Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Baby's First SXSW: Wednesday

From the onset of my journey to Austin, my head had been swimming with all the possibilities – bands to see, things to do, drinks to drink. I arrived Tuesday night but didn't venture downtown into all the action until Wednesday. There was an array of great bands playing a day party at Red 7 but since they didn't have free beer we only stuck around for a few of La Sera's songs. Katy Goodman, formerly of Vivian Girls, is as adorable as you'd expect, with her sweet voice and long red tresses. She brings assured pop sensibility to any stage, and the hooks kept coming. But hunger and alcoholism won out and we haunted Jackalope's for the next hour, guzzling free Coors and eating veggie burgers topped with non-veggie bacon. There were bands playing inside but they were not of the sort that was more interesting that sitting in the sun on the patio.

A friend of mine really wanted to see Lee Fields & the Expressions, and though I'd admittedly never heard of the group, was happy to tag along. We crossed I-35, stepping into a a completely different world from the chaos of downtown. The East Side of Austin is full of quirky dives and smartly dressed youths. Before heading over to Shangri-La's, we stopped at a little booth just under the highway to try our hands at a little knife throwing. This booth also enthusiastically sold shots of whatever liquor you preferred, and only shots. Throwing knives are not as sharp as you think they're going to be, and it's surprisingly easy to get the hang of once you get your mind off the fact that you are throwing a knife and just let it fly (the shots really help with that). After a few tries I actually sunk one, and found myself wondering if, upon my return to Brooklyn, I could swing a set-up in the tiny cement patch I like to call a backyard. Then maybe the awful neighbors in the building next to mine would grow to fear me, and actually shut up when politely yelled at or stop tossing their trash and human waste into my air shaft.

By the time we entered the dimly lit dive of Shangri-La's most of my ass-kicking warrior visions had subsided. Los Angeles band White Arrows were playing beneath green fluorescent lights, their psych-tinged pop rippling through the tiny space. Their new material seems to take a cue from calypso and Afro-pop fusion acts a la Vampire Weekend, abandoning the overwrought vocal-heavy dance funk that typified their self-titled 2010 EP. It will be exciting to hear their full-length follow-up to the “Get Gone” single, slated for release sometime this year.

Outside, The Expressions had already begun to warm up with a few songs sans vocalist Lee Fields. After a glowing introduction, he unassumingly walked on stage in baggy jeans and a simple t-shirt, but the voice that issued from this man belonged in the sequined jumpsuits of James Brown. He may not have been one of the buzz acts of SXSW 2012, but Fields has been singing since the 70's, having cut a few singles in that decade but never releasing a full album until the late 90's when he hooked up with Leon & Jeff of the Expressions. The recent interest in soul and funk revival acts like Sharon Jones & The Dap-Kings led to the recording and release of 2009's My World and his newest, Faithful Man, out on Truth & Soul Records. Fields is a versatile recording artist, swinging effortlessly between soul, blues, and funk; his voice is timeless, powerful, and emotive. A consummate performer, he had the audience dancing, chanting, and clapping, but did so effortlessly, making it look easy as only a veteran performer can do. Standout tracks included classics “Ladies” and “Honey Dove” and the appropriately titled “I Still Got It”. Yes you do, Lee, yes you do.

After the enlightening set it was time to hunt down my fellow AudioFemme, who I spotted sitting on a grassy knoll at 5th & Neches. We headed down to Club DeVille for the Ghostly International showcase, catching the end of Chrome Sparks' set. Chrome Sparks is the pseudonym of Jeremy Malvin, a Philadelphia native studying percussion in Ann Arbor, where his path crossed with Ghostly label founders. He looked every bit the college boy, with his hair close-cropped and his snugly-fitted polo, sheepishly blending vocal snippets and orchestral loops over gleaming synths and quirky beats. By the time he closed with heater “Soul & <3” from his self-produced debut My <3 (available on Bandcamp) he had fully won over the audience.

Mux Mool (aka producer and DJ Brian Lindgren) followed, exuding laid-back cool, confidently bobbing his head to beats he knew would get the audience moving. The crowd obliged with rapt attention to his technical mastery; with each twist of the dials on the equipment before him it was as though he was winding up the audience. Eschewing the glitchy effects of his older material for the more expansive vibe present on recently released Planet High School was a smooth move indeed, and well received. “Mux” is a shortened form of the term multiplexing, which describes the ability to filter multiple streams of information through one channel, and that term perfectly captures the strengths of Lindgren's compositions and their translation to a live stage – he takes turns showcasing each element of a track, highlighting chunky beats at once and then turning up synths, uninterested in the dull habits of other beat-makers who simply allow the same loops to build to frenzy and expect reaction based solely on the anticipation of a drop you knew was coming from a mile away. It's the difference between telling and showing – Mux Mool goes beyond narrator into the realm of true storytelling, where the songs act as paragraphs written in his own pulsating language. 

After so much electronic stimulation, it was time for a bit of a change. Choir of Young Believers provided such, the group seven members large including a lovely red-headed cellist. Their brand of moody, swirling dream pop was only slightly cheered up for the showcase, hinting at a bit of folkiness but drawing on the orchestral drama that gives their newest album, Rhine Gold, its unique quality. Tied together by lead singer and group founder Jannis Noya Makrigiannis's arcing, soulful vocals were elements of big-band brass, soaring strings, mournful saxophones, and glistening keys, each lending opulent vibes to the band's set.

Shigeto was up next. The stage full of musicians was replaced by Zac Sagninaw, whose moniker comes from his middle name and his rich Japanese heritage. While his recorded material is delicate and introspective, his live shows are kinetic. Not content with the removed rhythms of a drum machine, Shigeto climbs behind an actual drum set and goes wild. It's hard to give drummers their due; though they're largely responsible for the listener's most visceral connection to a song they're tucked away behind the rest of the band. Shigeto has found a way to remind us of the importance of a thumping drum solo, and his skill with a kit is mind-blowing. People around me were gasping as we watched his sticks fly. I felt as though I was watching a hummingbird, trying to freeze-frame wings that move so fast they blur and become invisible.

It was around this time that I received a text from a friend notifying me that A$AP Rocky was playing at Annex and despite highly anticipated sets from Tycho and Com Truise, I knew I had to see the Mob's set. The line was surprisingly short but inside it was packed with a pretty eclectic audience. There were a dozen or so people on stage, most of them shirtless but for heavy gold chains. A$AP made his influences clear, sampling The Diplomats and Wu-Tang, and delivered his characteristically woozy verses with youthful energy. His swag was in full effect as he flashed his blinding grill and looked as if he was truly having a blast. The audience was right there with him, raising hands and waving arms, carrying performers as they dove from the stage and into the crowd. It was an amazing end to my first night at SXSW; I emerged from the masses covered in other people's sweat, helped myself to a late-night cheesesteak from a food cart, and mentally prepared myself to do it all again the next day.

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