SxSW Music Diary: Big Boi, Gymshorts, Yonatan Gat
It's 3:42 pm on a Tuesday in Austin, Texas. Pumped out of The Lodge at 411 6th St. – a bar beloved by UT Austin undergrads – is a set of funk-tinged pop-rock, a sort of garage-band Bruno Mars with just a bit less bullshit and pomade. This is Conway Seavey, who grew up in Sterling, Alaska, probably mushing dogs and listening to Maroon 5. But, set up on a stage against open windows facing 6th St., you can't help but wonder if Seavey hears what's he's competing with elsewhere.
Washing out of 413 E 6th St. (Burnside's Tavern) is another product of the petri dish that is the American one-car garage. A poster and a bouncer both proclaim that this is The Digital Wild, a local indie-electronic outfit, but both are obviously wrong. This quartet (about the same age as the Alaskan) is offering simpler fare – the singer squeezes out tight tenor vocals to ride on waves of trebly guitar – it's earnest rock of the sort you can hear Thursday-Saturday at any bar named after a Civil War general with a mixed track record anywhere in the U.S. Standing in-between the two venues you can hear both, loud, unsynchronised, unaware of each other. Then there's a digital duo in Luchador masks set up at the corner of 6th and Neches, who hammer and tap at rubber pads, earning pennies in a paper bag.
This is SxSW (really just 'South-by,' as attendees quickly learn to call it): in an age in which our music consumption is defined by individual choice – 'Genius' playlists, Tidal exclusives, ad-free listening on YouTube and Spotify, music in quik-release capsule form – Sx is a purge and a deluge, a re-tox. It is maddening and thrilling as it reminds the conference-goer of an undisputed but infrequently acknowledged aspect of our relationship with music: our impotence before it.
We listen to be moved, after all, and at Sx we certainly are – we're accosted with keys and cut up with guitars at every step – music is not offered but imposed – while at the same time we're at the mercy of simian security and cretinous promoters, technical mishaps and simply unexplained 'delays,' queueing for hours for bands we're rabid to see – and whose entire discographies we could access in seconds on our phones, in the middle of that same queue.
You don’t experience these jolts and agonies at a traditional festival, and that's why, despite accusations of elephantiasis and serious questions about its relevance, Sx is still important for the music world: it's still a conference, from the Latin conferre – a bringing together, a reminder through messiness of presence that music is a human effloresence and that it will and should be unkempt and disappointing, baffling, transporting, and very very loud.
So, compared to 6th St., Cheer Up Charlie's, a gay bar north on Red River St., seems like an oasis of calm. But then Thelma and the Sleaze, a trio from Nashville, Tennessee, set up on a stage shaded by a faded pink parachute, and against a crumbling white embankment, flanked by two signs warning to 'WATCH FOR FALLING ROCKS.' Sunglassed, the girls quickly lose this gear from too much sweat and flailing.
They can thrash and they can swagger – at turns bluesy and punky, the singer-guitarist 'LG,' in high-waisted jeans, a Megadeth tee, and aged-ivory cowboy boots, pays obvious homage to Janis Joplin and Jimmy Page, and boasts a tone that would be the envy of teenage strummers on every continent, if they had the chance to hear it. Their smiling Southern punk is immediately charming. "We're unsigned," LG says, and adds, "I am adopted, though." Look for their new LP, Somebody's Doing Something, produced by Dave Catching, of Queens of the Stone Age and Eagles of Death Metal.
Gymshorts, up next, thrash and growl through a quick set that's unashamedly vile and adolescent. Singer-guitarist Sarah Greenwell has obvious talent, with effortless vertiginous yowls, but their saving grace might be that they don't take themselves too seriously – with songs like Your Mom's A Bitch, this punk can seem a little puerile, and leaves one thinking that their Rhode Island-brand anarchy would feel more natural if they were 16. But, by the 14th chorus, 'Hey mom – hey dad – I just wanna – be mad' scratches under the skin and finds a vein.
Delayed over an hour, Yonatan Gat, Israeli guitarist and string-wizard (formerly of Monotonix), sets up with a drummer and bassist in the middle of the crowd, and wastes no time filling the space with a huge reverberating sound, while the drummer, on a mini-bass, snare, and shimmery ride kit that might have been assembled from scraps bands in a rush left behind on 6th St stages, cuts in with a splashing, gattling beat.
