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Tuesday, March 20, 2012

SXSW Diaries - Part 1

Posted by Andrew R Tonry on Tue, Mar 20, 2012 at 5:12 AM

I step into the balmy Texas air just after midnight. For a dollar a bus takes me downtown and drops directly into the center of The Shit.

Everywhere people are shouting and kissing and laughing and sighing. Frat boys and hipsters rumble past in waves, drinking hard, smoking joints and cigarettes. Punk kids and old hippies, runaway teens and frat boys, drug dealers, bums, thugs and horse-riding cops.

Assault from every direction. Senses peak. Drugs, women, music, food. Commerce. All amongst the earth-shaking, amplified rumble that permeates 6th Street. The roar is constant, like ten carnivals and two thousand bands and five orgies all blaring at once.

I weave on through, west, underneath the highway and well down 7th Street to meet the Music Editor, who has keys to the hotel.

Wandering down 7th I am reminded of Alberta and Mississippi. Broke down lots repurposed by artists. Food cart pods. Boutiques, bistros and glints of new money. A brightly colored mural adorns a brick wall. Of the many scenes, one pictures a man sitting down at a café, drinking coffee.

A big graffiti arrow points at the man. Referring to the neighborhood, the spray paint reads: "the only brown person left around here."

The Music Editor was at a Portland showcase and as soon as I got there I wanted to leave. I didn't to Texas to visit Portlandia. On the way back down 6th Street I mention to the Music Editor I want some pot. Keep your eyes out, I say.


A few blocks later we come upon a big school bus parked beside a vacant lot. It's spray painted matte black and hippie kids a playing all around and on top of it. A pretty girl with short brown hair and a sundress asks if I need any weed. She grabs the kid with the dreads.

Inside the bus the Beatles' Abbey Road is turned up full blast. The kid with the dreads leads me past a chuckling, chubby guy sitting in the driver's seat with a bong pressed to his lips. Through a gaggle of them. Girls and boys, maybe some still in their teens. Spilling in and out of the sunroof, a hole cut in the roof of the bus.

Everything inside is painted black too. The walls, the kitchen, the floor, all of it. The scale is designed to look like a CD case. It glows when he turns it on.

Our hotel is on the outskirts of town, beneath the intersection of two towering, 100-foot tall highways and grass fields and mostly empty lots. I spend the afternoon working on a story that's due tomorrow morning. Should've finished the thing. Damn this shitty hotel coffee!

By the time I get to Brazos they're well into it. Martin Crane is understated but strangely magnetic. They are terrific live, as I had hoped. New songs come as welcome news. No news or talk or even a hint towards following-up 2009's criminally under-rated Phosphorescent Blues online. Clearly though, they are well along in the process.

The Music Editor, who arrived on time, told me the set was all new. Then I talked to someone from Secretly Canadian, who put on the showcase. He said Crane moved to Brooklyn. Hopefully the band follows and the new record is not far behind. I need more.

But as soon as Gardens & Villa start I want them to stop. The clean cut singer is weaving an antique leather quiver full of wooden flutes. He plays them sparingly, but wears the ridiculous thing all show long. His dancing, the sound and the look are every bit the worst whitewashed, watered-down indie rock culture has to offer. Look for them in a car commercial come Christmastime.

I stay because a stunning group girls in freckles and tank tops start smoking pot. I offer them some of mine. We're up on the second balcony, up and away, sort of above the venue. But still too close. I wander back down to 6th Street with no real destination in mind and the feeling like something better should be easy to find.

Groups are busking everywhere. Traditional, tub thumping carnival barkers to fully-electronic synth metal. They tick tack from one side of the street to the other, one band every hundred feet or so—however long it takes for the immediate sound to dissipate. Nonetheless, the Roar. Buskers must be especially relentless, powerful and charismatic. Quaver for a moment and be crushed by 1000 points of light.

One of them catches my eye. Two singing guitarists and two drummers. One pounds the beat's backbone into a thumping box and bucket. The other is a ripped and shirtless man possessed. Shaking hell from that tambourine, slamming it into his thigh as his feet snapped and bounced on two homemade wooden stomping blocks. He goes to shakers at a moment's notice then lifts a large tool box and start banging it sporadically with a drum stick.

