Loretta Lynn was a pioneer as a woman performer who wrote her own songs, leading to an explosion of relevant, pro-woman songs.
Typically, a measure for peak SXSW is when you hear a band playing in a neighbor’s backyard, but this year came with a twist. As I was writing Wednesday’s summary, a commotion enveloped the boarded-up house next to mine in East Austin. I assumed it was one of the local hip-hop crews that use SXSW as an opportunity for savvy self-promotion, but was surprised to find the full entourage of Houston’s legendary Screwed Up Click rapper Trae the Truth staging a photo shoot. Sometimes, the festival comes to you.
Americana at SXSW has a couple of nerve centers. I have a long allegiance to Bloodshot Records’ day parties at the folk art gallery Yard Dog on South Congress, but the Billy Reid events at Weather Up have been knocking it out of the park the last few years, with assistance from Jack White’s Third Man Records. Dylan LeBlanc played here, an introverted and pained but brilliant songwriter last I saw him. LeBlanc’s new work from Cautionary Tale sharpens that lyricism but also brings to it a fuller, at times rocking, sound with a terrific backing band.
Margo Price came next, one of the most anticipated country acts at this year’s festival as the first Nashville signing of Third Man. Her retro, real-deal vocals and songwriting make sense for the label, especially in light of a band that nods to the broader traditions of country soul. The keyboard player sports a Stax logo tattooed on his arm, which is the kind of thing that puts a Southern music fan right at ease. There’s a bit of soul to Price’s sound, and equal parts honky-tonk and church, even a bit of funk. Waylon Jennings’ band came to mind often as Price gamely played through a perfect set in the sweltering humidity of the Austin afternoon: “Hurtin’ on the Bottle,” “The Hands of Time,” including several numbers from her impending debut album, Midwest Farmer’s Daughter. Price also shared her excitement that Kacey Musgraves was on the bill in about an hour. The two share a sensibility, and here’s hoping the former follows the latter to the heights of Nashville success.
Leaving before Musgraves was the most agonizing festival choice I would have to make this year, but one of those rare SXSW doors had opened for me, with an invite to an event at the Governor’s Mansion. Under the Governor there is a Texas Music Office charged with both celebrating the state’s rich musical history and a promoting the workings of the modern music industry in the state. The TMO’s enterprising director Brendon Anthony (former fiddler for Pat Green) and Governor Greg Abbott invited Texas music insiders to the gardens of the Governor’s Mansion to mark SXSW. And, of course, there was music.
Gina Chavez opened the event with bilingual Mexican and Latin American music as a testimony to her own project of reclaiming heritage. With songs like “Soy Quien Soy,” Chavez brought a sensible and appropriate politics to the occasion, meditating on the state’s nuanced history of borderlands immigration and the twists and turns of cultural assimilation and mixture. The Suffers of Houston followed, giving their all to make this garden gathering a full-on party. Last year at SXSW, I saw the Suffers, a boisterous soul revue born of ska roots, crammed on a small stage downtown, just weeks before their national television debut on David Letterman. They’ve been on Jimmy Kimmel and at the Austin City Limits Festival since, and here, at SXSW 2016, they’ve graduated from that small stage of a year ago to the Governor’s Mansion. Count this among SXSW’s continuing strengths: Success stories in the industry still happen. And the Texas Music Office has an ongoing role in making sure the Lone Star State is a place with the cultural infrastructure to keep them happening here.
The legend of the evening was Loretta Lynn, holding court in the opening slot of the BBC showcase at Stubb’s Barbecue. She took the stage a tad late, as a veteran diva should, and worked through a 60-plus-year catalog for an adoring audience: “When You’re Lookin’ at Me, You’re Lookin’ at Country,” “Fist City,” “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man,” “Honky-Tonk Girl,” and, in a nod to one of her mentors, Patsy Cline’s “She’s Got You.” It is important to remember just who Lynn is, and how she fits into country history. She was a pioneer as a woman performer who wrote her own songs, leading to an explosion of relevant, pro-woman songs like “The Pill” and “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ with Lovin’ on your Mind.” By the night’s end, as her band reminded her, it was time to play some new tracks to promote the album Full Circle. Her guitarist suggested “Everything It Takes,” but an always strong-willed Lynn said she didn’t want to sing that one. The band struck it up anyway. “Y’all listen to me,” she interjected, “or you’ll be working for somebody else.” She preferred “Everybody Wants to Go to Heaven” off the same record, so the band switched gears. I initially thought this was practiced stage banter, but it turned out to be a real, if teasing, power struggle that ended with the band bringing out Lynn daughter to help her through the lyrics of “Everything.” “I wrote the dern song,” she teased, “I just can’t remember it.” An evening that ended right here would have been perfect; all that came later was gravy.
Nineteen-year-old Australian wunderkind Cloves, aka Kaity Dunstan, entered the festival with comparisons to brilliant-but-doomed chanteuses Billie Holiday and Amy Winehouse. Those are big shoes to fill. If anything, her performance at the Sidewinder Patio exceeded her hype, with a voice that is a thing of rare beauty, and in marked contrast to the dive-y rock surroundings. These are great dive-y rock surroundings, mind you, but the bar chatter belied Cloves meditative, heart-rending delivery with minimal instrumentation. Maybe because of that, she finished her set a good 20 minutes early.
Just as last year, the Canadian music showcases have claimed the Sixth Street bar Friends as their home base. There may well be a conscious choice here, as the bar is unassuming, friendly, and comfortable, just as most of the excellent Canadian artists playing there. The Mariachi Ghost stood out in this lineup.
