Japan Nite act ANALOGIX mimed a nostalgic performance of ’80s corporate culture over synth tracks and live drums.
See all Jason’s photos from the festival here
By Friday, the interactive and film portions of SXSW have begun to fade, and music takes center stage. SXSW also converges with spring break and St. Patrick’s Day in a churning bacchanalia that tests one’s fortitude in this marathon of festivals. NPR’s Radio Day Stage at the convention center was high and dry, though, a comfortable space with a bill that had the same expert curation as their Stubb’s show a few nights back. A slew of Americana and indie acts with new albums followed in quick succession. I missed Lizzo’s encore performance, but made it for LA soulsters Chicano Batman. Sharply suited even at this early hour of the day, the group featured the organ-driven grooves of Freedom Is Free.
Austin hometown heroes Spoon have had a notable week, ruling the roost with a SXSW residency at The Main that filled to capacity night after night. And here on Friday, Britt Daniel still seems in high spirits and taking a victory lap for Hot Thoughts, the Spoon album that dropped today. They played some catalog favorites, like “Do You” and “The Beast and the Dragon, Adored,” but foregrounded the new material, and the full convention center ballroom lapped it up eagerly.
I like to think that someone in booking was making an old Tin Pan Alley pun in having Valerie June follow Spoon. Regardless, June’s career continues to wax, gaining steam even with every performance even at this festival itself. She’s a unique artist, surely, something like Ziggy Stardust meets Rhiannon Giddens with a bit of Iris Dement, but really, also unlike any of those. As she sings in her distinctive twang about “dancing the astral plane,” while playing banjo, her tight soul band accompanies with occasional flourishes of Tinariwen-style Tuareg guitar. Such comparisons may seem like a reach, but the influences here combine the ancient, the rooted, and the contemporary in fine fashion. It is perhaps unexpected, given how she frames a creative process of channeling voices from the ether, or capturing songs in her dreams. The band particularly rocked out on tracks from the new album The Order of Time like “Shakedown” and closer “Got Soul,” while also featuring the hypnotic drone that June can produce vocally in a song such as “Man Done Wrong” or the ethereal beauty of “Astral Plane.”
It’s been a real pleasure hearing the career arc of Black Joe Lewis and The Honeybears. The band came up as a hard-hitting rhythm-and-blues revue in the punk clubs of Austin’s Red River District. The early recordings showcased this energy, broadcasting the ecstasy of live Stax artists where most Austin bluesmen channel Chess. With sans-Honeybears Electric Slave of 2013 Black Joe Lewis steered in a hard rock direction himself to show off what he’d picked up in those clubs, but this month’s release of Backlash finds a return to the Honeybears format. The sound is more mature and fully-formed than earlier Honeybears work, one that finds him at ease atop this NPR bill.
As the evening showcases opened at Hotel Vegas, Madrid’s The Parrots delivered a riotously fun show, maybe the most enjoyable I’ve seen all year. I was kind of ready to call it a day afterwards, as I couldn’t quite see how anything else could measure up. Their festival blurb describes them as a mix of early Rolling Stones with “Marc Bolan, The Stooges, and Suicide.” That’s a tall order, but the Parrots pulled it off in the low-ceilinged Volstead Lounge of the Vegas. Lead singer Diego Garcia charged into the crowd, rode on audience members’ shoulders, dragged his microphone out into the street, and generally brought the party as the band blasted out that jangly, danceable strain of punk with equal roots in West Coast surf and Detroit soul. They swayed the room with the drunken swagger “No Me Gustas, Te Quiero” and finished on a song that sounded something like the anarchy of a Spanish-language “Bird is the Word.” In a nearly opposite vein, New Zealand neo-folk artist Aldous Harding followed on the outside stage. I had wanted to see how much of her uncanny performance persona from the Twin Peaks venue the day before had been tailored for Lynch fans. It wasn’t really, as it turns out. Still creepy, still odd, still compelling.
Elysium’s Japan Nite never fails to deliver the unexpected, and 2017 was no different. I parachuted in for a single act, ANALOGIX, as they mimed a nostalgic performance of ’80s corporate culture over synth tracks and live drums. The band members answered analog phones, delivered reports to one another, seemed to joke at the water cooler, and never, ever spoke or sung a word. The Tron feel of the music made this sort of like SURVIVE meets sketch comedy, ending with the bombshell of a remixed Lady Gaga’s “Telephone,” complete with wigs.
