One of my biggest pieces of SXSW advice for out-of-towners is to use it as a means to discover the rich talents Austin itself has to offer.
See all Jason’s photos from SXSW here.
The Tuesday of SXSW dawned a little sunnier than the last few days, perfect weather for the moveable feast of day parties that lies ahead for the rest of the week. It seems just about everyone has one: record labels, government ministries, shoe brands, magazines, television shows, websites, museums, what have you. It’s worth visiting some of each to see how they approach the format. Tuesday, #BossBabesATX, an empowerment collective for women in the creative fields, had it down pat with the right people, the right place, and the right moment for women-positive artists to take center stage. Former MIA percussionist Madame Gandhi offered a multifaceted performance of elaborate drumming, rapping/declaiming over electronic beats, and spoken-word calls to action, including a reading from the Feminist Utopia Project. She played both “Future Is Female” and “Gandhi’s Blues” from 2016’s Voices EP, but the highlight was a “live remix” of a new copy of the track “Yellow Sea” the artist had received on her phone moments before.
One of my biggest pieces of SXSW advice for out-of-towners is to use it as a means to discover the rich talents Austin itself has to offer. We’re spoiled, really, with the presence of folks like Jon Dee Graham. His local pedigree is without peer, from being one of Austin’s seminal punks in The Skunks with Jesse Sublett, to a stint with the “marching guitar army” of the New Sincerity band True Believers alongside Alejandro and Javier Escovedo. Since, Graham has become one of the most heralded songwriters in a scene that takes such things seriously. His growled delivery invites comparisons to both Tom Waits and a grizzly bear. At the Dogwood Tuesday afternoon, Graham played alongside his son William Harries Graham of the Painted Redstarts, balancing that world-weary voice with sweet, meandering guitar. “Welcome to SXSW 2017: The Carnival of Blood,” he intoned as he started off a set heavy on songs from 2016’s Knoxville Skyline, including the uncharacteristically optimistic “Things Might Turn Out Right,” that Graham pointed out, bemusedly, had gotten more national radio play than just about anything he’d ever done. The Americana radio format serves Graham and other affiliated Austinites well. “Dan Stuart’s Blues,” a loving tribute to the band Green on Red, was another standout, as was an offhand, poignant rendition of the Mary Tyler Moore theme. Together with “Things Might Turn Out Right,” an artist who delights in playing the curmudgeon might have been telegraphing to the hometown crowd—and he called out several audience members by name—that we might just make it after all.
Admission to the official showcases Tuesday evening was a bit hit-or-miss, in part because Tuesday was one of the only days that the interactive and music crowds overlapped. As a result, my stab at seeing the Lemon Twigs fell through, and I got a bit antsy waiting around the Man in the High Castle theme night put on by Amazon; I’ll have to get back to both. The Nashville scene showcase was next, with rocker Ron Gallo. The energetic Gallo opened with “Young Lady, You’re Scaring Me,” the first track from the new album Heavy Meta, and the band seared through a raucous, bluesy set with garage rock abandon.
A second unsolicited piece of SXSW advice, and one that I offer nearly every time I clock in here: international acts, international acts, international acts. A decade or more of having my mind blown by international artists started at a goth-y club called Elysium, which boosted the trend by hosting Japan Nite. Eventually, Japan Nite expanded to two evenings, and then both South Korea and Taiwan carved out showcases of their own (and Korea is now giving Japan a run for its money in terms of talent and buzz). Tuesday was Taiwan’s evening at Elysium, starting with moody alt-rockers Hello Nico. Their festival blurb reads: “They are best known for their unique depressing and drowning tune, along with the distinctive female voice by the vocalist Yu-Ting Chan.” Their performance bore this out, but the words also sell the band short. Singer Yu-Ting Chan seems to come from the trapped-bird school of expressive dance, her eyes shooting side to side and piercing all as she delivers tortured and, yes, “depressing and drowning” vocals. Which doesn’t sound like how you’d want to spend a Tuesday night, but, paired with the tight crescendo of the band, she made for an absolutely compelling performance. Chan fell to the ground once or twice, but rarely seemed to breathe or break character until the briefest and quietest of “thank yous” at the set’s end. It looked like a Taiwanese funk band was taking the stage next, which felt like a bit too abrupt of a shift, so I stepped away to assess my next move. Hurray for the Riff Raff was packed to the gills next door on an outside stage, so I’ll have to hope to catch them Wednesday instead. The new single “Hungry Ghost” was still audible over the festival’s din, though.
