SXSW 2010

But Can It Be Monetized?

by Jayson Harsin

24 March 2010

Photo: Daniel Boczarski 

Saturday began with a serious downer...

The Legendary Shack Shakers

The Legendary Shack Shakers

Variables: The Weather
Saturday began with a serious downer: heavy winds and a thirty degree temperature dip sent the festival’s omnipresent rubber orange construction cones skipping down the street like tumbleweeds. The crappy weather invariably made catching any of the closing-day, open-air showcases problematic, at least if not properly dressed like myself. Trekking ten minutes away from the Sixth Street hub, across I-35 to a parking lot featuring the “Mess With Texas” showcase, I caught featured, and already relatively well-known, bands Holy Fuck, Crystal Antlers, Janpanther and Japandroids. Frozen and a broken man, I jogged and shivered back to the Sixth St. area to catch The Legendary Shack Shakers at El Sol Y La Luna. I was really glad I did.

Part hillbilly Hank Williams, and part Jello Biafra and Iggy Pop punk, Col. J.D. Wilkes demonstrated that he is still one of the most exciting front men in rock, stripping to his bare chest, strutting like a rooster, gesticulating like a madman, and bringing his wild harmonica and voice together with his backing band’s solid hillbilly-gypsy-punk genre-bending songs. In addition, to their usual fare, they teased the audience with a couple of songs off of their album Agridustrial, to be released next month.

Next I needed a plan B. Plan A was to spend the night entirely outdoors. Inside would be key. Still, I thought I could brave the elements for at least a couple of songs. I would hit Titus Andronicus at 10pm, maybe on the Redeye 7 patio, then go inside somewhere and thaw and possibly return for J Mascis and Fucked Up later, or go to the Mohawk for Surfer Blood and possibly DEATH for the last set. I’d heard positive or at least intriguing things about all three bands, and thus was dejected to find a long press badge line at Red Eye 7 and an even longer one at Mohawk. And neither was moving. I decided to head to the Driskill Hotel and see what was playing in their Victorian Room.

Miss Li

Miss Li

Serendepity the Savior @ the Driskill Hotel
It turns out Saturday night they were hosting the showcase of the British indie promoters, and future label, The Local. Glorious serendipity ensued. At the Driskill, I was pleasantly surprised by Nik Armstrong, who offered very talented glam-injected blues punk, reminiscent of Jack Black, plus a heavy dose of impressive dances and hops. Soon Miss Li followed, Sweden’s crazy-jazzy rock cabaret act. That little Nordic mama has got some lungs on her, and she plays a fun keyboard to boot. The sound guy was playing Feist right before she went on and it seemed an appropriate primer. Miss Li has a similar voice, but it’s employed in a much more raucous manner with a pinch of Django Reinhardt.

Following Miss Li was She Keeps Bees, a New York duo fronted by the hilariously forthcoming Jessica Larrabee (who talked about her smoking habits and playing with frozen snot running down her face that day). Here’s a rock girl who’s got a lot in common with Hendrix, the White Stripes, and the Black Keys, except that she doesn’t, or can’t, do guitar solos. Still, their stripped down blues rock was nonetheless entrancing, especially because of her soulful voice. All of these acts deserve attention.

Between sets at the Driskill, while hitting the ATM, I stumbled upon a great local all-female hillbilly trio, the Carper Family. Composed of two acoustic guitars, a standup bass, and some vintage yodeling, a SXSW documentary couldn’t have prescribed a better consolation for what I had lost. In fact, it only got better.

Zun Zun Egui

Zun Zun Egui

Zun Zun Egui: “The Greatest Band in Britain Right Now”
Closing the showcase was Zun Zun Egui. For those equally unhappy with contemporary music’s retro revival and those who have swallowed whole the modernist dogma that nothing is good unless it is new, pay close attention.

Composed of a drummer, bassist, keyboardist, and guitarist/vocalist, everyone in this band appeared accomplished (in fact, all but the guitarist/singer had a kind of jazz band nonchalance about them that suggested they possessed chops, not nerves). The guitarist and lead singer Kushal Gaya was remarkable. A Mauritian, but living in the UK for five years, he has a vocal and guitar style that I still can’t place. Post-Animal Collective it’s become faddish to integrate world music rhythms and chants while dismantling pop song structure, but Zun Zun Egui takes the world music hybrid to a new level. Gaya invents his own chants, partly from memories of folk music he heard growing up in Mauritius but also from Japanese and French. Equally idiosyncratic was Gaya’s guitar playing, moving way down on the neck, just above his strumming hand, and playing lightning fast riffs with an Eastern twang. Meanwhile, he worked himself into a chanting frenzy, something I’ve seen African dancers do, but never anyone simultaneously playing guitar runs as he was doing. As for the arrangements, think Talking Heads funked up The Great Curve meets Indian folk music and Jimi Hendrix. Shades of Sun Ra weirdness permeate as well. Who would have guessed prog rock would make a comeback as the wedding of classic rock, metal, funk, and world music?

For a moment I was transported to a place at once primitive and futuristic while the girl next to me whirled like a dervish. I stood still, hypnotized. Though I laughed at the showcase presenter’s superlative when introducing the group (“This is the best band in Britain right now!”), after two minutes I was in total agreement.

Turns out Zun Zun Egui was a perfectly ironic end to this year’s SXSW. At one point Gaya snapped, jumped off the stage and started chanting as maniacally as he sang “Fuck you! Fuck You! Fuck You! Fuck You”. Audience members looked at each other, wondering if this was all staged. After getting back onstage and finishing the song, Gaya, still furious, said, “Fuck you, and your little pictures, man. I’ve been kicked out of this hotel twice. I can’t even practice. We’ve been playing all week. And we don’t even fucking get paid for this shit.” 

And there it was, SXSW’s beautiful monstrosity in a nutshell: the sacral and the sacrilegious, the artistic and the commercial, replete with all the contradictions of music in contemporary globalized culture. But Zun Zun Egui is still young. Maybe next year they’ll know what their brand is.

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