K-Pop Night Out has been the new kid on the block giving seasoned veteran Japan Nite a run for its money over the last five years. Friday night, K-Pop filled the Belmont, including a large number of Korean-American students fronting the hefty general admission cost apart from the SXSW festival altogether. Hip-hop supergroup Drunken Tiger, centered on power couple Tiger JK and Yoonmirae, had the crowd screaming Beatlemania style and engaging in call-and-response chants in Korean. International hip-hop fascinates in the way it adapts American mannerisms and language to other national traditions, and the binational exchange between the U.S. and South Korea, particularly via Los Angeles, makes it one of the most interesting of hip-hop’s international off-shoots. Boisterous braggadocio knows no borders, nor does party culture, and this is the sweet spot that Drunken Tiger mines in anthems like “Jetpack.” MC Junoflo joined in with Drake-style slow burner “Déjà vu.” Both Japan Nite and K-Pop always remind me how vast the pop universe is, and how small I am in it.
The Speakeasy’s dual stages Friday drove this point home, hosting a range of Colombian, Mexican, and Venezuelan acts, also heavy on the hip-hop. Bogota’s ALI AKA MIND dominated the smaller cabaret room, setting up a contrast with the Korean hip-hop down the street. There were points of convergence, surely, but these South American artists seem to have taken a few other cues from U.S. hip-hop than had Drunken Tiger. The “hood” of Drunken Tiger’s tracks seemed to be the locale of fancy-free music videos, not daily struggles. ALI AKA MIND brought both into the range of his performance. For the Venezuelans, this was even more poignant. Venezuela’s showcase in the main room was highly anticipated in part because of the challenges many of that country’s artists have had to overcome to travel and succeed, given the country’s violent and uncertain present. Caracas rapper Apache easily had the fastest flow I’d heard all week, and he used it to pack in this self-same mix of tropes that fit club bangers to an awareness of challenge and struggle. That the DJ situated Apache’s tracks amid reggae and dub beats was fitting, a nod to Venezuela’s Caribbean connections, and the genres’ shared ability to find wisdom, strength, and fun in the middle of the struggle with Babylon. If nothing else, both the K-Pop and South American nights demonstrated the international language of hip-hop gesture and lyric that New York, L.A., Atlanta, Chicago, and Houston have unleashed on the world.
At an ornate listening room in the historic Driskill Hotel, downtown New York scenester and former Bongos leadman Richard Barone put together an evening-long celebration of the Sixties Greenwich Village. The night brought together younger and older singer-songwriters to honor this history, including Robyn Hitchcock, Jesse Colin Young, the Mastersons, the Band of Heathens, and the American debut of Brian Jones’ grandson Joolz Jones. By the time I arrived at one in the morning, the crowd had thinned a bit, I understand, since Jones’s standing-room-only singalong to “This Land Is Your Land,” but there was still a notably attentive and appreciative audience for A. S. Fanning of Dublin, who celebrated St. Patty’s day with an Irish ballad and a plaintive take on Leonard Cohen’s “Memories.” The late Cohen was an artist favorite in the portion of the song swap I caught, as Peter Lewis of Moby Grape and his daughter Arwen Lewis decided on a sweet and haunting version of “Suzanne” before closing out the night with Fred Neil’s “That’s the Bag I’m In.” At its best, SXSW is a physical incarnation of this loose and baggy monster we call “popular music.” We chase the cutting edge of novelty, while reflecting on all of that history that has come before and left itself as sediment, foundation, enabling all that music that has come since. The new and the old, the local and the global, co-exist and commingle in the streets of Austin in March like they do in few other spaces and places throughout the rest of the year. Friday brought me Americana, indie, Japanese synth, Spanish punk, Korean and Venezuelan hip-hop, and Sixties folk. And that was just a very small slice of what it was even possible to hear. I missed out on Weezer, for instance, figuring I can buy a ticket the next time they come through town.
Oh, and the evening’s end had one more surprise in it. When I came across sardonic Chicago rapper Open Mike Eagle as closing time approached, Hannibal Buress had joined in his set for their collaboration “Doug Stamper.”
SXSW has one more day in it. Time to make it count. | Jason Mellard