SXSW: Saturday Night (. . . Texas Forever)

I’ll say this for Creed Bratton, he has certainly managed to milk his extremely limited fame for all it’s worth. With his post-Grass Roots “career” revived by playing the absolute smallest role on The Office that could reasonably be referred to as “recurring,” Bratton set out to record a new album of solo material, and somehow ended up playing before a living legend at this year’s SXSW festival. He has a decent voice, and some fairly enjoyable tunes, but wrapped them in an excruciatingly traditional quartet that aimed for the lonesome, dusty sound of 1960’s Americana rock, and mostly achieved it while adding absolutely nothing to the conversation. It wasn’t bad so much as completely unnecessary. Far worse, however, was Bratton’s uncomfortable, borderline desperate stage banter. While nervously explaining every, single, song, he repeatedly reminded the audience of the reasons why he is already famous, making reference to his time in The Grass Roots, and at one point actually saying the words “I’m on a TV show for God’s sakes!” By the same token, discerning the audience’s motives in being there was equally troubling, as most of them clapped more for the Office references than the songs. Watching Creed Bratton play his SXSW showcase was a borderline meta experience. There were so many intangibles at play during that show, it was nearly impossible to arrive at an objective opinion. That said, I could name twenty more talented bands in Athens without evening trying. If it weren’t for The Office, no one would be listening to this guy, and the fact that he seems to realize that, and doesn’t care, made him all the more depressing to watch.

Perhaps most egregious of all was that half the crowd quickly filed out after Bratton’s set, despite the fact that 60’s god of pastoral folk Donovan was coming on next. The place quickly filled up again, mostly with people old enough to have grown up listening to Donovan, but to the 40 some-odd young Office fans who split, you are fools to the last. Spry and completely at ease, he jogged up onstage in a sharp grey suit and sunglasses, his hair still down to his shoulders, and launched into “Yellow is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” on a pawn shop guitar painted the red and green of homemade Christmas candy, and adorned with a snowy reindeer. Everything Bratton did wrong, Donovan did right. When he talked about his life, it was clear that music, not fame, was what mattered to him. When he explained his songs, it was captivating. When he played them, they still felt vital, 50 years later. Seeing this giant of folk music with no more than 70 other people in a room not much bigger than Little Kings was far and away the best showcase of my SXSW experience. As he closed out his set with the obvious favorites (“Mellow Yellow,” “Sunshine Superman,” “The Hurdygurdy Man”), I found that i physically couldn’t stop smiling – my heart was so full, and when Eric Burden of The Animals hopped up on stage to join him for a duet of “Season of the Witch,” it was just icing on the cake.

Making perhaps the strangest transition in my entire adult, concert-going life, after Donovan I half-jogged across town to The Moody Theatre where Nas was putting on a master class in East coast hip-hop. Flanked by faux, twin tenement highrises, the stage was decked out to look like a New York housing project, complete with a bus stop, trashcans, fire hydrants, street signs, and a subway entrance. Raised DJ platforms were prepared on either side of the stage for DJ Premiere and Pete Rock, respectively, who looked down on Nas as he tore through *Illmatic* material exclusively with the all the fire and tenacity of his youth. Occasionally joined by rapper AZ, Nas stalked around the stage like a jungle cat, clearly having not lost an iota of his game in the past twenty years, and made classics like “Life’s a Bitch” and “N.Y. State of Mind” come alive with a new energy. I wished I could’ve stayed for the entire show, but SXSW brings with it many tough decisions, and I knew I only had a certain amount of time to get back across town.

In an unexpected stroke of good fortune, I arrived at Empire Automotive in time not only to see Daedelus, my favorite working producer, but also Thundercat, an up and coming artist in the same field who proved an entirely different animal. Seated in between a ferocious drummer and a keyboardist who was as comfortable triggering samples as he was concocting psychedelic organ and synth runs, Thundercat blasted out skronky, funky improvisations on electric guitar, utilizing a variety of pedals and effects, and creating a complex fusion of structured electronic music and improvised jazz (which anyone who has read my articles over the years will know is one of my absolute favorite things). Though I only caught three songs, his talent and innovation were on full display, and he’s only made one album thus far!

As the crowd pressed forward, the elf-like Daedelus wandered out on stage and quickly set up his production rig (a small box with 16X16 rows of buttons, each wired to trigger a different sound or sample and light up a different color when pushed). He graciously thanked the audience and the other artists, and then erupted for a 50-minute, non-stop set of brilliant, free-wheeling electronica that pulled from ever sub-genre and geographic corner that vast stylistic label has called him. He established a very organic rise and fall, maintaining danceable beats throughout, but never letting his music wander off into obvious or repetitive territory. His bass was so heavy I could feel it vibrating in my esophagus, making it difficult to swallow during the performance. His compositions were so exquisite and his command so complete, this was like seeing a virtuoso soloist command an entire orchestra only slightly bigger than a breadbox. It’s clearer than ever to me why his Brainfeeder label has become a home to so many of the best young DJ’s today (the aforementioned Thundercat, Flying Lotus, MatthewDavid, Teebs, Gaslamp Killer, etc.). Daedelus saw the future of electronic music earlier than the majority of his peers, and has since become a kind of godfather figure to the current pan-sonic approach. Who wouldn’t want to learn under this guy?

With a long drive ahead of me Sunday, I decided to eschew a couple of latenight showcases and end my SXSW experience on this statospherically high note. In the past four hours I had seen a legitimate icon of 60’s psychedelia, one of the great monsters of hip-hop doing his best album more-or-less front to back, and the producer I hold most responsible for the flood of intense, boundary-pushing creativity we’ve seen in electronic music the past few years. Toss in the fact that I’d already seen my favorite working MC the night before, and I knew that nothing was going to make for a better end to my time in Austin. The week went by like a Texas dust devil, but I won’t soon forget it. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it.

David Fitzgerald