When SXSW comes to downtown Austin, it’s a rumbling of clashing rhythms and a cacophony of dueling bands. Charles Ives might have dug it.
Despite the festival’s best efforts to provide sanctuaries away from all the posturing noise, a reminder of its rock ‘n ‘roll foundation is never far away. A number of shamisen performers at Japan Traditional Nite in 2006 had to compete with the neighboring bands pounding away on a patio. Even at the Steve Reich showcase, quieter moments of a piece allowed the noise from outside to bleed through the windows.
And so it was with Wing’s debut at SXSW. Her showcase was housed in a room above a bar neighboring Maggie Mae’s, where another band made a ruckus. Maggie Mae’s actually hosted two other bands at the same time, so Wing’s performance was assaulted by all sides.
How could she compete with that?
Toward the end of her showcase, the strain of trying to hear over the bleed through the floors and windows was starting to show, and the audience itself, engaged in the first half of her set, were tuning out as well.
Wing was armed only with a backing karaoke track and her gracious stage presence. Yes, she was behind many measures on some songs, but if I couldn’t hear her, she probably couldn’t hear herself either.
But she soldiered on and didn’t let the distractions steer her away from the performance. In a festival where posturing is the first item of the agenda, Wing’s imperfect, modest and earnest performance outshines even the biggest of egos. That crappy rock band playing around the corner yelling "Aw yeah, we’re gonna rock toniiiiiight!!!!" has nothing on Wing’s simple offering, "I hope you enjoy my performance. Thank you."
The Standing Room got it right when describing her previous performance at Café du Nord in San Francisco. Wing loves to sing for people, and she does so selflessly. As much as the audience was there for her, she was here more for us.
Japan Nite is always a tough showcase to get into, because the most of the audience show up early and don’t leave. I’m usually one of those people, but this year, I could have gone home after watching Wing.
I listened to audio excerpts of the bands playing this year, and I was barely impressed. Avengers in Sci-Fi was the only one to catch my attention. Wing’s showcase went a bit long, so I was stuck waiting in line. Luckily, I managed to catch the last half of Avengers’ set.
The mix of electronics and rock guitars is not unprecedented — Boom Boom Satellites? Supercar? But Avengers in Sci-Fi had some fairly catchy songs, and they commanded the stage incredibly well. Singer/guitarist Kohato Taro navigated between twiddling the knobs on an effects generator and performing his main dual duties without a glitch.
Quartz-head 02 followed, and judging by the audio excerpts, I feared a dull stage show with a bunch of knob twiddling. My fears were warranted. The mostly mid-tempo electronica set wasn’t very compelling. At one point, I muttered, "Pick up the damn pace!" Fujiwari Daisuke provided a few melodic comments on the electronic collages with some saxophone lines, but really, the only way this performance would have become interesting is if he did some jazz improvisation. The music was really calling for it.
After 20 minutes, I had enough and went to the patio to smoke.
detroit7 came on next, and I usually despise garage rock. It’s what you get when talentless musicians can’t do anything interesting with punk. I heard snippets of detroit7 years ago and passed on following up.
The only thing that really tethered me to the showcase was a cute guy in front of me who looked a little bit like Zach Gillford, who plays quarterback Matt Saracen on Friday Night Lights. I figured if I didn’t like the set, I could always gawk at the guy.
Half way through the showcase, I stopped paying attention to the guy and started paying attention the music. detroit7 uses garage rock as a springboard to incorporate other styles. Some of the band’s songs were downright danceable. The band saved its hardest songs for the end, and they got the audience jacked up.
I would have left if detroit7 ended up being another Thee Michelle Gun Elephant. (Or another Emeralds, for that matter.) They didn’t.
I didn’t stick around for Petty Booka because, really, how many times does SXSW have to invite them back? I also heard about 10 seconds of audio from ketchup mania to get immediately bored. Paul Ford’s "Six-Word Reviews of 763 SXSW Mp3s" took the words right out of my mouth: "Utterly predictable girly Japanese punk."
I had wanted to catch Mexican band Panda at Dirty Dog, but I didn’t want to have to wait till 1 a.m. I’ve gone to SXSW for 10 years now — I got my money’s worth with Wing and Steve Reich. There’s no onus for me to be such a soldier.