sense it when I walked out the door around lunchtime and there was a band playing in a neighbor’s backyard.

If the music by now is everywhere, the Convention Center is still its awkward home base, and I started off with an appearance there by North London rapper Little Simz. These Convention Center performances can be a bit awkward, a chance for conference-goers to sit in rows of chairs in the early afternoon to catch artists they’ve otherwise missed, resting their feet and brains a little, catching up on e-mail. There’s a sense of artists-on-exhibition here, demonstrating their wares like the newest innovations in cutlery. Little Simz rose above it, insisting the crowd stand, working them through some call-and-response, and generally proving that the truth of her fast-spitting style matches the hype she’s accrued in British mix-tape circles. And she is little, which I might have expected from her name, but which came as a bit of a surprise given the outsized dimensions of her lyrical flow, a fount of intelligence and bluster teaching those same old lessons about judgement, books, and covers.

grahamreynolds250LJust on the north side of the Convention Center are two small museums that normally hide out from all this festival madness. One was the home of short story writer O. Henry, and the other of Alamo survivor Susanna Dickinson. This year they chose to program music to make the best of their location, and Thursday’s show will surely put them on the map. Austin-area composer Graham Reynolds, known, among other things, as the artist who scores many of Richard Linklater’s films, was on hand to play, and then destroy, a piano. He improvised the songs, alternating between piano and percussion in styles that evoked his meditative scores as well as the kind of Wild West piano of O. Henry and Dickinson’s 19th century. After a few of the numbers, Reynolds briefly described the narrative content running through his mind and fingers as he played, making them mini-biographies of the figures the museums commemorated. There was Dickinson in the ebb and flow of the music: “In the beginning, she moved to Texas and planted some stuff,/ and then the Alamo came and was intense, and then she was sad and alone./ She moved to this house in Austin, and that last part was her planting stuff again.” And, indeed, that’s what the music sounded like, but what doubled the crowd was when Reynolds began to crash the piano with sledgehammers as he played it, finding new percussive sounds made available by the instrument’s destruction. He then invited the audience to pick through the remains and stood tall and to the side in cowboy hat and brown western suit.

The Contemporary Austin’s DJ series continued on Thursday, and I made it over to catch the sets of the French-Brazilian Dream Koala and Beat Junkies turntablist J Rocc. As with Young Guru and Hank Shocklee Wednesday, and Just Blaze and Peanut Butter Wolf on Friday, they performed through Tom Sachs’ giant boombox sculptures. Crowds had grown since yesterday, as they had elsewhere, and when J Rocc bounced to the rhythms of a deconstructed James Brown as the mirror shook and warped behind him, the crowd just about bounced along.

Across the street at the Paramount Theater the SXSW film festival still held sway, and even converged with the music festival in its Thursday premier of the documentary Sir Doug and the Genuine Texas Cosmic Groove. If you don’t know Doug Sahm, you don’t know Texas Music. Then again, you’re probably not alone in not knowing, a fact that director Joe Nick Patoski’s film aims to correct. Doug Sahm was a child steel guitar prodigy out of San Antonio who had played alongside Hank Williams and been invited to the Grand Ole Opry. In his teens, Doug Sahm took to rhythm and blues and made hits with the faux-British Invasion outfit the Sir Douglas Quintet. He was a charter member of the Haight-Ashbury crowd, looked up to by Jerry Garcia and Bob Dylan, and then came back to Austin in the ’70s to jump start the scene. Indeed, Louis Black, one of SXSW’s founders and an executive producer of the film, explained beforehand how he had listened obsessively to Sahm albums while growing up in New England and how, when he first moved to Austin in 1974, it was in part Doug Sahm that made this place feel like home. In a sense, there wouldn’t be a SXSW at all if artists like Sahm hadn’t acted as magnets and scene leaders. The documentary makes the case for Sahm’s central position in Texas—and American—music, and acts as a kind of love letter to Austin in the process. The hometown crowd made this a raucous affair, and most of the figures interviewed on-screen were in attendance. I sat next to visual artist Kerry Awn, whose imagery did much to define the aesthetic of Sahm’s home venue at Soap Creek. He also made the Groover’s Paradise album cover that was Sahm’s most Austin-oriented work.

Some SXSW evenings involve a bit more commitment to staying put rather than flitting about in search of the next and best thing. I devote at least one night of the festival each year to whatever’s happening at Elysium, the goth-industrial club that serves as home base for international showcases from East Asia. Thursday was K-Pop night. I confess to being behind the curb on K-Pop’s obsessive and intricate subculture. I’m curious, though, and so came with ears open. The retro doo-wop girl group the Barberettes were on when I arrived. I’d seen their U.S. debut at the convention center on Tuesday, and their charm translated well to this larger stage and rowdier crowd. The set consisted of many of the same numbers as Tuesday, but with a fuller band sound. As it turns out, this would be the only “band” of the evening, with guitar and bass seemingly banished from the scene thereafter.

