The great thing about these initial day parties is that the fest still feels fresh and shiny.
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Are y’all ready for this? I’m not sure you’re ready for this. Maybe I’m projecting. I’m not ready for this, the sonic avalanche and weeklong food truck buffet that is SXSW. It’s Monday, even, earlier than the music portion of the festival has started before, or so it seems. I’ve got all of my charts and graphs and hopes and dreams for the week in front of me, but still. And then, walking on Austin’s Sixth Street toward downtown, LAM happens. A dandy of epic proportions appears on the horizon. Three-piece green and yellow suit. Top hat. Flowers. Cane. Perfect twirl of the moustache and, literally, rose-colored glasses. I introduce myself, and it turns out that he is local rapper and man-about-town LAM. “Stands for Legend. Already. Made,” he says. LAM stands ready for what’s ahead, unfazed, resplendent. The encounter is sufficient to steel my resolve.
Onward, to day party one: Strange Brew at Hotel Vegas. I’ll issue my annual plug for Hotel Vegas here. Of the unofficial day parties that exist in uneasy balance with the official festival’s daytime panels and nighttime showcases, Hotel Vegas always seems to hit my own particular sweet spot—heavy on the newest and best garage/psych with a healthy dose of smart indie and just the right accent of alt-country. Enough international acts to make things interesting. It’s a local affair Monday, put on by a group called Do512 and local canned-coffee magnates High Brew. Later in the week, with a similar flavor of artist, Levitation, the L.A. label Burger Records and others will keep the hits going at Vegas’s three stages. There’s always something on here, and it’s a fair home base if you’re out of the convention center loop.
The great thing about these initial day parties is that each of the bands feels compelled to let you know it’s the first of their 8-10-12 SXSW shows. The fest still feels fresh and shiny. L.A.’s Wild Reeds led it off on the outdoor stage with a SoCal singer-songwriter, latter-day Laurel Canyon vibe, with Kinsey Lee, Mackenzie Howe, and Sharon Silva trading lead vocals. “Everything Looks Better (in Hindsight)” was the showstopper, but there was a lot of material from the forthcoming album The World We Built that stuck with me through the day.
Diet Cig takes the White Stripes power duo model of drums/guitar, flips the genders, and comes out the other side an irascible freshman dorm party in human form. Alex Luciano is a dynamo, all fuzzy guitar, flying leaps, aching vocals, and punchy songs primed to rip through this festival yet again. They played plenty from their first full-length album, coming out next month—provided Alex doesn’t topple off a speaker tower on one of these makeshift stages over the next few days. Killer cotton candy of a band.
Not cotton candy, but also a duo: Country artists Michigan Rattlers hail from Petoskey, Michigan, but are now based in Los Angeles. With guitar, upright bass, and gut-wrenching songs, Graham Young and Adam Reed explore the emotional distance between those two American spaces. As Graham put it, when you come from a small town you can’t wait to get out, and then when you’re gone you look back and think, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. But maybe a lot of you haven’t felt that.” The Rattlers probably assumed the Hotel Vegas SXSW crowd was unrooted, coastal cosmopolitans, but everybody comes from somewhere. Several songs took on small-town Americana, both its promises and its limitations, and they wrestled with the L.A. move most explicitly in a song about a climate where palm trees replace the pines and you can play baseball 12 months a year. The lyrics and vocal delivery hit just that right nostalgic note, just a little bit of guilt for enjoying what California could deliver. In addition to the compelling original material, the guys rounded out the set with perfectly chosen John Prine and John Denver covers. They reminded me of a few stalwarts of the Austin country scene, like Scott H. Biram or Leo Rondeau. Come to think of it, I’m not sure Los Angeles is their natural transplanted home. The Michigan Rattlers would fit right in with Hotel Vegas and the White Horse as home stages.
Speaking of the Austin scene, local heroes Leopold and His Fiction took the outside stage next. They’re a terrific, explosive post-ironic rock band. Loud. Arena-worthy. All the flourishes of Seventies Stardom with all the comforts of a backyard barbecue. Larger than life. Brassy and rock-positive. Though Austin-based, lead singer’s Daniel Leopold’s Detroit roots definitely reveal themselves in the performances from the new album Darling Destroyer. They built on the energy Diet Cig laid down, and left a strong foundation for the biggest surprise of the day, a band I’ll be checking in on again later in the week: Boogarins (left) of Brazil.
It’s cliché, surely, to invoke tropicalia with every Brazilian artist, but where else to start with a jazzy, freeform, psychedelic act like this? The songs stretch out, break down, and crash back together in ways reminiscent of free jazz but, you know, fun. Frontman Dinho Almeida has a lot to do with this, taking the razor-sharp musicianship of the band and balancing its seriousness with it airy vocals and a Hendrix-esque persona, all lithe smiles and jokey demeanor. By the end of the set, most of the other artists on the bill who had been lounging in the alley gravitated to the side of the stage better witness the fireworks. The Boogarins are recording an album in Austin at the moment, and I’m thankful they’ll be around for a bit. I’m sure there’s a bad musician in Brazil somewhere, but they never seem to send them here.
The official showcases of the night were in something of a “soft opening”–mode Monday evening. The full assault of musical choices wouldn’t come until Tuesday, so I followed my instincts to stick with the international bands over at the German Haus. A joint program of the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy with the Cultural and Creative Industries Initiative of the Federal Government of Germany, the space illustrated what a little public funding for the arts can do. Must be nice. The German showcase Monday night included rockers Sun and the Wolf, one of those Berlin acts that gets bluesy Americana more pitch-perfect that some of our homegrown artists. They had the danciest audience I’d seen so far, too, which struck me as a little weird. Austin audiences often turn out to be shoegazers, and the Monday of SXSW tends to be a low point for out-of-towner attendance between the two weekends. Whatever the case, Sun and the Wolf had the Haus audience moving far more than I would expect a Monday should.
I was even more curious about Oum Shatt, a band that blends that same rock styling with the influences of Germany’s Turkish and Arab immigrant communities, combining each with the edgy drone of post-punk. The band took their time with sound check, which they later explained was due to the fact that they were missing a member who had been lost in transit from Germany. I’m not sure whether this was an immigration issue (SXSW lost at least two more bands Monday with the visa policies of the new regime: London’s Yuseff Kamaal and Canadian-Egyptians Massive Scar Era). After a few songs, the bassist for Sun and the Wolf gamely filled in. The opening numbers in between did give Oum Shatt’s sound a spareness that was actually quite interesting, but, full bore, the band’s Middle Eastern influences were even more telling: the way that modern music, modern identity, embraces the complexity of the culture that surrounds it, rather than hiding behind walls.
Between LAM and Oum Shatt, then, Monday was about facing up to the challenge of what lies ahead with aplomb. On to Tuesday, and letting SXSW unfold in its own way. | Jason Mellard