SXSW 2018 - Celebrating Music That Pushes Boundaries
SXSW is always a mess. With countless record labels, booking agencies, PR companies and promotion groups looking to present the top artists on their rosters to fresh young audiences and weathered industry professionals alike, one can only imagine the manic but exciting energy that pulses through downtown Austin for the week. Every venue within a two-mile radius boasts a lineup stacked with up-and-coming musicians from around the world, and the promise of a great party to boot. There's an overabundance of artists to see, people to meet and experiences to be had - but in the chaos of it all, there's one trend that was unignorable: the divergence from the - I'm just going to say it - straight white male garage rock norms of the past into a bold exploration of sound and expression fronted by women, people of color and queer folx. Here are some of the artists I encountered who are leading that charge and taking the world of "indie rock" into uncharted territory. (Disclaimer, due to a series of unfortunate phone malfunctions, all photos I took of these performances are lost to the invisible channels that control us. Instead, I am using approved videos, giving credit where credit is due.)
The minimalism of Eva Moolchan's short, often 1 min 30 second electronic, post-punk, spoken word masterpieces draws you in with the promise of more - heavier beats, crunchier bass lines, more dynamic vocals - but the tracks ride out their simplicity until the end. I caught her performance at Beerland on my last day at the fest, and surrounded by DIY punks and curious observers, I found myself dancing in spite of the sonic simplicity. There wasn't much to the beats, but they were infectious nonetheless, and Eva's goofy, childlike stage presence made the monotony of her talk-singing vocals all the more fun. It was punk at it's most stripped down. It didn't matter if Eva could play or not - most of the time, she just repeated the same simple riff on her beaten up bass over and over while trying to keep her bass strap from falling and mumbling a string of words into the mic. What mattered was the fact that while she was on stage, there were no rules, no song structures to adhere to, no professionalism standards to meet. She was simply doing her thing in her baggy yellow tee, camo skirt, cowboy boots and hat, and it was glorious.
Nnamdi Ogbonnaya's performance at NYC events powerhouse, Adhoc's official showcase closed out my last night at SXSW and was without a doubt the best way to end the week. One could lazily classify Nnamdi's music as hip-hop, but that would be rude, honestly, because his sound is so far beyond that. His backing band, which had a typical rock band set up, ventured into genres ranging from doom to soul, from math rock to trap and beyond that with all sorts of synthesizer-driven beats. They created a powerful foundation for Nnamdi's rhymes, at times delivered calmly and quietly from center stage, and at others, yelled into fans' faces from inside the sporadic pit. It was one of those sets where listening to the recorded tracks I had just danced so heavily to live just isn't as fun.
Armed with an electric violin, a very small electric guitar, a couple pedals and a basic drum machine, Sudan Archives creates intricate, droning, percussive soundscapes informed by the struggles and cultures of black men and women of the past, present and future. I accidentally caught three of her performances that week – my favorite of which was at the inside venue at Cheer Up Charlies, surrounded by hip kids there to get lost in the music – a stark contrast from the convention center show she played an hour earlier to the incessant camera clicks of industry professionals. I then stumbled upon her performance at the Stones Throw showcase, and was amazed at how different even that set was, at midnight on a Friday night. She was playing for a club that was barely paying attention to her, her intricate looping overshadowed by the distinct chatter of drunk industry bros. When placed in her element, at her humble musical roots, her talents and ability to string historical North African instrumentation together with modernized forms of expression is overwhelmingly beautifully. But expand it much further beyond that, into the realm of the “industry”, and her talents and control over her violin just get lost in the noise of it all.
I haven’t moved so freely, so carelessly, to the rhythms of a great band in what feels like forever, and that was the point of Combo Chimbita's performance - to draw you with mindless ease into their inescapable world of tropical futurism. There was something about the power surging off the stage from Carolina Oliveros’ energetic, no-holds-barred Spanish vocal lurches that couldn’t help but draw the crowd in toward the depth of it all. Her forceful rhythms as she struck the guacharaca protruding from her chest felt like they flowed directly from hers to mine, driven deeper and deeper into my soul by the cumbia-driven psychedelia of the band. This NYC-via-Colombia band is not going away anytime soon, I guarantee it.
This first time I saw Hop Along I didn’t really know who they were. It was 2014 and I was there to see Owls at the Bowery Ballroom at the behest of the boy I was seeing at the time, and ashamedly, I’d paid little attention to the opening support: Hop Along. The stage lights dimmed and this petite woman – Frances Quinlan - with an acoustic guitar that looked like it would swallow her whole if given the chance, stepped into the spotlight and started screeching – for lack of a better word. She belted out the most intimate lyrics not meant to be understood, quieting herself at odd moments and then suddenly lurching back into bizarre vocal patterns, all the while playing a mixture of simple riffs and complicated mathy melodies. It stopped time. For a brief moment, I couldn’t remember what life was like before this moment. The full band joined her shortly after for the most riveting set I’d ever had the fortune of stumbling into. Since then, I was hooked. So, when I had the chance to see the group perform four years later at Brooklyn Vegan’s official showcase at SXSW 2018, I did not hesitate. With a new touring member, fresh tracks under their belts and months on the road fine-tuning their sound, they were clean but gritty, deeply feeling the music while still engaging with the audience. It was the perfect culmination of their often-jarring, unkempt sound, and I’m sure it can only get better from there.