SXSW 2005: Like A Record, Baby (Thursday)
Day Two: Houses Of The Holy
Austin, TX, March 17, 2005 - There's a tongue-in-cheeky bit of subtext posted all over town this week. The SXSW Festival banner hanging regally over every stage is blazoned with a segmented arrow pointing optimistically to the right. In the full logo, the arrow's stem is made up of a cassette, a VHS tape, and a 5¼" floppy, representing - respectively - the Music, Film, and Interactive wings of the SXSW estate. Retro may be the soul of chic, but this past winter all of my cherished cassettes relocated into a storage box from which they're unlikely to emerge again except as landfill. So obsolescence is our sigil, ephemera our deep deconstruction.
For that matter there's an Austin shop on South Congress Street that sells cool fruit bowls made from deformed LP records. "Look!" we cry. "Rubber Soul!" But that's another story.
Time is an arrow, then. Given that I'm hunkered down this morning waiting for a keynote address by Robert Plant, and Mavis Staples is keeping us smiling and warmed up with a sing-along of "I'll Take You There," where on earth is it pointing? Mavis seems to know; she's teasing about the sundry commercial charms of Beyoncé. "I used to be Beyoncé!" she cracks, pulling a mock aggrieved face. "And if Beyoncé keeps on living, she's going to be Mavis."
In place of a Swiss Guard, Robert Plant has brought a promotional video about Robert Plant, which plays by way of introduction on a large screen at the side of the room: it's the single eye-rolling moment in what turns out to be a charming fan-to-fan storytelling session. Recording Academy president Neil Portnow presents Plant with the Lifetime Achievement Grammy award he won in February (Plant could not attend the fancier ceremony), which is a nice homey surprise. Plant smiles at Portnow, pointed and even. He's never won a Grammy before. "I don't blame you," he says. "It was the people who were in your position when I was 20. And 30. And 40. And 50..."
The Austin Theremonic Orchestra. Oooo eeee wooo, wooo, wooo
Paging Harrison Bergeron: In the trade show exhibit hall there's an enclosed plastic cage of sorts, like a Clean Room facility without the airlock. Inside the cage a procession of artists are interviewed, with sound piped out so browsers can listen in. Why have a cage at all? Because prestige these dark days is about access, and look-don't-touch confers authority, if not respect. Put up walls with an overstuffed sofa and drinks on the other side, and we want to be in there. Or that's the plan, in any case. From where I'm standing - outside staring in - what comes to mind is the Monkey House, and the level of interview discourse largely bears me out. I don't watch reality shows, and this feels like one.
It's disconcerting to pass by and see Roky Erickson in the plastic box, looking attentive and distracted, as if he's been through this before and has to keep doing it until he gets it right. Erickson was famously on the fringe of psychedelic music and drugs as far back as 1965 with the legendary 13th Floor Elevators, and by the early '70s he had strayed too close to the edge (or soared too high for his wax wings, if you prefer). After long stretches in mental institutions and dirt-poor outpatient care he's performing again, and his notoriety is coming back in halting steps. A film about him was screened last week, and this afternoon he'll be on a panel about himself and the band. Press hovers like an ever-circling skeletal family.
Erickson's manner is affectless, and as a diagnosed schizophrenic he is sure to be on serious meds. His gaze is placid,his voice flat. Is he in there looking out? Or is he a mirror for our passing time? Monkey House indeed. Did you see the film? asks an interviewer. "Yes, I saw it." How did that feel? "I liked it." Tomorrow Brian Wilson will be on a panel about himself and SMiLE, which should be no less weird.
Here Comes the Night: Once in a while you see something mostly because you'll never see it again, which sells the Austin Theremonic Orchestra a little short. The theremin is an electronic instrumental toy that encourages all kinds of pretentious amateur flapping and is fiendishly hard to play well. A thereminister moves his or her hands through a pair of invisible electric fields to control pitch and volume, and the resulting sound is best known as the 1950's flying saucer effect. The occasional theremin is common enough in odd circles; six together you may see once in a lifetime, which is probably about right. I'm not even sure the word actually comes with a plural. The ATO, dimly lit and still, adds a few effects pedals into the mix, but the brunt of their single improvised number is the choppy air of overlapping tones, humming in and fading out in atmospheric tidal movement.
Jorane: Cellists have more fun, or at least this one does
Down deep on Sixth Street Rounder Records is painting the room all kinds of colors. Austin-via-Maine local Slaid Cleaves tries to reason with a microphone that sounds like a finalist for the beat-box hall of fame and loses, and when he asks the sound guy to fix it the show goes south, fast. Cleaves has the room spellbound when he unplugs his guitar and steps to the edge of the stage to do a sweet quiet number with grace and ease, sans amplification; the room fills with gentle music, there is breath in the stillness, you can hear a pin drop. At least you can until the sound guy begins bellowing "CHECK ONE CHECK TWO CHECK ONE TWO" over and over from the stage, well within dope-slapping range. Cleaves shows restraint; the audience grits collective teeth; I hit the road.
Jorane, a Québécoise singer and cellist, is a gleeful blur of energy and motion. Her first Stateside indie release is due out on March 29 on Six Degrees Records, and she's on her fourth album in Canada and abroad. She's small and quick, with bright eyes and an infectious smile, and her hands are never still; behind her cello she kicks, wiggles, lunges, waves, points. The music reminds me of Kate Bush in her middle period, round about Lionheart, but Jorane is all confidence and shine, with a big, unfettered voice. There's a tinge of New-Aginess at unexpected moments, but when her dark concentration or explosive exuberance dominate, which is most of the time, the allure is instant and penetrating.
There are obvious joys to Joy Zipper, but they are quiet ones, and all that uptempo cello romping has left me impatient and tappy. This is deliberate crafted stuff, a slow burn promising good fire at the end. Back at the Rounder showcase Tracy Bonham is triumphantly striking the closing chords of her set, looking gorgeously happy. Next up is essential favorite Kathleen Edwards, whom we first saw here at SXSW two years ago playing a second-floor sitting room at a Canadian contingent barbecue. Edwards was signed soon after, to solid freshman acclaim.
Kathleen Edwards: Retreat isn't an option
The moment she steps out on stage tonight, it's clear that this is a whole new game. The awkward, adorable, potty-mouthed overeager rebel ingénue is gone, and the Edwards who moves into the light is electric. She's found a focus that makes her performance limpid. A friend standing with us down front, where the picture-taking is good, says she's going to move back, but she never does. We're at the edge of something you can feel on your skin, and retreat is not an option.
Edwards has a galvanic, unmistakable voice, clear and slightly tremulous, with a swift drop-off that meets her rocked-out country square in the chops. She's a singer of autumn songs, of weary moonless night songs and ballads without redemption. The downsiders who roam her stories know that whatever it is, it isn't going to work - her first record was called Failer - and she's an intimate writer of numb, silent rage and pointless human frailty. Curiously, perversely, it's uplifting.
SXSW - http://2005.sxsw.com/music/
Austin Theremonic Orchestra - http://theremonic.distilleryrecords.com/
Tracy Bonham - http://www.tracybonham.com/
Slaid Cleaves - http://www.slaid.com/
Kathleen Edwards - http://www.kathleenedwards.com/
Roky Erickson - http://www.erickson.com/
Jorane - http://www.jorane.com/
Joy Zipper - http://www.joyzipper.tv/
Robert Plant - http://www.robertplant.com/
Mavis Staples - http://www.mavisstaples.com/
Brian Wilson - http://www.brianwilson.com/
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