Aldous Harding continued the theme against the red velvet backdrop invoking the show’s surreal Black Lodge.
The carnivals of SXSW theme parties and show launches normally don’t capture my attention, but there was no way I was missing Showtime’s celebration of the return of Twin Peaks. The inclusion of Voodoo Doughnuts and High Brew Coffee was a no-brainer, but Showtime really earned their keep by curating two days of music uncanny enough to earn the title “Lynchian.” L. A. Salami was onstage when I arrived, with just the right note of Benzedrine beatnik Americana. Aldous Harding continued the theme against the red velvet backdrop invoking the show’s surreal Black Lodge. The New Zealand neo-folk artist, seated in all-white and accompanied by New York’s Invisible Familiars, sang in the angelic voice that echoes the Child
Ballads, the ancient wisdom and weird darkness at the edge of what we mean when we say “folk”—not coffee shops and whimsy, but drowning damsels and murder. And when she sings those beautiful and haunting songs, her face, now and again, twitches. Then, she bares her teeth in the pretense of a smile. A shoulder joint jerks. This is folk music channeled through Twin Peaks’ diminutive Man from Another Place, though Tiny Tim might be the more immediate referent. There’s something funny in Harding, and something sinister. That her set opened with a song entitled “What If Birds Aren’t Singing, They’re Screaming?” about sums it up, and the razor-sharp performance sustained through the haunting closer “Horizon.” Completely compelling, and a perfect match for the Twin Peaks venue.
Across the river, SXSW hosts a series of free concerts open to the Austin public, typically with larger acts meant as a thank you to the city’s residents for putting up with the congestion and minor inconveniences of the festival. Thursday those shows took on something of a political tinge, with Voto Latino’s presentation of Mexican and Mexican American acts promoting the notion of music without borders. Mexico City’s Panteon Rococo opened things up on this gorgeous day with the Austin skyline as backdrop. Los Angeles provocateurs Ozomatli followed with their empowering Southern California mix of banda, cumbia, funk, reggae, and rap. Families and grandmas danced as darkness fell, and lead singer Asdrubal Sierra (rocking pretty hard for a guy in a sling) reminded everyone of the idea that this particular concert was dedicated to, that “Everyone can travel wherever they want. Everyone can express themselves. Everyone can share the beauty they have.” The core of the set consisted of newly-recorded material—classic songs from the Mexican tradition rendered as reggae. A crowd favorite by far for these Texans was the cover of Corpus Christi legend Selena’s “Como La Flor.”
Sometimes the SXSW promotional blurb is sufficient to draw you into a show all on its own. Here’s a bit of the profile for Krakow’s Hanba! “Hanba! (‘disgrace’) is musical and literary fiction, designed to convince their audiences that punk-rock was not born in the noisy ’70s on the British Isles, but goes way back to the Second Polish Republic, a period marked by extraordinary cultural, artistic, and economic growth, but also systematic destruction of democracy, the authoritarian rule of the Sanation movement and its imperialist impulses.” Sold. These street punks are historians, and have written an entire oeuvre of songs chronicling the rise of Polish nationalism in a moment when, like most East Europeans, the Poles were pressed between the Nazis and the Soviets. How do they do it? With drum, banjo, accordion, and tuba, improbably. They write from the position of 1937, an entire concert as set piece. The only thing is, in Europe as in the United States, it doesn’t take long for it to dawn on you that their themes have a conscious, contemporary relevance. “Please don’t ask me to explain the [Polish] lyrics,” the singer said good-naturedly, “It all comes down to fuck the Nazis and all that stuff.” This was raucous material, with a thrash punk tuba take on the Internationale, and flying banjo leaps from the stage. The set was more poignant yet because we all know how the 1937 story ends and, indeed, the band finished with “The Germans Are Coming,” which might be the only performance I see this festival in which a comb is played as an air raid siren.
Thursday’s Hotel Vegas showcases were put together by Levitation, Austin’s psychedelia festival, record label, and brainchild of the Black Angels circle, the Reverberation Appreciation Society. It’s no coincidence that the Black Angels have made Austin an international center for the genre; Austin’s psychedelia roots are strong, and run through the iconic Thirteenth Floor Elevators, Golden Dawn, and Shiva’s Headband, among others. Artists of like minds gathered at Hotel Vegas, many of them Austinites, but also from further afield, like the spacey Flamingods from London. The Black Angels were represented in part by side project Christian Bland and the Revelators. Where the Black Angels demonstrate that psychedelic rock is not a retro relic, but a living tradition, Christian Bland also uses the Revelators to mine the genre’s compelling history, employing such perhaps unlikely psych standards as Link Wray’s “Rumble” in a set that was dark, atmospheric, and a utopia of reverb. Bland is a visionary in this scene, and that leadership was on full display tonight.
If Bland offers a spare and loving curation of mid-60s psych, Austin’s Golden Dawn Arkestra nod in the direction of anarchic sun cult. I literally could not count how many people were on the stage, in all manner of costume, an Afrofuturist/Orientalist funk collective writ large, whipping the crowd into an ecstasy reflected in the old-school oil projections that served as their backdrop. This spectacle surpasses words. It encompasses Sun Ra and Funkadelic perhaps, and takes some notes from the Polyphonic Spree, but is also its own thing that flits quickly in the direction of The Source Family’s Father Yod, an invitation to another world. Check out “Stargazer” for the sound, but seek them out live for the full effect.
And if the Golden Dawn Arekstra offers spectacle, S U R V I V E, relied on the strength of their composition. This was their first SXSW after exploding into national consciousness with the theme for 80s-nostalgic Stranger Things, and crowd chatter revealed that it was highly anticipated. The young duo did not even have vocal mics to interact with the crowd. This was all synth, all the time, with one song blending seamlessly into the next. The effect was an ominous and ambient one, as if they were scoring a film we were living, in the moment. While there’s a retro feel to what they do, there is also the sense that their reaching back to Moroder-era synth is not merely a history lesson, but that, like the Black Angels and psych, an entire genre might be reinvigorated as a channel for contemporary expression, with room to grow.
As the witching hour of last sets rolled around, I struck out on a few of the larger showcases. The Spoon residency at the Main was filled for the third day straight, and Lil’ Wayne at Stubb’s was impossible. Sometimes such near misses are fortuitous, though, as this one drew me to a hip-hop showcase headlined by Chicago’s The Cool Kids. Israeli-American rapper Kosha Dillz had organized the evening, and his delight that the small room had filed with such an enthusiastic crowd was contagious. With clever and self-conscious rhymes on the life of a Jewish hip-hop artist, Dillz pulled out all the stops. He rapped in Hebrew and Spanish on “Span-Hebrish,” invited Libyan-American artist Khaled M up for a freestyle that highlighted the international climate, and brought up the Boston Red Sox organist to play accordion on a new klezmer rap, “Schmoozin.’” Now that’s entertainment. The Cool Kids rolled up on stage for their 1:35 set and blazed through a tight set of hits and new numbers. “Mikey Rocks” was awesome in this small venue, and “Connect Four” was effortlessly terrific. And that would have been enough, really, a party to crown the night. But, as the Cool Kids prepared to depart the stage, an entourage that seemed nearly as large as the audience itself started to approach, and Houston Screwed-Up Click legend Lil’ Flip stepped up, unannounced, to freestyle and invite everyone to his day party Friday. He rocked into “This Is the Way We Ball,” and it was time to lean into the Texas night. | Jason Mellard