The Barberettes’ retro stylings ceded the stage to digital dance crew EE. K-Pop, as it turns out, was a fairly elastic catch-all for the evening’s acts, as if someone put together an American music night for a festival and said, “Ok, who’ve we got? Skrillex, B. B. King, Britney Spears, Kenny G, you’re up!” EE erupted in phased shifts from the small door on the side of the stage. What happened next escapes any language I have at my command, but if I were to dare to try, some useful words or phrases might be: Battle dancing. Contortionists. Fog machines. Bullwhip? Nick Cave Mardi Gras. Body glitter. Is that guy a robot? Is that woman a ghost? Are their faces in that kind of metallic paint that poisoned Oz’s Tin Man? Wait, is this that scene from Can’t Buy Me Love where Patrick Dempsey thinks he’s watching American Bandstand, but it’s really a PBS documentary on African dance? In other words, EE delivers utterly compelling performance art, and, though the optics grab your attention first, they have the musical chops to back up their theatricality. Frontwoman little e (partner of DJ big e), like Little Simz earlier in the day, may have been diminutive, but absolutely commanded the attention of the crowd. She chanted in rapid fire through “Let Your Freak Flag Fly” and the club anthem swagger of “Banging Till I Die.” The easiest comparison to make might be to South Africa’s Die Antwoord, as there was a similar mashup of global street culture and arthouse experimentation at play here, but EE is absolutely its own affair. Of the artists on the bill, this is the one that I will be returning to and exploring the most in the days to come.

Hitchhiker came next, who DJ-ed his set in some kind of space hazmat suit, with a wall of bass that rumbles the innards. Elysium’s floor grew hotter by the minute, sweltering even, and the crowd rolled with it as Hitchhiker opened with his insanely catchy “11 (Eleven).” crayonpop300Following Hitchhiker, it was clear that much of the crowd was in the building for girl group Crayon Pop, who came on stage in what looked like vinyl racing suits. To me, coming at this blind, they seem to be sort of like a precision Texas high school drill team, without even the pretense of a DJ booth. With a chirpy “Are you ready to enjoy?” they launched into choreographed dance numbers with the air of the pop stars visiting the mall. After every song, the five members lined up on the front of the stage to thank and chat with the audience. Again, I’m an outsider to the Crayon Pop legions, but the big buzz here seemed to be around their debuting the new single “FM.” And none of this is meant as a dig, mind you. It was fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable, the group that most clearly fit the K-Pop bill. And the crowd may well be the story here, as this was the most ecstatic expression of fandom I’ve seen at SXSW this year yet—a study in contrasts with the crowd for, say, the Damned on Wednesday. The older punks at Mohawk were similarly engaged, but also obviously revisiting and reviewing a subcultural obsession that had helped form their love of music long ago. Here were much younger fans, not badgeholders, whose lives are clearly being melded by this music right now. They knew the words and when to come in on a chorus. They screamed and swooned like Beatlemania 1964. And this, perhaps, is yet another thing that SXSW does well. In the internet age, global music is always omnipresent and accessible, but it’s rarely live and in the flesh. Here were Central Texas fans (and some visitors) who knew K-Pop backward and forward, but only connected through YouTube videos and blogs. SXSW brings the rare chance to see their heroes in person, and in an intimate club setting, at that.

Hip-hop crew Epik High ended the night. Tablo, Mithra Jin, and DJ Tukutz translated more clearly to a K-Pop novice like myself than the tightly-choreographed Crayon Pop or the dazzling/bewildering EE. Alternating between Korean and English, the group’s roof-raising antics articulated how hip-hop has become a global vernacular. With songs like “Burj Khalifa” and its rousing, hands-in-the-air chorus of “Wassssup?”, we were back on common ground. The energy was high, the club continued to sweat, and then poured out into the street during that most bacchanalian and chaotic moment of any SXSW day, the mad scramble as 2 a.m. approaches.

As I walked home from downtown, up the hill alongside the Texas State Cemetery, the music kept on ringing in the air. “Truck,” the closing number from local experimental heroes Octopus Project, rang through the air from the Levitation/Psychfest party on East 6th. It made for a spring in my step on the way to bed, with high hopes for the SXSW peaks to come. | Jason Mellard


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