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SXSW Music: Finding the Diamonds in the (Very) Rough

Photo Credit: Nona Howard

Although the big brands wouldn't have you know it, there's still lots of talented, indie bands littering the SXSW landscape. You just have to know where to look.

SXSW Music 2013

City: Austin, TX
Date: 2013-03-16

The usual way to write about a music festival on the internet is to give you lists, tell you about the hot, cool band that you already know about, take a bunch of random pictures of people partying, and then spend an inordinate amount of time finding celebrities. Let me do my impression of festival coverage. I think I saw that actor from The Mentalist. Google glasses. Prince is going to fly in and do a show. That’s great; he probably needed that opportunity for exposure.

Can we take a second here and talk about what huge, shitty whores these established artists are for parachuting into a festival that was originally designed for new artists to get noticed? SXSW 2013 has become an extended commercial for Justin Timberlake’s new cologne, “Turntable Tech Executive”. These reunion shows and reboots? Total dick moves. It’s like watching Arab oil sheiks apply for food stamps. My favorite overheard line of SXSW was one kid saying to another: “Did you hear that Ice Cube played a secret show at the Dorito’s stage?” Really? Does Disney have a new Cool Ranch sequel about an inappropriately urban babysitter? By all means, if you can use the machine, use the machine. I hope local folks have made bank, but I also hope no artist ever expends resources they don’t have to get discovered here. It’s not going to happen. Y’all come back now, ya hear?

It’s not all SXSW’s fault, they simply found a way to create an aura of fame around a Ponzi scheme. Fame is the worst social disease we’ve ever had. Worse than the witch trials, since it’s now how psychopaths frame the narratives of their crimes. Still, off to the Perez Hilton party tomorrow night. Who knows, I might change my mind about that, especially since I’m writing this in the future, where I already know I did. I thought I might have had fun or it might have been interesting, like that time I tried to go do a piece about gay conversion. In a sad Sunday school church basement, I sat with a man who came with his conspiracy theorist mother. I listened to him explain why he stapled his Christmas tree to the ceiling so his cat horde would not knock off the British royalty ornaments. Being gay was the least of their problems. And sometimes fame is the best thing someone has.

Personally, I established a samurai festival code to live by and stuck to it. We caught Spray Paint at Trailer Space Records, although at first we were given the “no capacity” neck chop based on our outfits, as the door guy read me with visible, popular girl neck pop . Then, from the periphery, an apparently higher and also surprising layer of discernment let us in. You know how punk rockers can be about their uniform. Touchy. I’m glad I listened to Jon Chamberlin’s suggestion to see Spray Paint. Chamberlin runs Rubberneck Zine along with Renate Winter. They are both transplants, brilliant photographers, and print renegades trying to document the rich and burgeoning garage, rock, and punk scene in the city (The Fleshlights, Elvis Austin, A Giant Dog, The Nouns, to name a few). I offered that extra bit in case you ever want to, you know, visit the city. Spray Paint were every bit as greasy and feral as he described, playing brash, snotty songs that pushed you around and started beef. In the clamor and pissed venom, I heard The Fall and Sonic Youth’s Sister. God knows I don’t want to get the references wrong in case I ever have to go back to the Trailer Space Treehouse Fort. I kid, I kid - lighten up, children of a lesser nihilism.

But the best part of the day was just finding a party shaped by someone with vision and skill, and not moving. The weather was perfect this year, every time you’d almost think you were hot, a sheet of breeze would touch through. The Sol Collective and Cultural Arts Center sponsored the event called Listen Local, Act Global in a patch north enough to be out of festival fallout radius range. In this abandoned lot surrounded by masterful graffiti artists, I felt like I’d walked into a samba song. Estella Sanchez arranged the contours and line-up of the space, and her passionate touch showed. I know that it is sometimes viewed as sexist or belittling for a man to talk about a woman’s clothes, but there was no one else I saw at SXSW dressed like they could charge gallery admission. I’m stunned by people with that level of aesthetic articulation. Not just the host, she also played in the band World Hood, a luxurious palette of beats and Sanchez’ vocals, a float and a feather of sweet flow.

World Hood

Watching A Tribe Called Red hold an audience rapt was amazing. I’ve never seen DJs with that kind of grip on their crowd’s mood. As DJs, somehow they were able to simultaneously tune into the moment, translate the mood into a falling boom of breaks, and also have some kind of master plan of arcs and glide downs. This Canadian crew brought in the world with a passion for erasing the music politics of geography, not because they’re tourists whose crates have VISAs. They have incredibly loose architecture, which is always what I thought they meant with the Tribe nod. They do not build off a narrow set of rhythms; their genre is unparalleled atmosphere. Bad-asses, all three of them. I guess I should leave it at that.

A Tribe Called Red

My entire day’s mission was getting the opportunity to see Los Rakas. It’s been so difficult to keep up with the latest and greatest emcee to figure out the exact niche formula for collegiate, violent, and kind bud smoker. Except for Big K.R.I.T., that man is a national poetic treasure. But I love Los Rakas for being the hottest thing I hear out there. They link into each other’s flows with just as much precision as Outkast or the Beastie Boys. I’ve never actually seen emcees tangle off of each other so slickly, without a miss or pause. The illusion of effortlessness is part of what makes some cool, and they generate inspiring mega-wattage the way most people barely wake up. There was no need for comic aggression, transparently defensive displays of wealth, or an authenticity that sounds a lot like sociopathy. They perform from a meaningful place and make it look good. Rakas are skill, just skill on a pocket of sunshine. I do not understand why “Bien Ribetiao” is not blaring on every system worth its price tag.

Los Rakas

It killed me not see more people there for them. I felt the promoter’s pain as they wondered what social media trick it would take to get someone to notice something remarkable that wasn’t sponsored by a snack conglomerate. This was a lush, carefully cultivated multi-media experience arranged so exquisitely. But MySpace was having some shows, so there’s no manipulating the sea of folks who have a taste for carrion. As we were walking out, this group of frat boys, dressed like file drawers, started to come in, drawn by the bass line which was fuzzing though the air and tingling the ground beneath their boaters. “Forget it, man, I don’t think he’s speaking English.” Some stories are Choose Your Own Adventure and some jokes should be choose your own punch line. I’ll let you finish that one.

Los Rakas

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