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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Photos: Jennifer Kelly

Lots of the music at SXSW is about as concentrated as the Coca Cola they sell at the Mohawk… vaguely sweet, see-through watery, and deceptively empty once you discount all the ice. WFMU, one of the oldest and surely the best free-form radio station in the world, doesn’t traffic in that stuff. At their showcase, sponsored with San Francisco’s Aquarius Records, every act on the bill is intense, focused, and compelling. The bands come from lots of genres—spazz punk, metal, alt-country, blues garage, and experimental jam—but they have in common a certain purity of focus and full-body commitment. Nobody here is punching the clock.


Gary War

Gary War


Gary War, for instance, on the inside stage, amps his dream-cave-echoing psychedelia, transforming a wavery, illuminative recorded sound (from the excellent Raytheonport) into something denser and more enveloping. Gary War, whose real name is Greg, played for a while with Ariel Pink and another while with cult psych recluse Bobb Trimble, and his songs have the same glistening sheathe of reverb, the same Beach-Boys-through-a-soapy-funhouse-mirror harmonies. 


Prizehog

Prizehog


Outside, more mayhem, as the drummer for Prizehog has stripped down to his underwear, the female keyboard player on her knees twisting some sort of knobbery, and an unholy sheets-of-noise racket streaming out of the amps. Metal-ish, but not really metal, Prizehog allows long, sustained guitar tones to mutate into space echos and buzz, doom-ish chants to build in slow, nightmarish ritual. 


XYZ

XYZ


XYX, from Mexico, is a frenetic, bass-drums duo, fritzed out with angsty, Lightning Bolt-ish aggression, but with the added attraction of Senorita Anhelo, the female bass player, who chants and shouts and ululates like the Latin chapter of OOIOO.  Her drummer, Mou, is pretty fantastic, too, all clash and clatter and boxy, sticks-up propulsion. “Anel and Her Problem” is straight-out, shout-punk, but other cuts venture into experimental and improv-type sounds. Great stuff. 


Wildildlife

Wildildlife


Everybody in Wildildlife has huge hair, the drummer with his waist-length dreads, the Tad-shirted bass player and curly-haired guitarist, both sporting extravagant, biker-man manes. But the thing is, you need hair for this kind of music, hair to toss in slo-mo, large-scale head nods, hair to hang down over your face as you slam down another power chord, hair longer than a girl’s but twice as menacing, as you lay down pound after pound after pound of ear-splitting, mind-melting metal. All those guys standing in line at Stubb’s for Metallica in Guitar Hero shirts should put down their text messaging and hear this.


 


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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Photos: Jennifer Kelly

At the Touch & Go showcase, a man dressed in a pirate suit is sashaying around handing out shots of rum and T-shirts. Well, handing out is maybe the wrong term. One onlooker, emphatically not interested in a T-shirt, is briefly headlocked, while his arms and neck are forced through the openings. He looks down at himself, afterwards, astonished, as if he has just turned into another person. I am pretty sure I did not imagine this, but then, I did have one of those shots of rum.


I am, of course, not here for rum and pirates. I have come to see Mi Ami, whose staccato, Afro-rhythmed, yelp-and-drum-frenzy debut Watersports came out on Touch & Go on the day the label decided it wanted not to be in the record business. It’s a really good record, but Mi Ami is even better live, their guitarist Daniel Martin-McCormick spazzing like a string-tangled marionette, as he falsetto-yips and barks into the mic, drummer Damon Palermo half-naked and slicked with sweat, pulverizing his kit in tribal-on-speed patterns of eighths and sixteenths. Both Martin-McCormick and bass player Jacob Long started in Dischord band, Black Eyes, and a trace of that hardcore, righteously confrontational aesthetic remains. But straight-on punk beats have fractured into a million, Afro-funked pieces, glittery quick-paced cadences that shift in kaleidoscopic patterns. One of tonight’s highlights… and well worth the trip over from Spiro’s. 


 


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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Director: Wyatt McDill; Cast: Justin Kirk, Terryn Westbrook, Sam Rosen; Runtime: 85 minutes

At what point of “meta” does it all become one giant tiramisu of bullshit? Of course, I can’t delve too pointedly into that question without revealing the Mouse Trap tricks and plots turns of Four Boxes. What I can say is that it appears to be a generational satire built around the story of two internet liquidators (people who sell off the junk of the dead on eBay) who discover a mysterious website called Four Boxes. Ostensibly, the site used to be the website of a slutty exhibitionist woman who moved out and kept the cameras in for the unsuspecting newcomers. What follows is the morality play of three inter-fucking friends (I see a trend) who watch what appears to be torture, murder, and intricate terrorist plot unfold.


