March 17, 2017

Flagpole at SXSW: The Mega-Fest Finds Its Chill


Photo Credit: Mike White

Denzel Curry

SXSW in 2017 is, by far, the most chill it’s been in years. The biggest difference this year is a marked reduction in the number of previously huge free and public day parties. Longstanding, multi-day events like the Hype Hotel (presented by music blog aggregator The Hype Machine), Spotify House, Mess With Texas and others didn't happen this year. Even the hugely influential and exceedingly popular Fader Fort reduced its footprint from accommodating several thousand to merely a few hundred after losing its previously held location.

Anyone who did a scan of the public event permits issued by the City of Austin last month knew things were gonna be different this year. What SXSW missed in crowds—which still wound up being hugely substantial by Thursday night—it made up for in panels, talks, speeches, etc. The number of these this year seemed easily one-third more than previous.

But, let's talk disappointments first. For unexplained reasons, the talk by Pussy Riot's Nadya Tolokonnikova was canceled, and the UK's futuristic Afro-jazz group United Vibrations was denied entry by customs. As has been widely reported, several showcasing artists have been denied entry this year for myriad reasons. Most seem to be centered on inappropriate visa statuses, but, honestly, when the wrong look or last name can get you "randomly" selected for extra security pat-downs, it's anyone’s guess at this point.

I'm no immigration expert, and can't speak with any real level of authority on this, but the stories keep coming in, and it's too overwhelming to ignore. That said, after seeing the utterly bland, back to back performances from Au/Ra (Antigua and Barbuda) and Chinah (Denmark), I'm starting to think customs officials also suffer from really bad taste. 


Photo Credit: Gordon Lamb


But Temples (England) did up their Byrdsian mid-tempo stomp in fine fashion. Similarly, their country-mates The Big Moon land just this side of being a full on living to the early-'80s Los Angeles Paisley Underground scene. Denzel Curry (Miami) isn't quite yet on his SXSW victory lap after throwing down hard last year, but the fan base for his potent hip hop/rock blend, with a distinct voice and personality, is growing by the day.

Houston rapper Fat Tony remains a staple of my SXSW experience, and I try to catch him every year. Though as talented as, say, Frank Ocean, the only thing holding him back is his nonstop sense of humor. This year, dude was wearing a Weird Al Yankovic T-shirt and using autotune on almost every vocal. I'm not saying he's tripping himself up, but sometimes, maybe, he trips himself up. 


Photo Credit: Mike White


Atlanta's Lil Yachty was as fun as expected, splitting his set into demarcated portions of "underground" and "commercial." Over the past year or so, he's been a welcome fresh talent in a scene that's really close to being totally trapped out (get it?). Seriously, though, his change-ups in sense of melody and vocal style puts a new coat of paint on the burgeoning "weird" hip-hop scene. But even Yachty suffers from that ridiculous hip-hop hangover of having too many damn people on the stage. Who takes all their friends to work with them?

Austin's own Sharkweek was a featured DJ during Dub Academy's "Grime State of Mind" showcase, but his set wasn't particularly grime-oriented. It was, however, bass-heavy and nicely syncopated. Unfortunately, everything I found for him online is really goofy and silly and doesn't come close to how decent his live set was. On the other hand, England's Miss C. Brown blew the roof off the sucka. Hitting the decks hard off the bat, her primary innovation was live video scratching. Yes, taking video and manipulating the image and sound as if it were a vinyl record. Utterly mesmerizing and totally original. 

Third Man Records' act Slasher—whom you might easily confuse via Google for several thrash metal bands from Europe and Brazil—were a power-pop treat of The Three O'Clock proportions, and it's a cryin' shame they picked such a crap name. Louisville, KY's White Reaper bills itself as "The World's Best American Band," which is such a hilarious, multi-level joke they should get a prize just for that.

Thing is, though, they're damn close to being America's best American band. Every single song is a goddamned hit, and I'm not even kidding. Hooks for days. Choruses built for speed and accuracy. Everything fires on all cylinders and never lets up. The best bits of Springsteen, Replacements, a thousand garage bands, too much soda pop and probably hours of boredom all mixed together into nothing less than a screaming statement that rock and roll is something worth saving. Not in terms of content or context, but as a language itself. And if you're gonna make such a statement, even inadvertently, about something that should have deservedly died a thousand deaths already, you better make it as convincing as possible. After White Reaper was done playing, I was sold yet again. 

New York's PWR BTTM continues to be much better on paper than onstage. The hammer-on guitar tricks thrown out constantly, the endless in-between-song banter, the hair-stroking and their barely composed songs left me cold for a second time. Thing about PWR BTTM, of course, is its entire existence is wrapped up in queer politics and advocacy. It can easily be argued that if they'd not formed a band they'd have started a blog, or Tumblr, or some other avenue for political/social expression. So, as much as I can't take even one more note of their music, it's a bummer to be so nonplussed by a band with whom I feel some measure of political/social kinship. Still, their music is just terrible, and no amount of mainstream press or NPR buzz is gonna change that. 


Photo Credit: Gordon Lamb

Eric and Happie

Every year at SXSW, there's inevitably one thing I'll stumble across by accident that gives me pause and keeps me in the moment. This year it happened while I was rushing to catch a DJ whose name I can't even recall right now. The street was hot with bass beats coming from every corner, but when I ducked into the Sidewinder on the way to its backyard, there was just a man and woman onstage with acoustic guitars. Sure, it's Texas, so what's the big deal? Everyone born here gets an acoustic guitar in the hospital, right?

The pair were named were Eric and Happie, and they'd recently moved to Tulsa, OK from Austin. They're a romantic couple, and normally that's something I'd just roll my eyes at, but as I've said before, every artist must have "something," and, well, they’ve got it. I don't know why and I don't know how, but there was such an honest sweetness about these two that my old, cold heart melted a bit and maybe even grew two sizes. They seemed like they'd be just as happy sitting in their kitchen singing to each other as they were trying to get an honest ear out of a crowd of canned-beer swillers. And when they looked at each other during the chorus of their latest album's title song and harmonized, "If there’s any love left/ In these old bones of mine/ It’s yours," I knew I'd found this year’s moment.