20 March 2008

sxsw roundup pt. 4: south by (not west) a.k.a. last plane from jakarta


the first three days of southby were pretty great, no doubt, but saturday practically blew them out of the water. maybe because of a stacked lineup for the final day of the conference - though it hadn't seemed especially more promising - more likely because we'd finally gotten the pacing and rhythm of sxsw down, as tends to happen on the last day. also, we got our earliest start yet, so as to pack in that much more.

started at probably the best day party of the week, the seattle-themed function at the lovely palm door (which, fittingly, had a vague sort of seaside b&b feel to it, with its painted wood and exposed rafters), featuring very tasty free "northwest-style" food, free drinx, excellent schwag including emp rock trivia card decks, and, best, a noon-o-clock set from throw me the statue, who gave easily one of the best performances i saw all the week, especially in the rock-band category. totally sweet, fun, bouncy, hooky, energetic pop-squawk-rawk. and hey, that goofily kinetic bell-player is my buddy (and former bandmate) aaron - so great to see him and to see him making good on the rock'n'roll dream. good lookin' out! by the way, though they were plenty loud, this was the only set of the week for which i didn't put in my ear plugs.

we decided to skip the block-long line for the rachael ray party (and the hour-long wait for black moth super-digitalism at stubb's) and went back to the current radio broadcast corner to make some t-shirts (and some more buttons - elvis c., crossword, cabbage, warholized hillary, sister rosetta tharpe.) nava's says no topless frying, which is rule #3 of her apartment. you'll probably see what mine says soon enough. befriended some michiganders in line (hyperkinetic stereokids) who made a flint happens shirt. then to the fort in search of free ice cream (sandwiches!), free drinks (green yuck!), and a wristband for nava, and also a david banner
set that never materialized. (not sure what happened there.) we waited around anyway though, and soon lykke li came on, looking much fresher and more confident than when we'd seen her earlier, and played a substantially more enjoyable (though not all that many songs longer) set that considerably improved my opinion of her, so i'm glad we caught it.

after that though we skedaddled to lambert's to finally watch the explorer's club, whom i'd narrowly missed seeing twice so far. it was well worth the wait and effort, as they're so sunny and good-natured and goofy on stage that it's pretty impossible not to have a good time watching them (with free corn mini-muffins to boot!) their (mid-to-late period) beach boys fixation is so over-the-top it's almost preposterous, but they've got what it takes to pull it off - upwards of three fully competent vocalists, a general genially scruffy appearance including at least one dude with shaggy blond shoulder-length locks, a trove of secret-weapon instruments from lap-steel to sleighbells, and, crucially, some pretty darned effective melodies. not sure if anything quite tops "forever" (which is itself an undeniable pastiche), but several of 'em came close, and if nothing else their set-closing "johnny b. goode" cover (which had me and n off our stools and dancin') cut to the good-vibes essence of rock'n'roll.

next stop the fire hall (or something), where a small circle was huddled in rapt attention around local-ish (dallas?) hip-hop posse ddc, one of whose members (though not the one in the oversized wonderbread t-shirt) declared himself the greatest rapper ever, past or future. well all right. they were pretty sweet, and i'm looking forward to checking out their mixtape, but we were there to see sway, the british-born/ghanaian-raised/uk-reppin' rapper who's probably my favorite mc, and whom i never particularly expected to be five feet away from. his set was shortish but packed, including several highlights from this is my demo - "little derek," with the audience echoing the end of each chorus line, credit-card debt anthem "flo fashion," anti p2p diatribe "download," and of course "up your speed," for which all the place names were changed to austin ("up your speed") or texas ("change gear"), which sort of confuses the driving conceit - some stuff presumably from the upcoming signature, like the goofy but neat "say it twice" (on which he 'repeats everything he says'); a couple of a cappellas and a freestyle or two; lots of audience engagement (mostly getting us to say his name a lot of times); and much mileage taken from the fact that 'sway' rhymes with 'u.k.' and (for his freestyle on crowd-chosen topics) 'rachael ray.' being full of yourself is more or less allowed (/encouraged) in hip-hop, so i can't really hold that against him. anyway, he's just as charismatic and fun and technically impressive in person. hope he does manages to do okay here in the states... if any british rapper could make it he's probably the one.

