South by Southwest | Wed. 03.18.15

sxsw Shamir_75Shamir’s “On the Regular” wins my SXSW-earworm-of-the-night award. If there was a drawback, it was that this was one of the shortest sets of the week thus far.

 

 

 

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Some initial observations from SXSW 2015, which many have pegged as a moment of soul-searching for the ever-expanding, commercially synergizing festival: Judging from the fact that it was fairly easy to get into venues on Wednesday, this may well be that pruning year where the festival learns that all growth is not good growth. Then again, this might just be the calm before the storm. The interactive festival ended yesterday, and the first wave of the film festival has passed. Maybe the music crowd hasn’t all flown in yet.

SXSW compounds the element of choice that figures into most music festivals. It’s not a question of this, that, or the other stage, but of navigating a dizzying array of potential experiences. It’s worth taking the time to locate those performances that are one-offs, the kind of thing that only a massive convergence like SXSW can deliver. Case in point: The New York visual artist Tom Sachs has an exhibition, the Boombox Retrospective, at The Contemporary Austin. He also premiered A Space Program, on his project simulating a Mars mission, at the film festival. NASA was at SXSW interactive, and astronauts attended the film. Meanwhile, his exhibition downtown just happens to revolve around a working DJ booth, which the museum has programmed with topflight DJs Wednesday through Friday, ratifying the recent New York Times article dubbing Tom “Grandmaster Sachs.” Wednesday’s slate included Young Guru, Redinho, Nadus, and Hank Shocklee. Young Guru, producer of “Empire State of Mind” and DJ on Jay-Z and Kanye West’s Watch the Throne Tour, set the mood with music alternately spaced-out and blues-driven, with hints of funk and even raga. Nadus, working in a subgenre they call Jersey club, seemed the hungriest of the DJs on the bill. For the others, this was a curious and enjoyable prestige gig on a Wednesday afternoon, but Nadus treated it like a showcase in itself, building a mesmerizing soundscape in the gallery. Finally, Hank Shocklee, legend of Public Enemy’s Bomb Squad production crew, took the booth. Shocklee’s set continued Young Guru’s earlier one, treating turntablism-as-archaeology, with Old School hip-hop (Eric B and Rakim, Run DMC, Grandmaster Flash, Lady B) slowed down and often tweaked to foreground the lyric. While those dense sonic textures of Public Enemy’s albums bombarded the listener, raising consciousness through the shock-and-awe of the sample, Shocklee here wanted us to recognize each word, each nuance of sound. Shocklee’s moves made the experience curatorial in a way fitting the museum setting, a history lesson alluding to the boombox era of Sachs’s sculptures. Seeing hip-hop royalty the likes of Young Guru and Hank Shocklee in a place such as this defines what SXSW can do in its best moments.

In between DJ sets, I made it over to the Guitartown/Conqueroo party to see Texas songwriter Ray Wylie Hubbard. Hubbard first made his name in 1970s Austin, a moment veteran scenesters have jokingly, and at times derisively, referred to as the “improbable rise of redneck rock” or the “progressive country music scare.” His initial claim to fame from that time came with his song “Up Against the Wall (Redneck Mother)” on Jerry Jeff Walker’s iconic Viva Terlingua album. But, in a rare case of second acts in part obscuring and transcending the first, Hubbard has grown into his role as a growling, sardonic bluesman. The crowd here differed substantially from the museum-goers, consisting of locals on a lunch hour, or at least playing SXSW hooky. These were Hubbard’s guys, for sure, judging from the exuberant sing-alongs to Hubbard’s new classics like “Snake Farm” about a roadside attraction between Austin and San Antonio. Hubbard also offered what might be SXSW’s raison d’etre in the midst of his cynical but good-hearted banter: “There are two kinds of people in the world: Day people and night people. And it’s the night people’s job to take the day people’s money.”

