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SXSW 2011: Saturday

22 Mar

In Which We Get Through, Get Old, Get Lifted & Get Gone

It’s the last day of SXSW and despite running on only a couple hours of sleep every night and an increasing sense of delirious desperation about timetables and covering shows, it’s still sunny and warm and that’s really enough to get going. That, and a Venti from Starbucks. I’ll say this about Austin, for all their awesome music venues, bars and streetfood stands, there aren’t really any independent coffeeshops around Sixth Street. Everyone “Proudly serves Starbucks”. Maybe some enterprising Minneapolitan transplants should get on that, because I could have used some Spyhouse or Muddy Waters action on more than one occasion.

You’d think too, that at a day party sponsored by a foodie, that it would be easy to get some grub. Not so at Rachael Ray’s Feedback party, where the lines for the food carts criss-crossed eachother to form a wall bisecting the Stubb’s courtyard 30 minutes after doors opened. The Rachael Ray party has gone from being a relatively small affair upstairs at Stubb’s to a full blown mini-festival in it’s own right over the last 3 years, and the lines were really nowhere near annoying as the tote bags that people were picking up emblazoned with “Noutrish”, which is apparently some vacuous slang that Rachael Ray is using as a logo. Regardless of her position on the English language, she does have good taste when it comes to music, as Tapes ‘n Tapes kicked off the event, which featured a lineup heavy on newer soul act and older artists made good again.

Before making a full day of it with Rachael Ray, we swung by the party quickly to say hi to the “Are You Local?” winners and all-around stompers The 4onthefloor, who had been making the most of their SXSW experience, talking up as many folks as possible and partying as hard as they could. Besides, if you’re not getting some kickass rock and roll from a rising band, then you’re missing the point of South by.

Back at the Rachael Ray party, another bearded blues rocker was just wrapping his set as we rolled back in as Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top had stepped in to play with The Cringe upping the appeal of that set by a factor of about a hundred. Which was a good thing too, as Das Racist were supposed to be playing at the same time as The Cringe, but had canceled their appearance. Whoever books a hard-partying rap crew for a 12:30 appearance after a night where they have had a 2am gig really needs to rethink their career choice. Still, it’s Texas, and Billy Gibbons was on hand to bring the fire. On the smaller stage, Boston blue-eyed soul man Eli “Paperboy” Reed came on to a hype man promising he would “make you shake, make you shiver, he always delivers!” Deliver he did, belting out tunes and bounding across the packed stage like a sincere John Belushi (come to think of it, for all it’s wackiness, The Blues Brothers was totally sincere about the music) and making the women in the audience (plus a pair of very happy gay men) scream along. His backing band, the True Loves, were right on point, with the big trumpet blasts and a pounding drumline that drove it all the way home.

If Reed and the True Loves shook the foundations of the stage, then Fitz and the Tantrums blew the roof off of it. The Angeleno sextet had already shown us they could put on a show, but even under the hot sun, they were raising everybody’s temperatures with their explosive pop-soul. When Fitz announced that “This is the part of the motherfucking show when you get your freak on,” before breaking into “L.O.V.”, there was no joking about it, and so here’s hoping that next time they come into town, they pick a bigger venue then Bunker’s to tear the walls down.

After a bombastic set from The Bravery came the highlight of the day, tiny shining Texan star Wanda Jackson. Hopes were high that since Jack White was in town for the Third Man Rolling Record Store that he would make an appearance, but he seems to have been content to let Jackson carry her own show, which she did with style and aplomb. Kicking it off with “Riot in Cell Block #9”, she and her backing band covered songs from her very early country days, through Elvis and rock and roll and all the way up to the White-produced The Party Ain’t Over. At age 73, she said that she was having, “the time of [her] life,” and as she beamed and vamped for the cameras, she told plenty of stories in between songs, all the while sipping a plastic cup of cabernet, the only thing that she said helps clear the “Austin throat”. Before covering Elvis’ “Heartbreak Hotel”, she said that it was his encouragement that brought her in to rock and roll where she “found [her] home” and that, “yes, girls, he was a good kisser!” She also talked about how humbling it was to be inducted into the Rock and Roll hall of Fame and how Jack White had pushed her “into the 21st Century.” As she covered Amy Winehouse’s “You Know I’m No Good”, it was clear to everyone in the ecstatic audience that the First Lady of Rockabilly hadn’t lost a step of her swing, and that we were all watching a national treasure in her true home.

