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MUSIC | Wrapping it up at SXSW: Yoko Ono and Sean Lennon, An Horse, Hoodie Allen, and more
AUSTIN, TEXAS—In a review of their (that is, his) performance at First Avenue, I called Girl Talk "the timeless sound of pop music nirvana, where the Isley Brothers, Steve Winwood, the Fine Young Cannibals, Jay-Z, and Lady Gaga all hogpile together in pursuit of their great common ambition: to fill the floor." None of those artists were at South By Southwest (except for Jay-Z), but walking down 6th Street at 11:30 on Saturday night was about as close to being inside a Girl Talk mashup as I've ever experienced. From funk to pop to hip-hop to jazz, music was coming from everywhere.
On Saturday, my last day at SXSW, I set out with a general plan to walk across the river to see an early-afternoon show by Bella Ruse, a Minneapolis duo who are my friends and former housemates. I decided to walk down Cesar Chavez Street instead of the rapidly gentrifying 6th Street East, and was rewarded with a colorful riot of largely Latino-run businesses. I couldn't resist stopping in to a free show in the parking lot of a small urban drive-in movie theater—like an outdoor Trylon. This is the noisy band ST37.
Minnesota, take note of this cool idea. Apparently this miniature drive-in is one in a chain of two in Austin.
Ice cream and sorbet were being served by local confectioner Angel Young. If you enjoy the wine ice cream (the stuff they card you for) at the Minnesota State Fair, you should be jealous of the rich sangria sorbet available down here on the south end of I-35. Here's Young with a waffle cone scaled to the size of the theater.
My next frozen treat was not such a treat, but it was certainly an authentic Austin experience. Having discovered Friday that ice cream from East Side street vendors was only $1, I stopped at a cart; when I noticed that one of the available items was a Blue Bunny Tamarind Chile popsicle, I had to try it. I'm a fan of spicy food, but these things are—how should I put it?—an acquired taste.
This bookstore/art gallery was taking an appropriately indie attitude to the SXSW madness.
When I saw this truck for sale, my thought was, if they throw in that inflatable camel, I'll negotiate.
I finally made it under the freeway and into downtown, but after a couple of wrong turns I realized that I was not going to make it to the Bella Ruse show. Instead, I wandered into one of the weirder things I encountered at SXSW—and that's saying a lot. HP had circled a bunch of colorful RVs, laid artificial turf, and put out picnic tables and lawn games (note the ladder golf) for a faux urban oasis. The beer was real enough, and so was the Diet Coke—by that point I needed caffeine so badly that I just about sucked the can into my mouth vertically. I hung out for a few minutes, developing my sunburn and listening to the DJ go from Stevie Wonder into the Smiths into Chromeo.
Since I was in the neighborhood of Icenhauer's bar, I pulled out one of several "tickets" I'd printed after RSVPing to a series of parties held there by Calyp, a new mobile app that is, according to flyers at the venue, "changing everything." (The general idea is that you publicly endorse various products, in exchange for tiny amounts of money.) I'd previously tried to hit up a Calyp party on Thursday night, but found that it had ended early for lack of attendance. Saturday was better: a guy at the door handed me a couple of drink tickets and steered me to the backyard, where Dallas rocker Kirby Brown was just getting started. Brown is a practitioner of what's been called "Heartland rock," and as I sat there in a butterfly chair with a cold IPA, those chunky major chords were just what the doctor ordered.
Twitter reminded me of the Vita.mn day party happening up at the Beauty Bar (a hair-salon-themed bar, not to be confused with the actual hair salon where I saw a rapper throw down on Friday), so I walked up there, arriving just in time for the end of Jeremy Messersmith's set. Phantom Tails were starting up on the back deck, and they sounded fantastic.
I stuck around to hear Caroline Smith and the Good Night Sleeps. I'm often asked who my favorite Minnesota band is, and since the demise of Lookbook, I never have a good answer—do Gayngs count? I still don't have an ironclad answer to the question, but Caroline Smith is definitely up there. Her songs and performances impress me more each time I see her.
A text message from Jahna Peloquin reminded me that P.O.S. and Astronautalis were playing a bar above a pizza parlor on 6th Street, so that was my next stop. It was absolutely packed, and both artists looked exhausted but jubilant. "Who else here feels like a pile of shit?" P.O.S. asked the crowd, smiling.
Astronautalis will be appearing with P.O.S.'s fellow Doomtree Collective member Sims at the Triple Rock on March 25.
There were still a couple of hours until the evening showcases began...where to go next? G-House was throwing the third of three consecutive parties, which hadn't failed me yet—and by "fail me," I mean "fail to serve me beer while providing an adequately entertaining aesthetic experience."
While Thursday's party was super-slow and Friday's a lot peppier, Saturday's was downright hopping—when I arrived around 6 p.m., there was a line out the door of the museum. I stayed for the entire set of the first band to play: This Will Destroy You, an instrumental act from San Marcos, Texas. When they started, I decided that they sounded like the music that play behind the menu of a Criterion Collection DVD of an obscure Swedish film. By the middle of their set, I decided I was kind of getting into them. Eventually, I was computing the total number of roommates I'd had in my lifetime; by the time the band finished playing, I'd almost forgotten they'd ever started.
It was time for the showcases to begin, so I walked to my first stop of the night: an Australian music showcase at the Maggie Mae's rooftop bar. All week I've been impressed by the great venues in Austin—at one stop after another, I've found myself in a perfect space for raucous live music, along the lines of the Triple Rock or the Turf Club. The warm weather means that more outdoor, or semi-outdoor, venues are sustainable; at Maggie Mae's, between sets you can wander back and look over 6th Street. On Saturday night, the street was swarming.