speaking of rachael ray, we went to her party next - there was no food left by this time, so getting in wasn't too hard (though, i guess, that kind of defeated the purpose), but there were pre-mixed mojitos that, as nava said, tasted just like mojitos except that they weren't good. impressive culinary feat, that. there was also holy fuck, who sounded pretty cool and funky though i couldn't really see them that well through the crowd. (looked like they were mostly fiddling around with things on tables, but in a more energetic and interesting-to-watch way than that typically implies.) there was also dj efrin ramirez, aka pedro from napoleon dynamite, though i sure wouldn't have recognized him - but he held it down pretty well when we were there/leaving, including a good remix of beck's "guero" and an excellent mashup of "closer" and "in da club." and there was ms. ray herself, who took the stage to wish us goodbye and hope that our minds had been blown.

pretty good so far. then it got better. we biked east of downtown to the french legation museum, where one of the best lineups of the week was serenading the beautifully green and spacious grounds of the former seat of local government. we'd rsvp'd but there was enough space for anybody to just walk in, grab a $4 hamburger (skip the epic beer line though) and a free ice cream snack, and lay out on the grass - as we did for most of she & him's very pretty, if hardly riveting, decidedly classic-sounding set - or take a seat under the tent, as we did for okkervil river. actually, we sat (on the ground, forward of the many rows of seats) for about ten minutes before the set started, but by the time the band took the stage we were up on our feet, and pumped. oh man. i'd seen okkervil twice, and knew they put on an awesome show, but i'd forgotten just how tremendously, emotionally intense they are, in the best possible way, with will sheff seemingly pouring every ounce of his being into his singing and playing, and the rest of the band right there alongside him. this may have been particularly impassioned, being a hometown show, but i still don't know how he does it, especially since they had another gig (at stubb's) starting in a little under two hours after they finished this set. it wasn't a particularly long set - the whole party had been running late, for one thing - but it was action-packed, kicking off with "westfall," ripping through several from the last album ("plus ones," "unless it's kicks," and "our life is not a movie or maybe" - whose title, i hadn't realized, is apparently meant to preface the first line of the song), and the rockers "the latest toughs" and "for real." "movie" and "for real," in particular, are just such cleverly, powerfully constructed songs, in ways that translate so well to live setting, with the band wringing every drop of tension and energy out of them. damn, what a great band...

let's see... then we met a norwegian guy in the line for the men's room (don't know if i'd ever seen gendered port-a-potties before - they were even color-coded, pink and blue), who turned out to live a block or two away from where bobby had lived in san francisco. by the time kimya dawson went on the tent had cleared out a fair amount, and we took some chairs towards the back for probably the gentlest and sweetest (and funniest) set of the week. kimya may somewhat resemble a big baby - as she almost overheard somebody saying about her a little too loudly over the hushed crowd - but i'd like to see her actual baby, whose name is panda. probably the best part of her set were several songs from her forthcoming childrens album, including "alpha-butt" (an alphabet song of farts and butts) and song about us being animals too. also her closer, where an interstitial cover of "on the road again," which at first seemed to be an appropriate appropriated chorus turned out to be the beginning of an extended 'impression' of changing stations on the road-trip radio.

and then it was saturnight. quick bite at progress with matt, then off to see hanne hukkelberg at emo's iv. actually she was at emo's jr. (my mistake), which meant it took a while to get in, not because of people lining up to see her, but for the raveonettes/donnas/x lineup happening later on at the connected emo's (main). so we missed the beginning of her set ("berlin" and "cheater's armoury," i gathered from paper-plate setlist), and the room was noisy with street-noise and slowly-filtering-in bar talkers - in all a markedly poor venue choice - but it's okay because everything about the set itself was simply stunning. for such a seasoned player, hanne's not much of a performer, but her shyness draws you in, and introversion suits her music anyway. every member of her band (jazzy drummer, sick fake-hollow-body guitarist, bassist and a very impressive harmony vocalist/multi-instrumentalist) was technically great, and they played really well together, fleshing out the odd and intimate sound-world of the album (most of the set was from rykestraße 68, plus "ease" and maybe one other from little things.) dramatic conclusion of the pixies cover and "ticking bomb," which packs so much into its short running time it's kind of overwhelming. she's truly something special, and it was a treat to get to see her even in suboptimal conditions. go norway.

