photo by Shawn Scallen via NowToronto.com
And just like that, whoosh, it’s gone. Sunday afternoon in Austin is a ghost town, with flyers and mountains of swag mysteriously hoovered away in the dark recess of the late late late evening. Walking around this desolate burg, where now normal tourists again feel brave enough to tread, it’s hard to believe that only hours ago this place was the nexus of a completely depraved blow-out orgy of alcohol, music, loutishness and fantastical public revelry.
I began my evening by checking in with RITUALZ, the Mexico City electro-wunderkind who seems to be distancing himself from the †‡† symbol-name that he emerged as. Likewise, he seems to be shedding his air of mystery, correctly confident that the dark majesty of his music, bereft of the trappings of what used to be dubbed “witch house”, will suffice in conveying his message. Last night, he bludgeoned a respectable crowd at an East Austin dive bar with his trademark synth-stabs and treated vocals, mixing pure pop, 90s rave, industrial clang and a metal lover’s obsession with noise and chaos. It’s funny: having seen Skrillex play to an infinitely larger crowd the other night, I could see Ritualz being just as effective in the same setting if hype and expectation ever caught up to the noise that Ritualz comes up with.
Shuttling across town, I was reminded that it was St. Patrick’s Day -- and as happy as I was to not be in Boston during the ultimate Amateur’s Night, it appeared that I was in the second-most amateurish drinking town, as green beer quickly turned to green vomit everywhere I looked and the streets of Austin were lousy with tittering high heels and inebriated college kids.
My next stop was the Swishahouse party -- my intention was to catch up with SURREAL, the self-proclaimed #1 Dame in the Game and, at least on record, one of the more ferocious freestylers out there. Sadly, the Swishahouse show was a non-starter when I got there; already running literally hours late, the twenty minutes I sat there listening to a DJ play a mix cd and occasionally interject “Swishahouse at South By South West” over the PA was not only twenty minutes of my life I’ll never get back, but and exact live replication of listening to one of SH’s obnoxious online mixed tapes. Pass.
Perhaps the most gorgeous serendipity of the evening was how, a few minutes walk from that debacle, I happened upon a spot where I could see and hear THE CULT as they bellowed from an outdoor ampitheater across a valley from where I stood. “She Sells Sanctuary” rang out like a dream hear and fulfilled, and for a few tunes I sat and basked from afar at the magnificence of Ian Astbury’s bellow and Billy Duffy’s sleeveless ur-riffage. During a festival where I witnessed every manner of band overplaying, overarranging, overcomposing, overstuffing every section of every song with too too much, it was a complete blast to finally hear some music that allowed room to breathe, all while rocking at maximum efficiency.
My final destination for the evening was the Perez Hilton “party”, where the notorious blogger was throwing a show filled with his favorite acts. Like every show happening that night, it was running hours behind schedule; when I got there, Hilton himself was onstage, killing time while the next act was taking an absolute eternity to set up. “Technical difficulties, it’s what South By Southwest is all about!” Hilton gamely chirped, and man, did he ever hit on a true statement there. Seriously, by the fourth night of watching nothing but endless soundchecks and mic checks (not to mention the literally countless cancellations and lineup changes and whatnot), it was kind of liberating to hear someone on stage finally give voice to this frustration.
On a side note: Because of the sheet number of technical difficulties and lineup changes and all, perhaps the single most ubiquitious thing on the stages of SXSW that I witnessed was the one-hand-up “You only have five minutes!” symbol given by a stage hand to the artist currently playing onstage. I can think of only a few sets I witnessed over a four night haul that didn’t get unceremoniously cut short due to time restrictions, because the show was running way way way overtime. I’m going to guess that literally 99.9999% of every set I witnessed was being performed under the utmost duress due to “technical difficulties” and the like. Perhaps it gave some of these artists the adrenaline rush that made their sets so edgy and interesting (Exhibit A: Grimes, whose quasi-meltdown I witnessed on Thursday was apparently replicated numerous other times by her over the weekend), but is that any way to run a festival? Eh, just an observation.
Back in the early 90s, my then-girlfriend-now-wife, a dyed-in-the-wool Anglophile at the time, was living in London; one of the times that I visited her there, I got dragged by her and some of her gay male friends to a legendary London club called G-A-Y. For a flannel-wearing dude like me who listened entirely to a) The Jesus Lizard and b) bands that sounded like the Jesus Lizard, it was a rude awakening -- not because of the awesomely rampant displays of 90s gay culture on display, but because of the cavalcade of pop solo diva performances we witnessed that night. I couldn’t tell you who any of them were, but they all followed a formula: they played 15 minute sets, their last song was always “their single”, they had no band but maybe a dancer or two, and they were all clearly lip-syncing.