As Crocodile Dundee's knife is to non-Australian knives, so was the level of amplification at Maggie Mae's to that at non-Australian showcases. Openers Wolf & Cub roared righteously.
I was really there, though, to see An Horse—a pop-rock duo with whom I fell in love when they played the Entry in 2009.
Their performance at SXSW was just as strong, and their new material—their album Walls is being released in the U.S. on April 26—sounds rich and varied. They've toured with Tegan and Sara, and their anthemic rave-ups bear a strong resemblance to those by the Canadian twins, but whereas Tegan and Sara have mellowed out over the past few years, An Horse sound like they're just getting started.
According to my well-laid plan (even bettter-laid than I realized, as it happened), I proceeded out to the far western reaches of the SXSW district. My destination was La Zona Rosa, an all-ages venue resembling an airport hanger. It was really, really empty. I walked up and stood right against the front rail, and I'm not exaggerating when I say that there was no one within 25 feet of me.
I was early for the act I was there to see, but while I waited I was treated—and believe me, treated is truly the right word—to a performance by Jessie & the Toy Boys. Where are they from? Could the answer be anything but L.A.?
Jessie & the Toy Boys had come to SXSW to put on a show, and in terms of calories consumed per audience member, they were off the charts. Vocalist Jessie Malakouti vamped tirelessly in a black pleather leotard and leopard-print tights, while the Toy Boys executed a ridiculously tightly choreographed series of dances. I grinned my way though the whole set of guilty-pleasure pop, and Malakouti was having none of the crowd's indifference—after she left the stage to scattered applause followed quickly by silence, she bounded back out, crying, "You want one more? Is that what I'm hearing?" Ladies and gentlemen, that is rock and fucking roll.
The guy I was actually there to see was Hoodie Allen, a Long Island MC whose fun mixtape Pep Rally (download it for free here) I was introduced to via Twitter by teen meme Allie Teilz. Allen's crowd at SXSW consisted about half-and-half of bros encouraging Allen to break his self-imposed SXSW booze fast and teenage girls who mooned up at Allen adoringly.
Allen's popularity among high school girls is no surprise. He has that Bieberesque combination of charisma, boyish good looks, and genuine considerateness—he jumped into the middle of the floor for his show, and called out by name a girl who had tweeted that she was excited to see him. He rewarded her with a hug: for a venue that was way below the SXSW radar, Zona Rosa was sure feeling the love.
It was then that I made the aforementioned walk up 6th Street to the Elysium, which was hosting a showcase featuring artists from Sean Lennon's label Chimera Music. The headliner was a "special guest" who's about as special as guests get: none other than Lennon's mother Yoko Ono. There was a strict, though commonly violated, rule for the venue: no photography of any kind.
I walked in during a performance by the duo Fig, featuring musician Nels Cline—a cult figure who was wearing thin on my nerves after the tedious multimedia collaboration Dirty Baby and only wore them thinner over the course of Fig's cacophonous set. Next up were mi-gu, a prog-Beat outfit from Japan. 'Nuff said.
Lennon—who had earlier played as a member of the duo Ghost of a Saber Tooth Tiger—then took the stage to introduce tUnE-YarDs, who performed a thickly looped Ono cover as preparation for the main event. "I've just received word," said the top-hatted Lennon, "that Yoko has entered the building."
Though Fig and mi-gu weren't to my taste, in fairness I have to acknowledge that they were appropriate openers for Ono, whose music has never been anyone's idea of easy listening. By the time she met John Lennon in 1966, she was already a force in the worlds of avant-garde art and music—for example, singing while lying atop a piano played by John Cage—and her artistic collaborations with Lennon are a thorny, haunting knot in the middle of 20th century music. She's continued to build her musical résumé since Lennon's 1980 death, in recent years appearing as a regular, however improbable, fixture on dance music charts.
I had no particular expectations for Saturday night's performance—in fact, given rumors I'd heard that Ono might have been too troubled to perform in the wake of the tsunamis that have wracked her native Japan, I wasn't necessarily even expecting her to show up at all. But there she was, flashing a peace sign and strolling merrily onstage to take the mic in front of what Lennon christened a new incarnation of the Plastic Ono Band: a crack assemblage of indie artists led by Lennon on guitar.
When the music started, I was blown away. Ono's incantatory vocals were at full force, and from the way the 78-year-old shrieked and sang into the mic, you would have thought it was 1966 all over again. The band absolutely cooked, with Lennon wailing away on fleet-fingered solos. "He's pretty good, isn't he?" asked proud mom Ono as she bopped across the stage. The set included Ono classics like "It's Been Very Hard," which Ono just performed last October with—why not?—Lady Gaga. Ono appeared in her trademark round black sunglasses and hat, which she gamely threw into the crowd. "I'm not throwing away a cowboy hat," she clarified, presumably out of fear that the Texas crowd might riot. "I'll wear a hat like that again."
After a short set, the band retired, only to return for an encore featuring—I kid you not—a costume change by Ono and a churning performance of "Mind Train." Ono again raised the peace sign, and as the crowd reciprocated, she promised, "I'll be back."
Standing 20 feet away from Yoko Ono performing with Sean Lennon? For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience, an opportunity I never imagined I would have. It's exactly those opportunities that SXSW is full of, and that's why I'll be back too.
©2011 Jay Gabler