His performance, along with noise solos on an old boom box, is so vigorous, channeled and invigorating it could exist on its own. Half the crowd are focus solely on him. But the band is good. Strong-throated, shambolic pop rock. They're called Heavy Guilts, and I wonder if they'd work without all the surrounding ruckus. As any good busker does, they seemed to feed off it.

Headed up a side street through a stage door something pulled me in. This is what I saw:

The audio won't do 'em justice. Just a snippet of the song and the scene.

But hot damn, just white hot garage with a real ear, total mania, literate weirdness, Lou Reed reverence, cirrhosis, and the perpetual drop out machine. A bazooka to the cerebral cortex. Cave man shit.

I ask for the band name but I can't hear a thing. He writes it down in my notebook:

    John Wesley Coleman
    Goner Records

Fucking awesome.

Back on 6th Street I heard some throwback, fluttering garage pop through a wall and ducked inside. The Allah-Las, I was told. Groovy little Nuggets-esque jams. Plus the singer looked a little like Bob Dylan and the bass player looked like John Lennon.

I want to see Kendrick Lamar. The Music Editor is going to see Plants & Animals in a church. I'm much more excited about Lamar. But I feel a duty to see Plants, as I interviewed them and wrote about them in a recent issue of the Mercury.

It's one of the stories I've struggled most with in recent memory. As a freelancer, I have the relative luxury of only writing about bands I want to. And usually after digging in after a promising pitch I find myself more engrossed with the artist. It didn't happen that way with Plants & Animals. My relationship with them has rather withered.

Plants & Animals

To be sure, I didn't get in to this business to shit on people's art (at least those who don't really deserve it). I try to be more journalist than critic—I want to ask questions and try to put things in context. I take responsibility in that I should better vet my subjects. That way I could avoid having to act as some asshole judge. Nonetheless I found myself in that position and I have to be honest.

The Montreal band were not particularly well served by the Church. Heavy wooden pews don't make well for standing or dancing or getting together. They played a stand up show to a sit down audience.

The church itself was great. A fine respite. A quiet sanctuary. The parish were making a capitalistic go of at the festival too, selling beers and wine with a full cafeteria of robust, homemade food. Happy to give them a few bucks. Probably should have a salad. Body unhappy enough as it is.

Quickly after I hustle a handful of blocks to the Copa Bar & Grill for Seun Kuti. The restaurant turned venue was filling up fast and the two sound men are clearly unequipped to handle a three man punk band, much less a ten-piece afrobeat orchestra. Inching in. Space disappearing. All shoulder to shoulder. Sweating. Waiting. Squeezing through. Shifting in lurches with the crowd. Finally we part, making way for Kuti and his band.

As they blast off I find ecstatic peace. Sweating and mashed together with my fellow humans no longer in vain.

Seun, like his brother Femi, practices the art of his father. Seun plays sax and rips. He is svelte and energetic, his movements strong with graceful efficiency. A tattoo on his back reads: "Fela Lives."

While both brothers hem close to the traditional outlines of Afrobeat, there are subtle distinctions. Seun is younger, both in his age and his act. His first instrument is the tenor sax. His charm comes from the energy and wide-eyed optimism of youth. He wears fresh cut, high-waisted designer slacks and a fitted shirt which will quickly be sweat through and removed.

Femi looks much more like the father. His first instrument is the keyboard. His presence is wiser and he shares traces of that stern power and austere knowingness. He and his band wear bold, matching, traditionally-styled African outfits, and his group seems slightly more disciplined.

Both are tremendous.

But as the show began so late it was cut drastically short. Three goddamn songs. And of all, Afrobeat only gets better as the band has time to sinks in. Fela used to play marathon sessions at the Shrine in Lagos. Until the sun came up, every night. But not here. Not at the Copa. Some asshole threw the wrench in after 30 minutes.

The Music Editor and I took the long van ride back to the hotel with a bunch of rich English lads on holiday. Talking football and slagging LeBron James.

Along with another friend at the hotel we found an all-night diner where the two women working graveyard shift were overwhelmed by the traffic. I had eggs and toast.

Back at the hotel I went over my story one last time and sent it in. I grabbed my trunks.

Dawn was beginning to glow bright blue and the birds were chirping. I dove in. The water was ice cold.


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