Pizza, Parades and Texting MCs: a SXSW Diary

[OffBeat contributor Aaron LaFont was also at SXSW: here’s the first two days of his diary]

Day 1: A sense of utter disbelief soon followed by a somber ache came over me when I learned of Big Star’s Alex Chilton’s passing. Somehow this news eluded me yesterday, as I set out from the Big Easy en route to Austin. The first thing I did when I hit the interstate was pop in a copy of Big Star’s Radio City. Now, I can’t get the chorus of “September Gurls” out of my head, nor can I shake this dull, empty feeling. I was eagerly anticipating the opportunity to see Big Star this weekend. This would have been my first show. But alas, we still have Chilton’s music to hold on to. Both with Big Star and the Box Tops, its tough to argue that any other musician ever captured wistful, teenage longing quite like Chilton, whose influence can be found in groups ranging from R.E.M. to Wilco.

Well, for my first night at (and first ever trip to) SXSW, I wasn’t really focused on inundating myself with as much music as possible. I was more interested in acclimating myself with the sights and sounds of fest. By 7 p.m., throngs of people – mostly sporting poorly trimmed mustaches and skinny jeans – had descended onto downtown Austin.

After gathering my bearings I headed to the Flamingo Cantina where New Orleans label Park the Van Records held their showcase. Strolling in, I ran into OffBeat comrade Alex Rawls. Soon, I would run into more NOLA brethren including Big Rock Candy Mountian’s Michael Giardot, Stephen MacDonald, and Andrew Hartsock along with MyNameIsJohnMichael’s Eric Rogers and fellow writer Jason Songe. As for The Pharmacy, who’s show I missed just days before at Foburg, their loud, driving garage rock definitely welcomed the evening, especially their closing number “Adieu, Adieu” which they folded into a smashing – literally smashing – take on Sam Cooke’s “Bring It on Home to Me.”.

Next, one of my favorite up-and-coming acts, North Carolina’s Floating Action hit the stage. Though my stay was brief, I definitely enjoyed sipping a Lone Star beer and sinking into their loose, lush fizzle. Following Hartsock’s heavy metal intuition, we (McDonald, Rogers, and myself) set off for the Austin Music Hall where British metal gods Motörhead were soon to wreak havoc. While I would have liked to have hung around for more of Floating Action’s showcase, if there’s ever anyone worth going to a Motörhead concert with, it’s Hartsock, whose thrash-infused guitar licks give Big Rock Candy Mountain’s progresso-pop its sinister edge. As we made our way through the madness, somewhere along the way, we ran into fellow New Orleans rockers The Revivalists, who were toting all of their gear in the middle of the street. Apparently, they had yet to find a place to stay.

Once in the venue, we ran into more members of MyNameIsJohnMicahel. Now, with John Michael Rouchelle and Cory Schultz now amongst us, we climbed up to the upper lever of the hall and let the leather-clad power-metal trio blow our eardrums out. Andrew, of course, jumped right into the pit. While Motörhead’s barreling punk-thrash fusion caused quite a commotion, I couldn’t help but wonder how furious their shows must have been 30 years ago. Today, most of their songs sounded like retreads of their Eighties’ smash “Ace of Spades,” none more so that a new number titled “Rock Out with Your Cock Out,” which can be found on the lastest Motörhead album, Motörized. Well, I saw Lemmy, Motörhead, warts and all. Scratch that off of my list.

The rest of the evening didn’t go so smoothly. The plan was to catch NaS and Damien Marley’s set at Emo’s, but there was absolutely no headway to be made in the line, which stretched around the block. So, we (now, Rouchelle, Schultz, MacDonald, and myself) rolled around the corner to Emo’s Jr. where in a little more than two hours, the Morning Benders were slated to close out the evening. That didn’t necessarily go as planned either. Apparently, the NaS/Marley show caused so much chaos in Emo’s that the club owners decided to shut the doors to all of their venues. We  finally we got in just before the Morning Benders began. The band choice came at the urging of Rouchelle, and I’ve got to give it to him – the man knows his music. The Morning Benders’ lustrous melodies drifted through the room, rising and falling like a slow rolling waves. Overcoming a few technical mishaps, the group delivered an impressive set, capped of by their latest single, “Excuses,” a soaring ballad that fuses doo-wop gold with indie finesse.