things did get a bit derailed at that point. nava and i went to check out volume, where flosstradamus, cool kids, a-trak, etc. were scheduled to appear in a half hour or so, and got in so easily (to a funky but only half-full club) that i decided to leave and come back in a bit, so as to check out innerpartysystem, the suburban phillyites i'd at one point been scheduled to play a gig with. as per katehawk[atwork?]'s insistence that everybody should see them. i am glad i saw them - they play a kind of u2-intense, darkly shiny, melodramatic electronic dance rock with a swanky, flashy stage-light show and a big-league professionalism rare at sxsw back-patio tent gigs, and i was duly impressioned, though it's probably not something i could stand to listen to for more than twenty minutes at a stretch - but it turned out to be a mistake as when i returned to volume not a half-hour later there was suddenly a mega-line, mass confusion, and seemingly dwindling likelihood of getting into the apparently now-at-capacity club.

i found myself without a great contingency plan for that slot (i made it through the whole festival without actually carrying a schedule, or anything more than a long-sleeved waist-tied shirt, to weigh myself down), but figured i'd go check out tally hall, a fave band of mark's who i figured might be entertaining at the least. actually it was by far my least favorite set of the day, which isn't necessarily saying much, and is also partially due to the staggeringly overheated buffalo billiards upstairs room where they were playing, but... yeah, they were just kind of bland and musically uninteresting and utterly un-groovy, and not even funny (not that i could really understand the words, which is a problem for this kind of group), cute outfits and nifty introductory video notwithstanding. oh well, can't win 'em all.

was totally made up for by the next band, white shoes and the couples company, an incomprehensibly anachronistic indie pop outfit from indonesia, jakarta (as they say it.) "indonesia has many islands!" a giddily slippery bobby shouted out after one of their songs. not only are these guys from halfway around the world, they seem like they're from about four decades in the past - on the other hand the cultural reference points are so up for grabs that it's hard to say just how much winking calculation (some, surely?) is involved in their pitch-perfect evocation of a particular late-sixties internationalist lounge-chic aesthetic, in everything from their faded press photos and period-appropriate semi-formal wardrobe (white suits; the adorably boyish drummer sported a bowtie and a floppy bowl-cut) to their unabashed exotica-flavored lite-disco and easy-listening grooves. lead singer/dancer/finger-snapper aprilia apsari's hundred-watt beam (puts even rachael ray to shame) certainly wasn't letting slip any inkling of convoluted post-colonial semiotic self-awareness. nevermind that though - she and the band as a whole (grinning and funky-dancing pint-sized bassist, sweetly demure pianist/violinist, endearingly dopey acoustic guitarist - unfortunately the lead guitarist was missing due to late visa clearance) put on a pitch-perfect, flawlessly good-natured performance, complete with an extended, jokey swing-style drum solo. and we were eating it up - it's hard to say whether the band or the audience was having a better time, but it was certainly a pretty magical moment.

and then there was time for just one more set. i'd been hoping for a finale that might approach the out-of-the-blue awesomeness of last year's junior senior gig, and after a bit of deliberation i stuck with my inclination and found it, for sure, in the form of was (not was) out-of-retirement appearance at la zona rosa, which was not merely (as i expected) entertaining and unpredictable but (as i probably should have expected) pretty much mindblowingly great on just about every level. as the grinning, dredded, shade-wearing and be-hatted don was informed us, this was the band's first gig in texas in twenty years and their first time playing with all three of their original vocalists since 1992 - they're (back) together now having recorded what will be their first album in eighteen years. but they hardly sounded dusty.

