Part desert cult, part girl gang, all pentagrams and reverb psych-garage guitar, Death Valley Girls are even more fun than they sound.
See more of Jason’s pictures from SXSW here.
I just can’t get enough Ha Ha Tonka, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting SXSW stage for them on a Wednesday afternoon than the Midwest Music Foundation day party with Kansas City radio station The Bridge. That sounds like a lot of plugs to fit into a sentence, but the Midwest pride radiating from the event demands that everyone gets their due—especially Ha Ha Tonka from West Plains, Missouri. This is Bloodshot Records–style Americana at its finest, electric and rollicking and rooted and true. The band showcased material from Heart-Shaped Mountain, released this week, including the smart “Race to the Bottom” and “Everything.” Old favorites were here, too, the songs I first encountered in a South Austin alleyway during Bloodshot day parties years ago, particularly the bluegrass rollercoaster flourish of Red Meat’s “12-inch, 3-speed Oscillating Fan.” Theirs is the best performance of a song about a fan anywhere, anytime in the history of the world. There. I said it.
Bloodshot royalty Jon Langford followed with his band the Far Forlorn—much more than Bloodshot royalty, actually. Langford’s not one to be pigeonholed, but I think it’s safe to say the Welsh singer first made his name with first-wave British punk legends the Mekons. Since, he’s transformed as an artist more than once, perhaps most visibly as part of the Chicago-based alt-country outfit the Waco Brothers. Wednesday afternoon’s Jon Langford incarnation appeared with a Celtic-flavored, bluegrass-inflected band focused on Welsh drinking songs and their ilk, but also with reworkings of Mekons material with fiddle and mandolin like “Memphis, Egypt”—one of the most surprising memories this festival has minted for me, for sure.
Back at the daily dose of Hotel Vegas, I encountered my spirit animals on a vision quest in the form of the Death Valley Girls. Part desert cult, part girl gang, all pentagrams and reverb psych-garage guitar, they’re even more fun than they sound, and, occasionally, a little unhinged. In a good way. Lead singer and possible demon goddess Bonnie Bloomgarden: “And now I’m going to play a song about when they let you out of the sanitarium too soon and you just want to go back,” followed by pitched screams and psychotic warbling over danceable, raw rock ’n’ roll. As the set built around 2016’s Glow in the Dark came to a close, Bloomgarden offered advice that cut through the noise of a hundred SXSW industry panels. “Be in a band. It’s cool. That’s what we are.” Yes.
The NPR showcase at Stubb’s Barbecue is a jam-packed bill, year in, year out. This year is no different, except perhaps the fact that National Public Radio’s fate hangs in the balance of the proposed federal budget. All the more reason to assemble a roster of bold artists to demonstrate NPR Music’s value. PWR BTTM led things off. I confess I feared the group might be big on queer concept and glam posture without the performance to back it up. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. May the Bowie/Prince/Mercury trinity forgive me my transgressions. The duo of Ben Hopkins and Liv Bruce, joined by a bassist and keyboard/flugelhorn(!) player, shredded the Stubb’s stage, all while making the place a platform for something more than music: the value of art in sustaining ourselves through troubled times. This theme of intersections and allies continued through the night, with artists foregrounding not only LGBTQ, Latino, immigrant, African-American, and women’s perspectives, but how those positions might work together for the greater good. PWR BTTM’s set wrapped such sentiments in joyous songs about gender-neutral pronouns and offerings of universal pop confection like “Answer My Text.” They dialed in on rage, too, finishing off with a chant Hopkins designated “a poem designed to kill fascists.” It sounds didactic. It’s not. Popular music’s political solidarity is at least as old as Hopkins’ tip of the hat to Woody Guthrie.