Four Boxes moves at the indie thriller pace that it should and Justin Kirk (of Weeds fame) makes a credibly brooding lead. But several of the satirical gestures either grate too much or make the viewer question whether the writer is satirical or envious. I don’t hang out with a lot of people much younger than I am (full disclosure: 35), but do the people in their mid-twenties, who are supposed to be represented here by people clearly older, really speak in instant messaging speak? It’s a travesty of content-free exclamation whose abbreviations only accentuate its scarcity. It’s difficult to sit through and seems more of a worst-case scenario than a lingua franca of the young ones. It reminds me of the vicious backbiting against the valley girls, whose dialect was also a slang-ridden avoidance of depth. But how many of us actually ever met a valley girl? It’s possible to be so vehemently critical that you give the object of criticism an easy out on the caricature clause?


Many of the themes that run through Four Boxes merit exploration. I think it’s true that normal existential angst has been medicalized to the point where having passion is itself a pathology. But is that purely a function of too much internet and not enough face-to-face? The characters are the tech-savvy undead: On cell phones, using webcams, checking their social networking sites every five minutes, and hollow in a way that deserves to be addressed less flippantly. “Life sucks. Life really sucks,” seems to be as close a summary sentiment as we can get in the film. But why do the characters have such deep disconnections from empathy in their acceptance of violence, suffering, and sexual disconnection. There’s “kid’s today” and there’s “Ted Bundy” and while I personally feel like the greatest achievement of the generation after me so far as been the Lolcats, I’m not willing to write them off as collectively lost. Nor are any of the film’s cultural critiques confined to any particular cohort. Traditional work, marriage, kids, death patterns in the American social experience have been disrupted for decades by everything from the birth control pill to gay rights. I guess I just don’t ultimately understand what Four Boxes is critiquing or saying or whether its simply trying to capture a zeitgeist and make fun it. But it does grow tiring having to create that much context for the meaning on the screen. I don’t mind working for a movie, but I gotta get paid.


In a certain sense, there’s probably enough pay off here to make Four Boxes worth watching. It has its creepy moments, like the grainy, furtive webcam movements that suggest untold mass terrorism. Despite characters that dissolve into characterizations, it’s difficult to pry yourself away until the final fade out. The ending is pure punchline; I had to grant the filmmakers the last laugh with a twist that no one would have predicted. But good satire needs much more than just an unforgiving eye; the best satire is both diagnosis and cure, a window into a different way by tweaking the excesses of the present. In the end, I don’t know who the film is talking to or what it’s taking about; the rest is just an Escher stairwell into pure speculation. That’s not my job. 


 


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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Director: Alex Vlack & Damani Baker; Cast: Bill Withers, Dr. Cornel West, Tavis Smiley, Sting, Jim James; Runtime: 77 minutes

The saddest part about talent is that far too many people take it personally. Everyone has had a hero die in biography, particularly in the arts where the trend has been toward creating a culture of decadence and sacrificial tyrants. We raise them up, they fuck up their lives and talent, and we feed them to the collective volcano called Fame. Watching Still Bill, I can’t remember being so moved by an artist’s life and words. I can’t remember the last time I learned about someone both gifted and wise. Still Bill paints an earnest portrait of the artist as modest craftsman. In Still Bill, truth actually is beauty and beauty is truth.


Having Bill Withers as the narrative guide would present more quandaries for a different kind of person. But his warmth and vulnerability disarm many of the questions about allowing someone to shape so much of their own story arc. Withers speaks in Southern koans, disarming in his humility, depth, and philosophical perspective on life. The directors take us walking with Withers through the old, ivied segregated graveyard where he looks for the graves of his family. We visit the rural, coal mining town of his youth and talk to friends he’s had since childhood or old neighbors who yell from their porch for a few lines of “Ain’t No Sunshine”. What works so well in Still Bill is the slow flow and the unobtrusiveness of the directors. It has clear structure and even something of a climactic moment, but every frame has the arresting rocking chair cadence of true intimacy. There’s no persona in Bill Withers, no sense that he remade himself to make music, a concept so foreign in a contemporary culture of icons like Madonna, Michael Jackson, and Prince.


