Wooden Wisdom sounded like disco’s global ricochet, the ways the world’s dance and funk bands that built disco reabsorbed the genre after it flooded all corners of the planet.
SXSW is so hot right now. Like literally over 90 degrees in March. I assume there’s a triage unit downtown someplace to treat all the Brits and Scandinavians traumatized by the sun. It slows the crowds a little, but there’s also a sense in which the Tuesday of the music festival is a moment for all of us to catch our breath. Other parts of the festival have been going strong for four days already. The interactive-tech purists have headed out of town, and the full music hordes won’t descend for a day or two yet. So, in the meantime, we can reassess, plan ahead, and catch the acts that are fresh and ready to kick the festival off.
The Hotel Vegas complex on East 6th has made itself an indispensable arbiter of day parties, strong on garage rock and psychedelia. This year, it feels as if the Bay Area act Thee Oh Sees have taken over the place, playing nearly every day and night and anchoring the week’s aesthetic. Tuesday saw the club’s third annual Hotel Hot Burrito, and later in the week, both Hotel Vegas and the Volstead Lounge become home base for Levitation, the psych festival out on Austin’s Reverberation Appreciation Society, helmed by the Black Angels. These venues have even chartered a boat for open-bar parties on the lake all week. But, nearer at hand, Tuesday early acts included the solid rock stylings of Brooklyn’s MPHO and the well-pedigreed and charismatic noise-pop of Beverly. It wasn’t until Thelma and the Sleaze, though, that I was reminded this is a festival that takes it to 11. Thelma and the Sleaze is an all-women Atlanta three-piece that sounds like six with songs about sex. They channel Southern Culture on the Skids mixed with the Runaways—or, perhaps closer to the mark, Nashville Pussy—with Southern trash gothic teen anthems that know what’s what.
A few blocks south at the upscale cocktail joint Weather Up, Wooden Wisdom was kicking off an outdoor show that would also feature DJ Jazzy Jeff and badbadnotgood. Like Jazzy Jeff, Wooden Wisdom brought out the curiosity seekers, as it is the DJ duo of Elijah Wood and Zach Cowie. Celebrity DJs are a dodgy business, but this one is absolutely legit, with deep digging into international vinyl for a world set that sounded like the moment before the codification of disco, where dance club DJs displayed a voracious knowledge for the sounds of Africa, the Caribbean, Bollywood, and Latin America—and then again in other moments Wooden Wisdom sounded like disco’s global ricochet, the ways the world’s dance and funk bands that built disco reabsorbed the genre after it flooded all corners of the planet. There was a lot that was new to me here, and I’ll be chasing down the records they played, for sure—as soon as I identify them. Cowie flashed a copy of the collector-famous Abidjan City Breakers’ 1983 “ABC Rap,” but there were a lot of secrets in this set.
A few blocks walk north to Whisler’s allowed for a swing from garage punk to world disco to the singer-songwriter Miya Folick. Her set delivered a stunning and simultaneous display of vulnerability and strength, tears and laughter, the loud-quiet-loud formula played just right. Her voice ranged from whispers and trembles to growls and screams across a range of smart songs, backed by a band with a good deal of grit belying Folick’s pixie image. I came to the show expecting something a tad twee, and got much more. Miya Folick pulled out all the stops, even in the middle of the day on the porch of a cocktail bar. Folick herself noted the disparity, claiming that she needed the darkness to function at full capacity. “I feel like a mole or some other kind of ground creature. I shouldn’t be here in the sun.” The 2015 EP Strange Darling doesn’t quite communicate how rocking she and her band are live.
For a true measure of the festival’s diversity and capacity for surprise, though, there was also the spectacle of hometown director Robert Rodriguez’s El Rey channel showcasing its program Lucha Underground. They brought full-on lucha libre wrestling to the Austin Music Hall, accompanied by Mexico City’s cumbia chameleons El Conjunto Nueva Ola. Its first four-way match involved wrestlers Drago, Aero Star, Son of Havoc, and Cero Miedo, plus flamethrowers, second-floor balcony leaps, and a whole range of chants well-known to the fanatical crowd. This is one of my favorite of SXSW’s abilities: glimpses into scenes and subcultures I would only rarely encounter otherwise. And El Conjunto Nueva Ola, themselves in luchador masks, delivered with their brand of bouncy crossover cumbia. They kicked the whole affair off with a rousing “Misirlou” and kept it up with off-the-wall Latin covers of “Funkytown” and the Black Keys’ “Lonely Boy.”