My favorite music venue added to the rotation this year, hands down, is Cooper’s Barbecue because, well, as their slogan says, “It’s all about the meat.” Based in Llano, Cooper’s is one of those storied Central Texas barbecue families, but now they’ve got an outpost for brisket and ribs in the heart of downtown Austin. SXSW has had the good sense to pack one of its dining rooms with a killer Americana lineup all week. Tuesday, Austin blues legend Miss Lavelle White rocked the joint to the benefit of both locals-in-the-know and foreign tourists seeking an “authentic” Texas experience. Born in Louisiana and raised in Houston, White came up through Don Robey’s Peacock Records empire, finding her voice in the touring band of B.B. King in the late 1950s. Since then, her career has intersected with a who’s who of blues greats, and, at nearly 90 years of age, she still belts it out. And not just downtempo torch songs, either; White’s band lets her take off on funk flights of fancy, with her imploring the barbecue-sated patrons of Cooper’s to get up and dance as her set sped toward its concluding rendition of Stevie Wonder’s “Living for the City.”
Tuesday morning, the first words I said, mantra-like, upon opening my eyes: “Wu-Tang.” Catching the Wu-Tang Clan at the ACL Moody Theater at night’s end seemed a dim possibility, but a worthy aspiration. They were headlining a showcase otherwise dominated by D.C. artists in the space used to film the television program Austin City Limits. The best strategy in such situations is to show up a few acts before the one you’re aiming for, which was an easy choice to make when the artists leading in to Wu-Tang were Erykah Badu and the Thievery Corporation. And so, with little line or fanfare, I waltzed in to the party anthems of Rare Essence, purveyors of that D.C.-specific product of go-go music. Go-go remains one of the most localized American genres, an infectious and unending percussive groove of congas, cowbells, and timbales, with call-and-response MCs over the whole mix. The band was a huge one, with over a dozen horn players, drummers, and dancers on stage. Rare Essence is one of the best-known go-go acts to arise in the wake of the genre’s founder, Chuck Brown, and they showed why in a set that would stand up to what Wu-Tang would deliver later in the evening. D.C. rapper Wale charged the stage to perform, but also to point out to the crowd just how important Rare Essence, and go-go, were to the D.C. scene.
Next on the bill was Dallas’s DJ Lo Down Loretta Brown, better known as Erykah Badu. In diva fashion, as is her due, Badu took her time in coming to the stage, leading the between-set DJ to pull out his entire bag of tricks in keeping the Rare Essence party going. He played hip-hop classic after hip-hop classic, gamely reading the SXSW interactive crowd so expertly that at one point he then dipped into Queen, the Cheers theme, and House of Pain’s “Jump Around.” Theodor Adorno, and I’m paraphrasing here, once noted that the cheap tyranny of pop derived from the simple pleasure of the listener in responding, “Hey, I know that song,” and the DJ’s efforts were nothing short of crowd pleasing on that score. Luckily, Badu came on to bring us back to the challenge of deep (or at least deeper) cuts and mixes for her shortened set, building up to Afrika Bambaataa’s “Planet Rock.” She sang a little, too. Her few moments on stage left us wanting more—but she’d be back.
The eccentricity of Badu’s set recalibrated the evening for D.C.’s Thievery Corporation. They were a little pressed for time after Badu, but they still treated the crowd to a near-full rendition of their new album The Temple of I & I. The work’s rasta themes of tearing down Babylon, its embrace of world music and expansive vision of resistance culture, are particularly timely in Austin 2017. As on record, the group traded off vocalists for each song, with a range of artists, including Puma Ptah and Mr. Lif, working the crowd over the loopy chill of dub that is Thievery Corporation’s trademark. They were excellent, all in all, but it also seemed the crowd was perhaps a bit impatient for the Wu.
And what can you say about that? The Wu-Tang Clan populated the stage as only they can, effortlessly weaving words and bodies in and out of formation with an energy that did not seem at all dimmed by time. Method Man was missing in action, working on a television show in L.A., as was Ghostface Killah. Redman put in only a brief appearance, but made it count with an explosive “Pick It Up.” The 36 Chambers anthems were here; it seems like they should always lead with “Wu-Tang Clan Ain’t Nuthing ta F’Wit,” but it was near the top of the set at least. Badu even came back to offer the Wu-Tang referent “Afro (Freestyle Skit),” in what may have been a spontaneous gesture (a stage hand kept running on stage and whispering, I can only assume, “Ms. Badu has requested that she be able to sing a number”). The set covered the group’s oeuvre in a tight and effortless fashion, and ventured into curious moments, like a cover of “Come Together” leading into RZA taking a moment to preach about refugees: “How can you ban a man from a land that is supposed to be a beacon from tyranny?” And then, as 2 in the morning rolled around, SXSW had a classic performance in the books. It’s hard to see how the festival can top Wu-Tang, but here’s hoping Wednesday is up to the challenge. | Jason Mellard
Photo by Jason Mellard