who is this band again? was (not was) are a project spearheaded by the fictional (white) brothers don and david was, featuring some seriously soulful (black) r&b vocalists (notably sweet pea atkinson and sir harry bowens, who for this gig were seriously decked out in natty three-piece suits and fedoras) and assorted other mostly detroit-based musicians (as don made sure to point out), who in this case included a completely sick (black) electric guitarist (randy jacobs), a no-slouch-either (white) saxist, and, freaking, james gadson, a drum legend (shame on you wikipedia!) whose credits include ray charles, bill withers, marvin gaye, diana ross, etc. etc. i first heard them via my dad's cassette copy of are you okay?, their 1990 swansong (until now), which i mostly dug for the oddball lyrics and weirdo sing-speaking of songs like "i feel better than james brown." also g. love e. (as he was known then) rapped on their cover of "papa was a rolling stone." they turned up again in the early 2000s as an inclusion on the first disco (not disco) compilation (hmm, title?), first shot fired in the hipster reclamation of forgotten '80s semi-disco semi-punk weirdness, and they've also recently shown up in the dj mixes of hipsterdance figureheads tim sweeney and james murphy. so where were the hipsters? watching x or black moth super rainbow or dr. dog or the tough alliance (ha, joke's on them), i guess.

they certainly weren't at this show (at least not the young hipstery ones), where the crowd (not huge, but respectable) was decidedly older and boomerier than your typical sxsw audience, which is only part of what set this set decidedly apart from the rest of the week. i was trying to come up with the right comparison - there was definitely something of the stop making sense-era expanded talking heads about it (say no more!), if david byrne (who in this case would correlate to flutist/vocalist david was, the author of those weirdball lyrics and by far the schlumpiest dresser on stage, though it fit his mildly manic, off-kilter persona) was mostly relegated to the background; an equally semi-valid reference point might be the steely dan of the showboating, talent-studded early '90s reunion tours. actually, w(nw) are in many ways kind of like the dan of the '80s - a point driven home by the fact that don's real last name is fagenson - though ultimately, i think, much more good-natured, and certainly more consistently dance-oriented, if also even weirder and spazzier. whatever - you could also compare was (not was) live to a less outlandish, reined-in george clinton/p-funk gig, or to the most righteously grooving wedding funk band ever.

i'll admit that the new songs (single "crazy water," the funkier "your luck won't last") didn't quite overwhelm me, though i'll give em some time. but they came through with the old jams, including the hits "walk the dinosaur" and "wheel me out," and "i blew up the united states," which medleyed into both "sunshine superman" and "superfly." and pretty much everything got extended with much funky soloing etc. etc. i didn't even mind too much that we'd missed "papa was a rolling stone" and (all but the final few moments of) "i feel better than james brown" - apparently this was one set that actually started on time, and lasted until the very end of the allotted hour; the band seemed like they'd have been happy to keep on blowing. just means i'll have to catch them when they come around on tour. sweet!

oh, it wasn't quite all over...we tried for a minute to get into this one party, and then this other party, where matthew was already inside, and which turned out to be perez hilton's party, for what that's worth - funnily, it was back at the palm door, where we'd started out the day, and nobody seemed to know what was going on. it later turned out that robyn had played there (i think earlier than when we arrived) and n.e.r.d. and dragonette (among many others) played later, but for some reason there seemed to be just a dj spinning prince and daft punk while we were outside, trying half-heartedly to get in. i'm not sure but i think we could have made it - i mean, they let taylor hanson in (and a-trak, such a nice jewish boy) - but by that point there'd been enough confusion, and matt came out (with a bag of liquid "schwag" including the new not-yet-available izze flavor, peach, omg, which he was pretty excited about) and we went home. well, first we went to magnolia, where our wristbands weren't good enough to beat the wait but it was well less than an hour anyway, and we went home happy and full of quesos and fish tacos, and glorious ringing in our ears (well, figuratively in my case, thanx muso. plugs.)

sxsw was over, but we stuck around town for another day rather than rushing for the crowded and pricejacked airport. and we slept in until nearly 1pm, but we still packed in an excellent full day of classic (more or less) austin activities: brunchish at the hallowed salt lick barbeque a bit of a ways out in the hill country, jumping on the trampoline in bobby's borrowed backyard (whilst strumming billy bragg and paul simon songs), strolling down south congress to thrift western shirts and pause in a candy store for gummy fruit, and later on taking in a movie (in bruges) and a final round of nachos and fish tacos at the awesome alamo draft house, before a final round of political conversation with some of the obama folks back at bob's. man, another nearly perfect day... i think it's about time for me to get back to texas.

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