From lucha libre I ventured to the Hype Hotel, and in the end they share a good deal. The Hype Hotel is one of those pop-up branded venues that serves as one of the festival’s hubs, but at the same time seems worlds away from the Austin music scene that birthed SXSW. That said, I’ll confess it’s one of the more comfortable venues around: well-lit and pleasantly air-conditioned—and the complimentary drink tickets don’t hurt. I even felt a little less gross with Mazda being the Hype Machine’s partner this year over last year’s Taco Bell—not to knock any of the backers who make this whole thing happen. Tuesday night, the Hype was hosting Partybaby, Pumarosa, and the Hinds, among others.
LA’s Partybaby was as fun as their name promised. The festival was a platform to introduce their music more widely, as only a few numbers including “Your Old Man” had been released. There were a solid, anthemic rock band that cut through the noise of a lot of the indie pretenders around town—also, their frontman has an entertaining bit of John Belushi about him. Like Partybaby, London’s Pumarosa comes to SXSW with only a few recordings available, but with considerably more buzz than Partybaby carried in. They bring a very different vibe and musicality, as well, a smoldering swell that has both Radiohead and Velvet Underground to it. Frontwoman Isabel Munoz-Newsome made the comparison even more explicit as she took a drumstick to her guitar like a saw on “Lion’s Den,” bringing an avant-drone into the band’s mix.
The Hype Hotel and a brilliant Pumarosa performance behind me, I headed to my neighborhood metal bar for a non-official show, but one that in my mind towered over the evening. American Icon Records was hosting a night they billed as “New York Dolls vs. the Geto Boys,” and while that may have overstated the case, the bill did include both Bushwick Bill and Sylvain Sylvain. Bushwick Bill came up first, backed by a local band and with a sample artist interspersing bits of Geto Boys tracks and dialogue between songs. The group launched into “Gangster of Love (Gangsta Boogie)” first, and the formula immediately made sense. A live band steeped in Southern rock playing live behind Bushwick was pitch-perfect for the Austin scene, and the group continued with its masterful soul licks on Bushwick’s renditions of “My Mind’s Playing Tricks on Me” and “Damn, It Feels Good To Be a Gangsta.” They closed it out with a raucous freestyle involving opening acts BLXPLTN. There’s still a riddle in my mind in the contrast of Scarface’s critique of the racial dynamics of the music industry and Bushwick Bill’s embrace of the festival crossover crowd, but that’s a treatise for another day. Rap metal always sounds like a bad idea, but Bushwick Bill made me a believer in his particular Texas variant, at least.
Glam-punk Sylvain Sylvain followed. I had thought there was a small chance for things to seem not-quite-right with these two legendary figures playing a gritty dive bar on a Tuesday night—and the crowds weren’t quite as large as they should have been, considering—but both artists delivered in a big way, in good humor, and with a reminder that, while they are links to a musical history, they remain vital and compelling artists in the present. Sylvain looked every bit the gangster as Bushwick Bill, but in his own bevinyled, bejeweled, New York Dolls-y way. Joined by Bushwick Bill’s same locals, fronted by guitarist Jason Kottwitz, Sylvain laid right into the crowd with “The Cops are Coming,” “Emily,” and “14th Street.” He recalled a date where Lynyrd Skynyrd opened for the New York Dolls, and Van Zandt surprisingly exclaimed “Y’all sure can boogie” as an introduction to an extended rhythm-and-blues jam that was an obvious cowboy-hatted tip to ZZ Top and affiliated Texas homeboys. He swung from those loud and rawking heights to a pleasant, sing-songy, and obviously affectionate rendering of Velvet Underground’s “Femme Fatale.” By the time he launched into “Personality Crisis,” the crowd was ratcheted up in full closing time glory. There was pogoing, ripping up of stage lights, clumps of drunks falling down, and a Donald Trump piñata destroyed beyond recognition. I felt lucky, fully sated for the festival’s first night, and hungry for the deluge to come. | Jason Mellard
Photos by Jason Mellard