There’s reason to be apprehensive of a band this high-concept. The first American appearance of a Winnipeg undead mariachi band based on a comic book story arc conceived by Jorge Requena sounds like a lot of weight for one young group to carry. Oh, and they have a Guy Maddin–directed video, to boot. When a SXSW volunteer paraded in front of the stage right before the show and exclaimed, “Y’all have no idea what you’re in for right now,” my anxiety for the performance only increased. But, damn. Is “progiachi” a word? It is now, and the Mariachi Ghost are the genre progenitors, something like Mars Volta meets Little Joe y la Familia. In elaborate mariachi costumes and Day of the Dead face paint, the eight-piece rocketed through a song cycle deeply embedded in the lead singer’s Mexican roots, but also ranging far afield.
There’s just a hint of the format of sprawling world bands like Gogol Bordello or Mariachi Ghost’s compatriots Arcade Fire, but the closest comparison is really the prog- and funk-influenced Texas acts of the Onda Chicana in the 1970s, Tortilla Factory foremost among them. They were short a trumpet player (more brass would be welcome here), but the band was terrifically tight. And dancer Alexandra Garrido is a wonder. Throwing interpretive dance into a mix like this might seem on its face even further suspect, but Garrido brings the band’s narrative bent into sharp, compelling focus. In a brooding and intense song like “Bruja,” about witch stories used to scare children, she ventures into the crowd as the embodiment of sultry malice. The set was surprise upon surprise upon surprise (did that drummer just start playing a horse’s jawbone?; more thematic bone percussion, please), and one can only hope the group will see fit to spend more time here in the American borderlands to flesh out their story and sound.
And my own arc of the night then reached from Loretta Lynn to progiachi to the Taiwanese avant-hip-hop of Aristophanes. This was the Thursday act that sparked the most conversation among my companions. Aristophanes’ mad scientist DJs/VJs seemed all cacophony at first. “I feel like we’re in Bladerunner right now,” a friend marveled in the face of the Palm Door’s neon surfaces and the music’s sonic assault. The set settled in, though, or we were drawn further into Aristophanes’ world, in a performance that went from stutter-step beats to trip-hop and trance, with the woman of the moment acting every bit the chanteuse as Cloves in one moment, while spitting rapid-fire verses in another. I’m a sucker for foreign language hip-hop that takes my estimates of lyricism out of the aesthetic equation, making for a focus on execution instead. Aristophanes marveled in matching the rhythmic complexity—even chaos—thrown at her by the DJs on a complicated rig of things that looked like video game controllers, with a guitar basically employed as a MIDI controller.
NOFX was next in the plan, but when you see that Aristophanes is followed by the “queen of Vietnamese hip-hop” Suboi, there’s reason to stick around. Suboi’s set, accompanied by a Russian dubstep DJ, was in marked contrast to Aristophanes. Where Aristophanes reinvented and reinterpreted hip-hop through a distinctly international lens, Suboi, rapping largely in Vietnamese, performed in a style that was a love letter to American hip-hop, heavy on the sounds of the ’90s. “Were there any hip-hop artists before KRS-One?” she gamely asked. She meant it, and confessed she was working with limited information in Communist Vietnam and was hungry to learn more.
Suboi told a story of attending a panel on hip-hop history earlier in the week, and trying to explain to the U.S.-centric panelists how the genre now belonged to the world. “Hip-hop helped me,” she explained” as a woman in a traditionally male-dominated society; in a Communist country marked by censorship (she delighted in swearing on stage here in a way that made the casual profanity of most hip-hop performances seem cheap by comparison); and as a young person navigating the world. In between high-energy numbers, Suboi continued to testify about what this American music meant to her, including a tale of emotionally breaking down at a Lauryn Hill concert in Philadelphia. The bemused response of those around her there: “Why’s the Asian girl crying at the hip-hop show?” The crowd was small, but intense. Suboi dove into the middle of it and danced along during the last numbers.
As with Wednesday, I’m closing out with country. In one form or another, Asleep at the Wheel has seen it all. Leader Ray Benson first moved to Austin from the Bay Area in the 1970s, and has become the primary arbiter and historian of Texas’s distinct genre mashup of Western swing. As Western swingsters, Asleep at the Wheel is country and jazz and boogie and rockabilly, all at the same time: steel guitars and saxophones, stand-up bass and electric guitar. “Hot Rod Lincoln” worked up the midnight crowd at the Gatsby, and set up things well for the rowdy finale with Jack Ingram. Ingram is a leading light of an Austin scene that rarely gets its due and often gets crowded out of the Americana alternative altogether. In the 1990s and early 2000s, a group of Austin singer-songwriters built on the artistic legacy of progressive country in the vein of Guy Clark, Willie Nelson, and Townes Van Zandt, with an ear for the close-to-the-roots, exquisitely detailed realism about what it means to live in modern Texas. Scene regulars pegged Pat Green and Cory Morrow as the originators, but Ingram is the OG here, the one who influenced the others of his generation to go down this path. Ingram’s monologue during “Keep on Keepin’ on” was a great example of this: demonstrating Ingram’s local knowledge and shared past with the audience, while referencing the local bars he’d played, the streets he’d driven, and the Austin he knew that likely wouldn’t ever find its way into the pages of Vice. Ingram closed on a raucous and brilliant “Barefoot and Crazy”: sweat-drenched, boots off, exhorting the audience to treat each other right. A consummate showman, and another night of SXSW 2016 in the books. | Jason Mellard
03.17.16 Photos by Jason Mellard