SXSW 2009, Day 3: Disaster, but Zimbabwe rules!

Say what? Well, here's what I'm saying: My third night of music at SXSW was a reminder that, when things go wrong, they can go really wrong. Until they're saved by — but I'm getting ahead of myself. (Shown above: Chiwoniso.)

Ken Richardson here, and I can also tell you that the actual day of Friday started out fine. Smashing, in fact. In my continuing quest to follow the exploits of one singled-out band at SXSW, I had made a date with the Grates (see my posts for Day 1 and Day 2). First, we did a photo shoot, courtesy of our famous rock & roll photographer, Ebet Roberts.

(That word "famous" was applied to her yesterday by none other than Devo, who are speaking and playing at SXSW this year. At the beginning of her photography career, Ebet shot the likes of the Ramones, Talking Heads, and yes, Devo. And when she saw the band yesterday at their press conference, they recognized her and said: "Look at you now. You're famous." Ebet demurred, but they insisted. "No, really, you're famous!" And so she is. But I digress . . .)

After shooting the Grates both inside the Convention Center (where we covered them with Legos!) and outside, we all strolled to Brush Square Park for the band's gig at the day party known as the Aussie BBQ. Once again, it didn't take long before they had the audience in their hands, despite the warm day under a hot tent.

We then returned to the Convention Center for a sit-down interview in the Artists' Lounge. You'll be able to read that interview soon in the print mag. For now, suffice it to say that Patience, John, and Alana are as charming offstage as they are giddy onstage.

But then, the night fell. And it fell hard.

Come with me now, if you dare . . .

First up: Future of the Left (Cardiff, Wales). Listen, guys, it's 2009: There's no excuse for a club gig to be this crushingly loud. Especially a gig in a club that's as compact as the Aces Lounge. This was a brutal assault that even earplugs couldn't stop (and I speak from experience). I even saw people putting their fingers in their ears, on top of their earplugs. Halfway into the second song, I was all the way out the door. Which is too bad, because the band's "percussion-heavy guitar skronk" (so tipped by Marc Savlov in The Austin Chronicle) might have fared much better under different circumstances.

I stumbled down the street — wait a minute, a word about that street. Meaning the famous Sixth Street. Somebody, in their infinite wisdom, has placed spotlights atop a crane at the central intersection of Sixth and Trinity. Said spotlights glare right into your eyes as you walk toward them down the street (which is always blocked off for pedestrians during SXSW). The effect is to ruin what has always been a wonderful people-watching experience — especially on Friday and Saturday, when the Spring Breakers and the local University of Texas students swarm the already burgeoning ranks of SXSW attendees.

So meanwhile, there I went blindly stumbling down the street, thinking I could maybe catch the rest of the set by a band called Speak (Austin, Texas — yes, at last, some room for an Austin band in my schedule!). But when I arrived, the band was crashing unremarkably through its last notes. Humph.

What would Janeane Garofalo (Newton, NJ — really) make of all this? I intended to find out. Yes, there are stand-up comics at SXSW, and even though Janeane is, you know, a star, I really needed her sardonic take on things at this point in the night. But when I arrived at the Velveeta Room, I saw a sign posted on the door: "At capacity."

Okay, then, what was that sorta interesting metal noise coming from across the street? It was Eagle Twin (Salt Lake City, UT), a guitarist and a drummer who were raising a holy Sabbath racket. So I wandered over to check 'em out — and they promptly stopped playing. Figures!

Trying to get back on my original schedule, I headed for the gig by School of Seven Bells (Brooklyn, NY). But when I got there, the previous band was still playing. And then it took a while for the Bells and the sound man to get this School in session. When that did happen, the result wasn't bad, but it soon became clear that the trio's melodic electronics are more suitable for listening at home (via the CD called Alpinisms) than watching/hearing live.

Stumble time again — way across town, for some world music at the Copa. But when I got there (repeat after me), the previous band was still playing. Arrrggghh. What happened to SXSW's reliable top-of-the-hour set times? Had everyone lost their watches? By this time — after nearly three full days and nights of festivalgoing — my feet were about to fail me, now. But I was determined to stick it out. And I'm so glad I did, because I finally, finally encountered something I could call:

TONIGHT'S BEST IN FEST

Chiwoniso2 Chiwoniso
Harare, Zimbabwe (chiwoniso.com)
     I was determined to stick it out because, if an artist could come to Austin representing a country as broken-down as Zimbabwe, then the least I could do was give that artist my attention. And in this case, the artist was a woman who sang and played an mbira that was tucked away in a big round box.
     Chiwoniso's playing was nearly virtuosic (and certainly rhapsodic), and she was completely disarming in both her vocals and her personality. (Don't let that tough look in the photo at left fool you.) For her first number, a Shona dance song, she had the audience singing along all the way through — especially the contingent that waved a Zimbabwean flag. And for her second number, Chiwoniso sounded as if she were singing amidst wooden wind chimes.
     Alas, the frat-like party people in the next room (where the bar is) were oblivious to this artistry, and they nearly threatened to overwhelm the singer from time to time. But in the end, Chiwoniso redeemed the power of pure music. And that's what I wanted to hear at the end of the night, tonight.

So I scrapped my midnight and 1 a.m. slots and headed for the hotel. After all, there will be more music tomorrow. Plus three tech-related panels that you will want to know about. Til then . . .

— Ken Richardson
P.S. I'm not going to bother with giving you the Web sites for the other artists I did or didn't see tonight, or wish I hadn't seen. But I will tell you that the photos of Chiwoniso are credited to Taurai Maduna (top of post) and Judith Burrows.

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