Roughly ten years later I was playing in a rock band, and we played a NYC show where the headliner was a woman named Theo, who in a previous incarnation had been the lead singer of NYC slime-punks Lunachicks. Her solo project, though, was lightyears from that rock milieu, though: she played a spunky dance pop, flanked by two dancers holding fake machine guns, and I remember thinking when I saw her set how that G-A-Y diva aesthetic was not only still alive, but evolving into something that even a rock audience could get.
Cut to a number of years later, and in a post-Gaga world, the pop market is teeming with these high concept acts. Hilton’s roster tonight had a run of one of these types: KIMBRA and CHER LLOYD were primo examples of the phenomenon. Well, Kiwi Kimbra had a band, but it was the same deal -- both were squeaky pint-sized pop dynamos that carry the musical torch of Dannii Minogue and that ilk. Cher Lloyd, a star in the UK but relatively unknown here, was particularly beholden to the G-A-Y diecast mold, and it will probably take some kind of stylistic 180 shift for her to appeal to any but the most diehard UK pop import fan.
The real eye-opener of the lineup was Canadian trio DRAGONETTE; they went on before the heavily anticipated Kreayshawn set, and yet within moments managed to have the crowd thinking “Kreay-who?” With a live drummer, a synth dude, and peppy-yet-earthy vocal belter Martina Sorbara, they managed to combine house music 4-on-the-floor euphoria, pure rock kicks, and a sticky sweet pop center, all grounded in a handful of really really strong songs. The opening number, “Hello”, was a hit for French DJ Martin Solveig with the band as mere guests, but in a live setting they owned it, pumping out High NRG kicks that brought out the first real rock show excitement of the night. Sorbara’s high squeal could at times sound a bit like Karen O, but her whole sound and aesthetic is much more grounded in un-artsy-farsty pop pleasure, and her band continued to match her infectious enthusiasm beat for beat, measure for measure.
“I’ve gained quite a bit from the Internet, and so has this next artist,” is how Hilton introduced KREAYSHAWN; it was a hype statement, but it was also in a sense a type of apology, as if to say “Don’t expect too much.” And there was a certain appropriateness to the fact that her set clocked in at just shy of 15 minutes, perhaps alluding to the brief window of public attention the pint-sized rap phenom has left. And indeed, her fourth and last song, “Gucci Gucci”, was indeed the high point for this audience, if only because it was the song that most deviated from her typical battle rap with its injection of fluffy pop. Set opener “Rich Whores” is probably more indicative of what K’shawn is really all about: a vicious and repetitive screed that eventually devolves into an open paen to the joys of cocaine: “Line it up/line it up/line it up/sniff it” is probably not going to get her a seat next to Clive Davis at next year’s Grammys, and perhaps Kreayshawn knows it; after the song, she intones, voice dripping with sarcasm, “I just want to be real for a second and say that I would never condone drug use of any kind.” It’s a snapshot example of the way that Kreayshawn, as a flash hype artist, is trying to have things both ways, to be both an obnoxious irritant and a massive pop star -- and it’s clear that at this point, she stands poised on the brink between a long star-studded career and imminent flamout.
Although sometimes, artists can stand on that precipice for what seems like forever. Such a predicament seems to have befallen DEV, whose debut album has been postponed by her label for at least a year as more and more distance is put between it and the viral hits that saw her skyrocket from obscurity in the first place. Mostly well-known for having the hook to her “Booty Bounce” jacked by Far East Movement for their inexplicably popular “Like A G6”, she has a treasure-trove of genius singles that are massive-hits-in-waiting, and she blasted through them all during her captivating set tonight: “Bass Down Low” (a tune that is apparently being dropped now from the U.S. release of her album), “In the Dark”, “Take Her From You” and the afrementioned “Booty Bounce” showcased an artist who is just as familiar with rapping through a crunk-pop clubbanger as crooning through a heartfelt tune filled with heartbreak and longing. The diversity of her approach is perhaps the key to why massive success has alluded her: in a sense, she has her finger in too many pies for the tastes of most pop fans, and she doesn’t fit the sex kitten vibe that seems to be expected of today’s pop divas. Like Katy Perry, she’s not necessarily the greatest live performer, and also like Perry is in many ways a more talented songwriter than pop star -- perhaps it’s just a matter of her penning her pop-rap “California Gurls” crossover.
However, that crossover is not going to be the lame and sluggish “Break Ya Back”, her recent collaboration with producer extraordinaire TIMBALAND. Timbo himself slowly and creakily sauntered onstage to join Dev in performing the tune, his every move and expression embued with a sluggish inertia. As Dev left the stage, leaving the spotlight on Tim, he and his DJ careened into the opening refrain of “SexyBack”. And I don’t know about you, but for me, at nearly 2am, that was the sign that it was time for the 2 mile walk back to the hotel -- because if there’s no JT, there’s no “SexyBack”.