Kanye West at the Levi’s/Fader Fort © Seher Sikandar
SXSW 2009: Kanye West, Common, Erykah Badu, Devo, Red Riders, The Asteroids Galaxy Tour, Big Boi, Janelle Monáe, Chin Chin, Beach House, Solange, Kid Cudi
Austin’s South By Southwest Festival is four days of new bands eking out a following and amplifying their buzz while established acts assert their influence or grasp at a comeback. Giant Step’s Resident Mawuse Ziegbe took in as much of the long lines, late nights and musical highs as she could. Here’s her review of a weekend of sounds in the South.
I meet my girl for dinner and our waitress scares me with her disarming southern hospitality. 6th street, the epicenter of the festival, teems with souvenir stores and death metal pizza shops (no joke). Some fey guy with a messy accent asks for directions and rewards me with a plastic light saber and some chocolate.
We check out an awesome Australian band called Red Riders. It’s guttural, thrashy, syncopated rock; a cross between Bloc Party and Crystal Stilts. We get pulled into another venue by the funky strains of The Asteroids Galaxy Tour. The lead singer looks and sounds like a cross between Stevie Nicks and Deborah Harry. “The Sun Ain’t Shining No More” pounds like rockabilly tune from a Danish version of The B52s.
At the AfroPunk show Big Boi hits the stage bedecked in lime green stockings. He gets real 1998 with it playing jams like “Bombs over Bagdad” and “Ms. Jackson” (Janelle Monáe crashes the stage with her frenetic footwork during the former). I run into the first of many Brooklynites and he hooks us up with backstage passes. We finagle our way onto the side of the stage and pump our pelvises to “Ghettomusick.” The hype man coaxes us onstage during “The Way You Move” and we revel in our newfound groupie-ness. After the show I relinquish my light saber to some random hipster and I realize my Blackberry is missing. I eat my chocolate on the ride home.
At 3 AM, my friend’s phone rings and someone named Greezo has found my Blackberry. I go back to sleep.
We wander into Austin proper to do some shopping and eat some Tex-Mex. After stuffing my face with fried green tomatoes, gingerbread pancakes and mole verde I consider cancelling my return flight.
We head back towards the festival where I’m due to meet Greezo with my phone. A Google search reveals he is part of the Austin rap group Da C.O.D. with Lil’ J.J. Weezy. Despite the dubious crack-rap credentials, he meets me on the corner of 9th and Red River and returns my phone like a gentleman (Incidentally, their song “Couple Barz” is pretty poppin’).
Now plugged back into society, I go hog wild trying to catch all the bands I want to see. I take in a Chin Chin show at Coup De Ville then jet to see Beach House at Cedar Street Courtyard. The place is overrun with shaggy-haired mofos and I leave after one song. I try to see Margaret Cho and Janeane Garafalo but apparently everyone else in Austin also wishes it was 1995 and I defect the line. I catch a showcase of San Francisco artists and get into the folky, mid-tempo strums of Loquat.
Solange is still sound-checking when I enter the Austin Convention Center. But a few minutes later, ushered in by the “Theme from Shaft” she starts the show with songs like “Dancing in the Dark” and “Sandcastle Disco.” She switches up the tracks with brief covers of The Cardigans’ “Lovefool” and Martha and the Vandellas’ “Heat Wave.” She closes by slipping into the audience and dancing with a giggly fan right next to me.
Devo at a SXSW press conference © Jamil Walker
I get some Lone Star Beer and catch a band called Mirah whose music is too sweet to hold my attention. Out of curiosity I check out Devo. Aside from “Whip It” and Mark Mothersbaugh’s contribution to “Rugrats,” I’m not really a fan but I’m quickly impressed by their snappy new wave. Like smart ol’ geezers they hold the younger people’s attention with juvenile visuals of sticks flying into donut-holes and such. But staying true to my youthful ignorance, I leave after “Whip It.”
I get an empanada and watch UK band Late of the Pier make spectacles of themselves by crowd-surfing on the gawkers outside of the venue who couldn’t get in. I end up back at Coup De Ville to catch Kid Sister who’s losing her voice and sharing the stage with her far more animated brother Josh from Flosstradamus.
Around 3 AM I meet up with my friend and we both decide it’s time to check out the 24-hour IHOP behind our Ramada. I order a chicken-fried steak from a waiter who’s high on life…or cocaine.
I check out the storied Fader magazine Fort which is basically a field where they fence in all the hipsters and industry people. There are t-shirt making stations, a photo booth and a Budweiser and Southern Comfort open bar (Woo!).
Solange joins Theophilus London on stage to perform his remix to her song “Sandcastle Disco.” Diplo plays some dancehall and his backup dancer careens around the stage, swathed in layers of shredded white fabric and ratcheting up the awkward factor. This horrible band called PoPo drives me out of the fort for some Tex-Mex. Later, I do my first-ever interview with DJ $mall ¢hange on East Village Radio. Then, I catch Dead Prez and cringe at their liberal use of the N-word.
At 9 PM Kanye West, sans Afro-mullet, kicks off his G.O.O.D. Music showcase with “Amazing.” He inflicts mild torture on the drunk and heat-stricken audience by bringing out B-level G.O.O.D. music artists Consequence and GLC. After songs like “Spaceship” and “Crack Music” he introduces some newer protégés like the promising Big Sean, a slight MC with outsize swagger from Detroit. But British singer Mr. Hudson, with his frosted hair and wayward Backstreet Boy look, thins the crowd with his tepid performance.
Solange at the Austin Convention Center © Jamil Walker
Just as I’m ready to leave, Fonzworth Bentley blasts on-stage with a sharp slant-top fade and Hammer-time dance moves. Kid Cudi leads us through an epic rendition of “Day N Nite” marked by minimal lyrical prowess and lots of jumping around. Then, Common bumrushes the stage with an unruly version of “Universal Mind Control” and he and Kanye climb on speakers and romp in the crowd during “Get ‘Em High.” As Common smoothes it out with “The Light” who else saunters on stage but Texas native Erykah Badu. She belts the chorus to “The Light” and then leads Kanye and Common in a freestyle cipher. A storied two hours to tell the kids one day.
On my 7 AM return flight, worn out from traipsing around to venues and keeping college freshman rager hours, I find myself sitting across from Chuck Inglish of The Cool Kids. I bug him about his thoughts on SXSW and he politely but groggily chats with me. As I doze off, I’m comforted knowing that even stars get affected by the foolishness too.