by Jay Gabler
March 14, 2018
After The Current's Pledge House party yesterday (follow along again today on our website and Facebook page), our staff celebrated over barbecue in true Austin fashion, then split off to explore SXSW. Without a predetermined plan, I opened the showcase guide and followed my instinct, checking out four artists' sets and a Dutch-curated "Living Museum." What's that, you ask? Read on.
My evening started at Javelina, where the Los-Angeles-based singer-songwriter Alex Rose was taking the stage under a pair of ominous stuffed boar heads. Dramatic shadows as the sun set outside created a striking vibe for her short set of delicate songs. Accompanying herself alone on electric guitar, Rose accentuated her breathy and tender singing with loops created with such discreet use of a looping pedal that the alternate Roses seemed to appear in our ears out of nowhere. It was a homecoming for Rose, who was raised in Austin and had multiple family members in the appreciative audience. "I have some cassettes for sale," said the modest Rose as she wrapped up, "or I'll just give you one."
Being someone who writes about theater and visual art as well as music, I couldn't resist the "Living Museum" being presented as part the Netherlands' "New Dutch Wave" programming at SXSW. The 45-minute performance had attendees ushered into a museum of "living art" curated by an eccentric character who, if I got his name right, was called Goldie Schotts.
The white-suited curator set up a table in the middle of Sixth Street, assigning random numbers to each of us in line and calling people up one by one as he pulled numbers out of a bingo cage. I didn't get called, but a woman standing next to me did. I asked what Goldie wanted to talk about, and she replied, "Why, art, dahling!"
Once we were inside the darkened, fog-drenched room, "Goldie" did something radical for SXSW: he asked us to put our phones away. We came to understand why as the performances unfolded.
First, we saw a performance by the singer slash songwriter slash performance artist futurist Cata.Pirata, who seemed to emerge from a giant plant (she could have popped out of Lana Del Rey's stage set) to sing a few melodic electrofunk jams, clad in a neon bikini and a gauzy wrap, with occasional leaves for visual accents — all illuminated by a flickering cone of laser light.
Next, we turned about-face to witness a performance by Lisette Ros, an artist who I'd mistaken for a mannequin. Entirely nude, she was slicked down from head to toe in what functioned as the sort of gel that gets rubbed on a belly before an ultrasound. Wielding two wired stethoscopes, she slid the sensors across her body to create a soundtrack of rushing blood and beating heart.
The third work of "living art" came in the form of Sam Andrea, whose work gave new meaning to the term "action painting." Working in briefs, lit only by a strobe and a handheld lamp, Andrea slathered black paint on a giant canvas while gothic music roared. He ultimately accentuated his piece with some red paint, literally mopped onto the canvas and onto his bare body.
The performer Chagall, a self-described "early adopter of the mi.mu gloves," served as climax. Mi.mu gloves are equipped with a range of sensors that allow her to control her electronic soundscape by gestures, essentially mixing her own soundtrack in the air as she dances in front of a screen bearing repeating, processed images of herself. Clad in a striking outfit that befit the futuristic vibe of the experience, complete with translucent boots, Chagall cut a very Blade Runner figure.
Seeing us out with peek at his glittery gold genitals (yes, really), Goldie saw us back out to the street, having accomplished the remarkable feat of making the rest of SXSW seem a little...well, mundane.
Ready for a more familiar experience, I headed to Valhalla to catch Anna Burch. The Detroit-based indie rocker played to a packed house as part of the Riot Act Media showcase. Even after four years covering SXSW, I'm still discovering funky new venues: Valhalla offers a unique circular bar bisected by a wall extending on either side: the people nursing drinks on the civilian side can gawk through the gap at the music on stage behind the wall.
Backed by a three-piece band, Burch delivered her ambling, melodic songs with a deadpan vocal that recalled Juliana Hatfield or Minnesota's own Laurie Lindeen. Her debut LP Quit the Curse has been earning strong buzz and a growing audience — a guy next to me enthusiastically sang along to every word of album opener "2 Cool 2 Care," something you don't see very often at the discovery-oriented SXSW. Warm and gently self-deprecating, Burch confessed that she hadn't been to the festival since getting kicked out of the VIP tent at the 2008 Lou Reed tribute. "But," she noted, "at least I got to shake Moby's hand."
Squeezing my way out of the room when Burch wrapped up, I turned towards one of my favorite SXSW spots: the outdoor stage at Cheer Up Charlie's. The performer onstage was Summer Heart, a Swedish artist who I'd heard but never seen. Live, David Alexander was unassuming: he wasn't trying to dress or dance like anyone's idea of "summer," he was just hanging out in his jean jacket and ball cap singing some dream-pop jams. Like you do. A minor equipment malfunction inspired a winningly lopsided grin, and we all swooned a little.
My last stop of the night was the surreal Gibson Room at Maggie Mae's, a guitar-themed venue with couches and cushioned chairs lining the walls. It looked like the kind of place you'd see a middle-aged electric bluesman you wouldn't recognize, but then someone would lean over and say, "He played with B.B., you know."
Instead, when I was there last night it was playing host to a performance by Wild, a five-piece band built on three core collaborators: singer-keyboardist Lauren Luiz, singer-guitarist Zach Daegatano, and bassist-producer Tyler Thompson. They're a tri-coastal trio, if you count the Mississippi River as a coast: Thompson is from Minneapolis. I sat at Daegatano's feet in a zebra-skin wingback chair — which was awkward, but when it's been a long day at SXSW and there's a zebra-skin wingback chair right in front of the stage, you're not not going to sit in it.
Wild's indie-pop songs are galloping and anthemic, and it's no surprise that they've started to land placements in movie trailers alongside nods from tastemakers like NPR's Bob Boilen. If you haven't heard the likes of their singles "Vagabond" and "Throw Me in the Water," chances are you will be soon. Their performance reminded me of seeing the Lumineers at SXSW, back before the whole world was HOing and HEYing. The band were confident enough to throw in a cover, a SXSW rarity — but no one was complaining about their take on "The Dog Days Are Over." Happily, they've just begun.