My second day at SXSW was fraught with hip-hop, rising indie rockers and Columbus artists that fit in both categories.
I started with the Smoking Section/Nah Right party at Peckerhead's, where Massillon emcee Stalley was owning the room with ace single "Slapp" as I walked in. Unfortunately, Columbus producer Rashad had not yet arrived in Austin to sing the hook. That didn't stop Stalley from steamrolling through his set. He had the whole room shouting out "S! T-A-double-L-E-Y!" Dude can work a room every bit as well as he raps, though it never hurts to have Rashad's beats booming from the P.A. His closing "Hercules" spotlighted both the rhymes and the production to the fullest.
I picked up some street food and wandered down 6th Street only to find Columbus folk-rocker extraordinaire Joey Hebdo busking with a trumpet player. Hebdo will appear at today's We Are Columbus Ohio event.
When I crossed paths with Hebdo I was en route to Cielo, where Chicago rap promoter Hustle Simmons was hosting his annual showcase of emcees on the rise. Last year it was packed but disorganized. This year things seemed to be going according to schedule, but the room was pretty vacant, possibly due to the most awful P.A. system I can remember hearing in a bar. So when Columbus hip-hop heroes Fly.Union ascended to the stage, they had to deal with a dead room and an echo-heavy, treble-free mix. They made the best of it, but I think they'll find today's appearance at Light Bar significantly more inviting.
Next up it was off to the East Side Drive In to see Columbus indie rock heroes Times New Viking do our city proud at Pitchfork's #offline party. I saw TNV at Carabar a couple times late last year and found them to be a little out of sync and out of tune. No such problems this time; when TNV is on, they're on. They bashed out songs old ("Natural Resources (I Love Mine)", "No Time, No Hope") and new ("No Room to Live", "Try Harder") with ragtag, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants urgency. But they remained locked in throughout; they've figured out how to be, ahem, "professional" without sacrificing the vigor that made them so appealing in the first place.
Times New Viking
I next strolled over to Fader Fort by FIAT, where three intriguing new acts were about to perform. The first was Mazes, a British pop-rock band recommended by Columbus expat Adriana Mundy of Bodega/BenCo/Donewaiting fame. They were pretty straightforward, with hooks and power chords galore. It didn't really grab me at first, but the longer they played, the more they whipped up enough energy to draw me in. They reminded me a lot of Columbus veterans Earwig, an endorsement any band should be proud of.
Next up at the Fort was The Chain Gang of 1974, a dancy glam-rock combo from Denver that reminded me at turns of The Killers, Primal Scream and U2. Their show revolves around frontman Kamtin Mohager, who wields a number of instruments when not preening like Mick Jagger. Their style isn't my cup of tea (or my complimentary can of Budweiser, as the case may be), but they left no doubt about their bona fides as entertainers. And there were plenty of rhythms and sonic textures in there I wouldn't mind exploring in headphones someday.
The Chain Gang of 1974
While I had only middling praise for Mazes and Chain Gang, the next act elicited a great deal of passion. Esben and the Witch is a dark and dreary experimental rock trio from England. They caught my attention with this creepy-ass video, and Thursday's set was nearly as brutal.
Their aggressive approach reminded me of Liars, though much of the rhythmic heft in this band comes from samples rather than a live rhythm section. What live percussion they do use is deployed masterfully to grab intensity levels by the throat, thrust them skyward and dangle it mercilessly. Meanwhile two out of three members perform as if some demons are having a fistfight inside them. I was mighty impressed.
Esben and the Witch
Esben and the Witch (in the Fader Fort by FIAT crowd)
Next up was a lengthy hike down to the Auditorium Shores Stage at Lady Bird Lake. At this massive outdoor amphitheater, The Strokes unfurled 80 minutes of nearly can't-miss garage pop bliss. Their apathy precedes them, but on this night the former lords of Lower Manhattan played with precision and maybe even a little passion.
There were a lot of elements to nit-pick last night. Nick Valensi's guitar should have been much louder, the rotating cast of sassy middle aged ASL interpreters was lame, and while I'm a big fan of lead single "Under Cover of Darkness", upcoming album "Angles" isn't exactly bolstering the setlist. Still, I was swept away by classics like "Reptilia" and "The Modern Age"; in particular sophomore LP "Room on Fire" is aging incredibly well. They'll always be one of the world's greatest rock bands as long as those first two records are dominating the mix.
One of The Strokes' sign language interpreters, who looks kind of like my Aunt Cathy
I spent the rest of the night at Austin Music Hall, where Village Voice Media was throwing a party headlined by the Wu-Tang Clan. Upon my arrival, Texas gangsta rap legend Trae the Truth mosied through a brief set of bangers, then ceded the stage to YelaWolf.
Yela is a tat-covered white boy from Alabama, and he raps about meth labs, violent threats and disdain for those who would dare suggest he doesn't embody hip-hop. He does so with Twista-like speed and precision that, matched with his trailer park bona fides, makes him a terrifying and incredibly entertaining performer. On this night he absolutely stole the show. While all I remember about last year's set at Fader Fort was Yela incessantly tossing beers, sneakers and T-shirts into the audience, this time the craft shone way brighter than the circus stuff.
After YelaWolf, Donald Glover from "Community" emerged for some between-sets banter and a little bit of rapping (though unfortunately not "Donde Esta la Biblioteca?"). He also said everyone from Wu-Tang was in the house, which sadly turned out to be false.
Before the Wu hit the stage, we had to sit through an interminable racket by Fishbone. I saw these dudes at Polaris Amphitheater for Blitz Bash or something like that when I was in high school. I hated it then, and I hated it last night. Gotta give them credit for mashing up ska and soul so seamlessly, but the end product was completely obnoxious, never more than when they covered Sublime's "Date Rape". Furthermore, the members crowd surfed on almost every song, and one of them accidentally kicked a photographer in the face. I hate this band.
More than an hour after they were originally scheduled to go on, the Wu-Tang Clan emerged one by one. First to come out was U-God, who I wouldn't have recognized if he hadn't introduced himself as U-God. When I didn't recognize the next three emcees on stage — who turned out to be Cappadonna, Inspectah Deck and the GZA — I had to admit to myself that I'm not exactly a hardcore Wu-Tang fan. (My experience is limited to cursory listens to "36 Chambers", the "Triumph" video and some repeated listens to solo works from Ghostface, Raekwon and Method Man.)
Finally Ghostface hit the stage to rock the first verse from "Bring the Ruckus", but from there the flow of new faces trickled to a draught. No RZA, no Method Man and I'm pretty sure no Raekwon either. That's not a Wu-Tang show I want to see. And considering the entire set was plagued with microphone feedback, it added up to a disappointing finish to an otherwise solid day in Austin.