It’s clear that Withers never had the caste of the superstar. A stuttering asthmatic in his youth, Withers didn’t seem to be destined for music as he made his way through the military and several aircraft mechanic jobs. Vlack and Baker know how to convey ideas with perfects shot: Bill Withers lifetime of hard work gets shown by a gentle gliding close up on his knotty, weathered hands. Withers seems every bit the devoted family man, winding down his touring as he began having children with his wife. Repeated references are made to Wither’s issues with the music business, but the specifics are never really given. The absence takes nothing away from the documentary, but it’s the viewer’s natural instinct to get the dirt on his disillusionment. His family life appears placid and healthy. There’s an evolving tension between Withers and his daughter who also wants to be a singer, but his initial critical eye toward her work appears only to have been a push toward greatness as they eventually end up in the studio with him in tears over the beauty his daughter has created. Where’s the rehab? There are no backstage blowjobs, junkies, violent run-ins with the police, or self-entitled Caligulation.


It’s hard to sit through this documentary and not want to simply flood the page with superlatives. Withers is such a wise and moving figure that epiphanies frequently spill out of his mouth, though with the reined concision of a former stutterer. When he accepts an award at an arts theater dedicated to young people who stutter, he moves everyone in the room with his insight, grace, and eloquence, drawing out lessons from life like the ones her learned at his Grandma’s knee. He cold calls Cuban musician Raul Midon and asks him to jam in his home studio. He reflects on the natural cycle out of being the center of attention and how artists should realize when “it”, whatever “it” is, has left the building. He’s fully human and adult, without artifice or some arch sense of his own place in musical history. I have written about music for so long that I have become jaded to the entire concept of having a concept. Bill Withers realness was penetrating, revelatory, and leaves me effusively speechless. Still Bill is the antidote for every toxic seep of the TMZ-ification of the arts.


Only one small piece of the documentary broke the pulling spell. I mention it only because I’ve seen it too many times before in too many music documentaries. In the Joe Strummer documentary, The Future Is Unwritten, we got to hear rootless and platitudinous commentary from people like Matt Dillon and Johnny Depp. Not because of their relevant insights to the life of the artist, but simply to fumigate the story with the stench of celebrity. It’s just an extravagance that adds nothing significant to the story unless you are trying in someway to have a contemporary map of influences as part of the story. So why do Vlack and Baker give us Sting’s ethereal commentary on Bill Withers? He could have been talking about clotted cream for all the specificity given in his adoration. There is no historic or musical connection and it runs completely counter to Withers’ approach to life, the industry, and his critique of the adulation of celebrities over hard, working folks with underappreciated talents. I don’t even care what Sting has to say about Sting; here, this Lazy Susan of talking pop heads should burn on the cutting room floor. Similarly, Cornel West and Tavis Smiley falling over themselves to adore Withers added nothing to the documentary but an opportunity for West and Smiley to appear to be “on” the Bill Withers tip. Who cares?


Bill Wither’s seems to me to be the “Working Class Hero” that Lennon aspired to be, but never really was. He was a artist that learned a life away from his craft, only to return to playful experimentation in his golden years. He is brilliant and decent, a man who loved making music, but never confused the burning desire to create with the fame whore’s will-to-power.


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Saturday, Mar 21, 2009
Photo: Jennifer Kelly
Some bands at SXSW don't require a badge…

Some bands at SXSW don’t require a badge…


SXSW festival attendees fall into three classes. First there are the badge people, many of whom work for big publications and big labels, and an awful lot of whom spend more time on their text messaging than actually listening to the bands. They get into shows first. Then there are the wristband people (yours truly) who can get into most shows without paying, but only if there are not too many badge people ahead of them. And finally there are the people who just show up and pay at the door. They are, in most cases, less likely to get into big shows than wristbands, but not always, depending on how much cash they can offer at the door. At La Zona Rosa, where the Scottish Arts Council is hosting the Proclaimers, Glasvegas, and Primal Scream, you’re not getting in without a badge or a $20 bill. I reluctantly give up on my long-time obsession with Bobby Gillespie.


Okay, fine, the Sonics, inventors of that “Waaa-aaaa-aaa” garage-band yell and progenitors of classics like “Psycho” and “Witch” are on at 8 pm at Emo’s. I’ll head over there. 


The line is down the block, and, again, dominated by badges. 


Choice #3 is the Touch & Go/Quarterstick showcase at Flamingo Cantina, but it’s nearly 8 o’clock and the iron bars are still pulled down over the entrance. 


Choice #4 is the WFMU showcase at Spiro’s, and, the minute I walk in the door, I’m home.


 


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