Hurray for the Riff Raff’s Alynda Segarra joined in for a song during PWR BTTM’s set and then picked up their theme with a cycle of songs about mobility and immigration, anchored in the new album The Navigator. Segarra particularly focused on her own family’s history in the Puerto Rican Bronx with “Rican Beach” and “Fourteen Floors,” dedicated to her father. I admit I came in part for the abstract single “Hungry Ghost,” but I left with a better understanding of the new album’s statement for 2017. Hurray for the Riff Raff closed with the epic, anthemic “Pa’lante,” bringing it all together with a concept Segarra says she inherited from the Young Lords activists of the Bronx, a sense that we should always move forward and never fear the challenges we have to face. “Be something,” she repeats again and again in the song, making a mantra of it, and interweaving her song with the words of 1960s Nuyorican poet Pedro Pietri.
Sylvan Esso took the rising temperature of the room, saw the need for release, and made it dance. As an NPR DJ said later, “I want to live my entire life within that set” of the electronic duo’s new, often-unreleased tracks. I hadn’t seen a crowd so hyped up yet this year—that is, until Lizzo blew the roof off what was left of the amphitheater. Her DJ, true to Minneapolis form, intro’d by playing Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy.” Then Lizzo, rolling with her body-positive all-woman dance crew, commanded the stage, starting with Coconut Oil’s opening track “Worship,” and never letting go of the crown she crafted for herself from the Stubb’s band shell. “Phone,” “Scuse Me,” and a slew of songs kept the dance party going, climaxing with “Good as Hell.” Lizzo even dedicated a particularly tasty club banger to famous gay liberation daddy Mike Pence.
You can’t top that, but knowing a legend like Grandmaster Flash is in the neighborhood helps. The man practically invented hip-hop, or at least the DJ toolkit of scratching, mixing, and cutting in late-’70s New York. Whether or not he was the otherworldly sensei depicted in Netflix’s The Get Down, there’s no questioning that few of the thousands of artists in Austin this week have credentials equal to his. Flash was spinning Wednesday night at the Clive bar on Rainey Street. The spot had been taken over by Showtime for promotional purposes, and the crowd seemed to be older VIPs of the corporate class. Or not: It’s possible that Flash’s status as a “retro” act brought the older crowd out. Regardless, he spun classics that traced the sonic textures of his New York moment because, as he said in understated fashion, “The Seventies were a very special time for me.” While there weren’t really surprises here—“Ring My Bell,” “Apache,” “Heart of Glass”—Flash was doing what all good DJs do in reading the room, and I felt privileged just to be able to pay tribute to a master.
Down the street, another DJ took the stage around the same time Grandmaster Flash left his. Silverio is like that thing where Tony Clifton and Har Mar Superstar had a child, and that child was an electroclash DJ from Mexico City. Starting off in a sparkling leisure suit with abrasive dance tracks like “Perro” and “Tu Casa” (even grittier in performance than on record), by set’s end, Silverio was stripped all the way down to his skivvies, pouring cocktails out of his boot forcefully into the mouths of audience members, baring his balls, and spraying beer and spit across the crowd with abandon. Silverio curated a football hooliganism of the dance floor, a theater of confrontation worthy of Brecht. Or, you know, Andy Kaufman.
Why SXSW matters: Leaving Lizzo’s show, overheard: “THAT’S why I love music!” At the end of Silverio’s show: “What the hell WAS that?” followed by “Now that man’s got talent!” (The latter comment may or may not have been uttered by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema impresario Tim League.)
It is hard to imagine a Latin act further from Silverio than Miami-based Venezuelans Los Amigos Invisibles. Thank goodness it took a while for the band to set up, giving the crowd a palate-cleansing moment before receiving the group’s idiosyncratic dreamy, psych-lite atmospherics. Venezuelan flags broke out in the crowd, and a dance party erupted quite distinct from Silverio’s lucha libre. Spain’s showcase at the neighboring bar made for a fine pairing at night’s end, a shifting of gears from the Latin popscapes of Los Amigos Invisibles to Triángulo de Amor Bizarro’s brutal and beautiful wall of sound. The band from Galicia is named for New Order’s “Bizarre Love Triangle,” and their keen postpunk chops shined through in an explosive set, channeling an energy bold and unexpected here at closing time on a Wednesday.
And we still have the weekend to go. | Jason Mellard