sxsw leon-bridges_250RA more earnest set reigned in the late afternoon at YouTube’s lavish digs for the week. “Fairy pop” songstress Ryn Weaver was on stage when I arrived. SXSW might be the only moment in the year when I see pop stars up close and in the flesh, and it’s always a bit less alien than I anticipated, enjoyable even. I wasn’t there for the pop so much, though, nor the brisket appetizers or free mint juleps (are you sure you’ve got your regional stereotypes right, YouTube?). Leon Bridges was the attraction here, the 25-year-old soul artist out of Fort Worth who looks poised to be one of the breakout artists of this year’s SXSW. He’s invited comparisons to Sam Cooke and has made the best-of list of the Guardian and NPR. His immaculately dressed eight-piece band (with two Western hats in tow—this is Cowtown soul, after all) delivered smooth, rich, and full gospel and soul that centered on Bridges’s buttery bell of a voice. His singles “Coming Home” and “Lisa Sawyer” were standouts, as was the closing number. Bridges cleared out most of his band, singing one of his earliest compositions, “The River,” to leave the crowd with a moment of meditative silence so rare in the midst of a festival so keen on projecting walls of sound.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Case in point: Shamir’s rambunctious performance at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s Barbecue. Electronic vocalist and proudly ratchet personality Shamir quite literally bounded on stage with a neon green t-shirt and camp enthusiasm. His high vocals danced over songs that recalled the era of disco divas—and the celebratory gender transgressions of Sylvester, in particular. This was soaring and soulful, but also absolutely fun—Shamir’s “On the Regular” wins my SXSW-earworm-of-the-night award. If there was a drawback, it was that this was one of the shortest sets of the week thus far.

From campy Vegas neo-disco, I seemed to be building a pattern of quiet-loud-quiet-loud for the night, hearing country outfit the Deslondes of New Orleans. This was a traditional style I’ve associated more with Texas acts. A self-consciously old-time instrumentation (a hand-held drum, stand-up bass, the first steel guitar I’ve seen during the festival) and delicate songcraft fit Austin’s Americana crowd quite well. It makes sense, though, that New Orleans claims this, too, given that there’s no city that maintains retro styles so well as New Orleans does. In a bold move I’ve seen a few times over the past few days, the Deslondes ended their set with new material, although I wouldn’t have guessed it from how well it came off.

And then, again, loud, to the Mohawk where Vans had set up an evening of punk and thrash. There was the Toronto act Metz, a 3-piece that hits like a 20-piece. Their pounding, swirling songs, with catchy shouted lyrics readymade to shout back (“Get Off”) drove the unlikely crowd of industry badges into a full-on mosh pit. I hope that one guy found his shirt, because I’m not sure of his networking opportunities for later in the evening otherwise. The Damned followed. This, too, is one of my favorite SXSW opportunities: to see the guys who started it all, from the punk’s first British wave. “We’re the oldest band here,” shouted Captain Sensible, inadvertently casting the one-time rebels as elder statesmen. Which they are, after a fashion. Here again, there were the sound challenges that dog SXSW. The Damned’s long tenure as a band didn’t seem to help them much when it came to setting up the poor rented equipment on stage, leading to a significant delay. Captain Sensible stretched out on guitar to keep the crowd entertained. “That’s something I picked up while I had a job cleaning toilets in 1970. I heard Jimi Hendrix play, and knew immediately that that’s what I wanted to do for a living. I got a guitar and practiced for hours. About 1976, I’d gotten really good, but then punk came and no one cared about guitar solos. That’s life, innit?” A bit shaky once the performance finally started, crowd favorites “Love Song” and “Ignite” revved things up again, and it was 1976 redux.

sxsw ton-tons_250LI ended the night with two Houston acts at Holy Mountain. First, the Tontons, an indie rock band that sums up the Houston rock scene like no other and, among other things, counts Bun B as a fan. The group—Asli Omar, Tom Nguyen, Adam Martinez, and Justin Martinez—even looks like young Houston, one of America’s most diverse and exciting cities, though it rarely gets the credit. Vocalist Omar rivets any crowd she steps in front of, pulling off a stage persona that is sometimes sultry, sometimes frenetic, and always engaging, as the band works through material anchored at one end by funktress Betty Davis and at the other by the more novel and clean lines of Texas indie rock. Gulf soul collective the Suffers came next, with 12 people on stage by count (maybe 13—though the press materials claimed 10). They started the set with a ring shout, the band members facing inward on that tiny stage with an affirmation, and then taking their spots to melt the crowd in funk. There were shades of Houston’s famed Kashmere Stage Band here, as well as Austin funk collectives like Brownout, measured with a bit of the Dap-Kings. The material came off as rooted in tradition, but never, ever staid or obsessively retro; at one point, a breakdown segued into Three Six Mafia’s “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.” And if Omar rivets an audience, Suffers’ vocalist Kam Franklin absolutely commands it. She’s the soul songstress you need to hear. Right now. Like Leon Bridges, this SXSW seems like a moment where the Suffers are at a tipping point, with a booking for David Letterman March 30. All in all, a triumphant close to this particular SXSW Wednesday.

And on a personal note, the Suffers were also a fitting close to my day, as I had violated a cardinal SXSW rule in making an unfortunate footwear choice: black cowboy boots, out of sheer vanity. Let’s see if I can pull off SXSW Thursday in slippers. | Jason Mellard

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