Day 2: On my second day at SXSW, my first move was to grab a slice of pizza. My plan was to chill with NOLA rapper Truth Universal before his showcase at The Independent. I was early for that, so I decided to stroll around 6th Street for the remainder of the afternoon. My only other goal for the day was to catch legendary MC the GZA (of the Wu-Tang Clan) at Mohawk’s Patio at midnight.

As I navigated through a maze of hipsters, everyday passers-by, and costumed creatures, I ran into a second line parade led by none other that New Orleans circus rockers the Dirty Bourbon River Show. With bandleader Noah Adams out in front, master of ceremonies Big Charlie waved a sign with their set time on it as the rest of the DBRS strutted behind and blew their horns.

After parading in the street for a while, I headed over to the Independent, where  I caught up with Truth and his crew, who had just driven in from a show in Arizona the day before. One of the better known underground MCs in the Crescent City, Truth Universal is finally getting the recognition he deserves. He calls his style of socially conscious hip-hop “Guerilla Music,” a battle cry to unite underground MCs – those who grind it out on the streets and bring their music directly to the people. This night, TU busted out tracks from his latest album Guerilla Business, which features several of New Orleans top underground MCs and producers. Joining Truth for his set were fellow New Orleans rappers Lyrikill and Skipp Coon. The Big Easy boys brought down the house with a banging set of hard-hitting, high-energy rhymes topped off with Truth’s latest single, “This Moment.”

Though two hours early, my next stop was Mohawk’s. There was absolutely no way I was going to miss the GZA. Still, there was no guarantee that he would even make his set. Yesterday, he was a no-show for his set at Brooklyn Vegan’s showcase. I wandered to the rooftop of the crowded club, and after procuring a Pabst Blue Ribbon, I sat along the ledge and thumbed through the lineup. Soon I heard a haunting, ethereal voice cooing the chorus of Lil Wayne’s “Lollipop.” What I thought was house music turned out to be Swedish chanteuse jj, singing the remix of her track “Ecstasy,” which has blow-up across the blogosphere. Similar to fellow European artist Bat for Lashes, there’s a certain soothing air to jj’s eerie yet enchanting songs.

Next up was Canadian electronic consortium Holy Fuck. This was my first time seeing the group, whose f’d-up, electro-feedback noise blitz has garnered much notoriety over the past few years. Their aim is to create raw, live electronic music without any of the loops, effects, or samples prevalent in modern electronica. After seeing their set, I can only describe their industrial, noise dance-drone as drum-and-grunge. And, well, holy fuck – it was rather awesome!

The moment had arrived – Wu Tang coming at ya – the GZA would soon step to the mic. Or so I thought. Eventually, after a 40-minute delay, a flat, hypeman spotlight and the announcement that Bill Murray (who was rumored to be at every showcase at SXSW) was in the house, the heralded Wu alum stumbled onto the stage to the Kung Fu intro from his venerated album Liquid Swords. For the remainder of his set, the man with the iron mic – who was so wasted he could barely stand – blundered around the stage with his head down and his hands in his pockets, rapping incoherently whenever he remembered the lyrics. He proceeded to butcher every one of his signature solo and Wu-Tang rhymes, including the 36 Chambers smash “Clan in da Front.” He also managed to mangle nearly every word of Inspectah Deck’s verse on the epic Wu track “Triumph” in addition to bungling his way through (most of) Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s party chorale “Shimmy, Shimmy Ya.” Throughout, the set a security guard followed the inebriated MC around the stage, and at one point he had to hold the sloshed rapper up. At another point the “Genius” skipped out on a verse altogether, opting to text message rather than rap. Just a few hours earlier, I watched hungry MCs bleed on the stage, and now I was watching a made man deliver garbage.

A bit upset, I wandered around the street some more, grabbed another slice of pizza, then slid into Emo’s Annex where one of my favorite Austin acts, White Denim, were ripping it up. While they’ve been high on my list and their album Fits has remained in heavy rotation in my iPod, I had yet to catch this three-piece band live. For lack of a better description, these guys rock face. Loud, raucous, ear-splitting garage blues-rock, White Denim’s riotous antics and thunderous anthems reminded me of a modern-day version of The Who. As their set approached its close, I ran to the front of the stage, rocked back and forth, jumped up and down, and flailed about like a reckless teenager at his first concert. This was rock ‘n’ roll! Call it maximum garage blues.

Tomorrow, LaFont’s grind through SXSW continues. Contributing Editor John Swenson reflected on SXSW’s  growth and what it says at his blog.