After Jackson, it was a quick tear over to the Fader Fort again to catch the last SXSW show of buzzy-with-mixed-reviews dubstep singer James Blake. However Blake may be in the late-night comfort of a dark club, in the middle of the day under a packed tent, Blake’s ambient, spacious beats were deathly dull, and for whatever you may think liltingly high of his voice, being hidden behind some buzzing auto-tune doesn’t do it any favors. The Fader Fort at least had the bass systems in place to bring out some of best part of the songs, like the throbbing pulses like the downbeat on “Limit To Your Love”, but the overall effect was underwhelming at best. After the somber and sedate effect of that set, it was good to get back onto Sixth Street and get some real entertainment:

Back at the Austin Convention Center, we caught the Style X fashion show, an innovation this year to bring fashion in under the SXSW umbrella. With an American Apparel “flea market” and a number of vendor stalls where you could get everything from jewelry to hand-made boots to “SpiritHoods“, furry animal hats with long, scarf-like tassels (by far and away the ugliest thing at SXSW) to a haircut. The actual fashion show element showcased musicians from various bands walking the runway and most of the men ranged from surly to downright furious that they were taking part in the catwalk, mostly dressed in variations of plaid and skinny jeans. The women were more game, with Malaysian artist ZE! gleefully bounding out in a neon bikini top and flicking off the cameras, but overall it has to be said that there were bigger and bolder fashion choices out on the streets of Austin than on the catwalk.

So at this point in the day the run had been Stubb’s-Beauty Bar-Stubb’s-Fader Fort-Convention Center, and then it was time to head back to the Fader Fort, this time to catch the reunion of DeYarmond Edison, the college band comprised of Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and the members of Megafaun. Their set was slated to go on after New Orleans rapper Curren$y and his crew, South African MC Spoek Mathambo and before Berkley weirdo rapper Lil B. So the crowd chanting “Hip-hop, hip-hop!” along with the DJ as DeYarmond Edison set up was in for a disappointment- you can see in the video below a middle finger up at the band- that no amount of “But he sang with Kanye!” could cure. As a band, they only played three songs, Bonnie Rait’s “Lovers Will”, Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” (the Donny Hathaway version, Vernon clarified) and their own “Set Me Free”, a deep gospel-blues jam that they stretched out, building it up to a thundering close. They sounded great together, not missing a beat and playing with passion, although it’s not like they don’t talk or haven’t played together at all in the last seven years, I mean, there’s that whole Gayngs thing. Still, for some of the members of the crowd who were obviously there for them, the ones with huge grins and closed eyes, it was a sweet moment of rock and roll, not to mention funky Midwestern earnestness. Oh yeah, and P.Diddy was checking it out, wearing a t-shirt that said “Cocaine and Caviar”, which was probably more accurate for the Fader Fort than Vernon’s own lime-green vintage Bart Simpson tee.

With time ticking on, there were still more showcases to hit, this time, the Nat Geo party at Habana Bar, which featured a number of international artists. The Cambodian Space Project was an awesome experience, bringing lost Cambodian rock from the 60s back to light. Fronted by singer Srey Thy and lead by guitarist Julien Poulsen, a Frenchman based in Australia, the songs of The Cambodian Space Project are great go-go and psychedelic gems sung in Khmer that were lost or suppressed during the violence of Cambodia’s recent history, from the Khmer Rouge insurgency and takeover in the mid-70s through the more recent civil war and factional bloodshed. Poulsen noted that their 7″, “I’m Unsatisfied” was probably the first vinyl produced in Cambodia in the last 35 years, which probably makes it more important in the scheme of things than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Outside on the back patio, Malian soul singer Khaira Arby and her band were tearing up their beautiful polyrhythms, the fluttering guitarlines of M’Barka Dembebe that leave Hendrix in the dust and syncopated bass and beats left nobody unmoved in the crowd. Arby’s own voice was a powerhouse, a knockout of modulating sustains and swoops down into deep growls that emanated out of her made the air ripple. They had already played a number of shows over the course of the festival (including one for NPR that is archived here) but their energy was unflagging and rejuvenating. Her beatific smile lead on everyone as she modeled dance moves for the crowd- hands to knees, touch the heart, blow a kiss, touch the heart, over the shoulder shuffle and repeat- that the mixed audience followed to varying degrees of dancing skill. As Jesse Schuster of Caroline Smith & The Good Night Sleeps raved (and the whole band was in attendance at the show), there was so much happening in the music that no matter where you chose to enter, there would be “something to support you.”

That would seem to be the best kind of experience to take from a music festival of the scope and magnitude of SXSW; as long as you choose to enter into it, to choose to be a part of it, there will be something there to support you, to carry you along and surprise you. We did go to some other shows to wrap up the night- getting a taste of the sweet pop-rock of Someone Still Loves You Boris Yeltsin and singing along to “Bastards of Young” with Jesse Malin & The St. Marks Social– and some we didn’t- the Yoko Ono show at Elysium and the festival-blowout Kanye extravaganza- but in the end, you go to what you want to go to, you get in as much as you can and get as lifted as possible. The music itself can sustain you and everything else, everything that tires and exhausts and seems superfluous, in the end, is, and that’s life. Like life, nothing is perfect in the expansive bubble of Austin in March, but like life, it’s not only rock ‘n roll, and I like it even more.

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