It's ferocious, wide-ranging, genre-less – Gat swings and sways as the sound becomes polyrhythmic and then resolves, leaving space for a blossoming Middle Eastern motif. Moments of melodic bliss recede against onslaughts of feathered bass drum (missing a hit-hat, the drummer flails his left leg wildly, almost kicking a man in the audience).
The set (which includes and exotic cover of the Four Seasons' Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You) lasts only three songs, and a tang of disappointment inflects the audience's high. Of course, Gat is busy this week. Despite winning accolades at previous Sxs, he's playing 17 shows over the next five days – more than many acts who’ve come here to be discovered. He's stunned us, but we haven't really gotten to know him (one UT Austin senior at our table says he's 'like Vampire Weekend mixed with Mac DeMarco – we nod and don't bother disagreeing).
Perhaps it's for the best – many at Charlie's speak of catching him again. His name will spread through the city's venues, because of us, the pollen-carriers. Right now, though, the guitar player getting the most buzz is the local Eric Tessmer, who according to four eye-witnesses played for five hours last night, sauntering to solo in the middle of 6th street, and continuing to shred through covers of Little Wing and Voodoo Chile while mixing drinks for the entire bar staff. 'Since Stevie Ray Vaughn went down in a helicopter, this guy is the best guitarist alive,' one says. So: Sx hype, or revelation? We plan to find out.
On 8th and Congress, the LuckyMe showcase is delayed; vague causes are cited by indifferent Sx volunteers. A man with bone-colored hair and a Bible tucked into his waistband makes an elaborate bow to those of us queueing impatiently, including one man in a Glasgow tee, a black kilt, and red tartan vinyl boots. Many Americans are here for the Baauer album release, but some Scots have shown up to swear allegiance. We can hear Qrion soundchecking inside, filling the space with soft light and Arctic soundscapes – just a tease, for now.
Maybe it’s the delay, but there isn't any vibe when the music finally starts. A handful on the mostly empty dancefloor force their heads to bob, gripping $8 Bud Lights – an open mind should be sufficient for someone to enjoy a talented live act in any genre, but this rhythmless trial would require more; maybe a lobotomy and a few lines of Molly. A sign on the stage warns that the structure has 'Maximum Capacity 8 People,' but really this is the maximum occupancy of the hall through the first set.
More people wait on the patio, oblivious to the noise pollution, which serves as background to their cigarette conversations, and is much improved by the infinitely more musical shrieks of the grackles in the trees lining Congress. More enthusiastic crowds gather at nearly every corner: one block south a lap-tapping guitarist Charles Novelist makes at least 20 people stop on their way to ticketed shows, while at 6th and San Jacinto a fresh-faced trio have been playing jazz ranging from Dirty Dozen to Nicholas Payton upwards of four hours.
Baauer may have been more hotly anticipated among a certain set, but the party of Tuesday night is at Stubb's on Red River, where St. Lucia and Big Boi (of Outkast) play for crowd enjoying free BBQ and an open bar. This gig is actually closing out the Interactive festival – the gates open at 10 but those of us bearing Music badges can't get in until 11:15, and even this is hush-hush. St. Lucia plays a high-energy and synth-heavy set that's enjoyable but ultimately uninspiring. While waiting for Big Boi, people here are soaking in the atmosphere.
With pulled pork and sausages in tortilla shells, a vast grassy lawn, and free craft beers handed out as easily as if from your mate's coolbox, this is the biggest and best backyard barbecue in the world tonight. Without too much of a wait, Big Boi turns the pleasant party into a banger, tearing through a set of Outkast hits peppered with his own recent solo releases. With the immortal funk of Ms. Jackson and Rosa Parks and rockers like GhettoMusick and the in-its-time-revolutionary B.O.B., Big Boi pleases everyone. But the preponderance of Outkast hits (and the felt absence of André) overshadows the fact that he's still making good music on his own – charcoal and nostalgia hang in the air. He may impress more at a rumoured jam with The Roots later in the week.