Posts tagged ‘sxsw’

Born by Irreproachable Gorgeousness: 2021 SXSW Online, part two: Music Festival

Otoboke Beaver

Trying to make sense of the vast number of musical performances I witnessed at this year’s SXSW Online music festival is a fool’s errand so I’m just going to highlight some of the things that have stuck with me in the weeks after the event. 

Although there was no shortage of guitar-based indie rock bands from around the world, SXSW also included some really great performers from other musical persuasions. 

Intense, Dasom Baek

The Korean Traditional Performing Arts Foundation showcase included Dasom Baek, a traditional instrumentalist who incorporates electronic loops into her work. Her set included loops produced by a Korean wooden flute, the daegeum, and the sound of water swished in a metal bowl, overlaid with passages played on a smaller wooden flute.  Seated cross-legged on the floor and washed by a single moving beam of light that was at times tinged green or blue, Baek’s set was understated, elegant, and intense.

On a louder, more post-rock tip, Jambinai combined guitars, a trap set, and electronic loops with traditional Korean instruments including the zither-like geomungo, the two-stringed haegeum, and the reedy, metallic taepyeongso, and wordless, softly keening vocals. They worked up a good head of steam in their dark, metal set.

Awesome sauce, Haepaary

Another Korean act of note was Haepaary, a duo that blended traditional Korean singing styles with electronic beats to create a mesmerizing, evocative atmosphere. Featuring a very big drum and dreamy vocals adapted from 15th-century royal shrine music, Haepaary’s set was pure awesome sauce.

Relaxed, Enno Cheng

I went into SXSW with the intention of seeing this year’s edition of Taiwan Beats, which showcases indie music from the island nation, and I wasn’t disappointed. Each of the four acts performed in iconic locations in Taiwan and each brought their unique sound and style to their presentation. Vocalist Enno Cheng performed in the mountains of Taiwan, combining her clear, relaxed vocals with understated instrumentation and very subtle synth backings. Interestingly enough, she wore running shoes with her flowing red skirt, not unlike her compatriot KT Chang from Elephant Gym.

I was especially happy that power-punk quartet FireEx was included in the Taiwan Beats showcase, since they had been slated to tour the US last year pre-pandemic and their concert in San Francisco had been on my calendar before COVID killed live music last year. To honor Taiwan’s laborers they staged their set in a factory in the southern port city of Kaohsiung and their performance was interspersed with cutaways of workers doing their thing.

Among other things, FireEx is famous for writing and performing “Island’s Sunrise,” the anthem to the 2014 Sunflower student movement, and they sing mostly in Hoklo Taiwanese dialect. Similarly, the titles of their songs from their SXSW setlist reflected their revolutionary stance. They kicked off with the straight-ahead rock tune Stand Up Like A Taiwanese, followed with the double time beat of Don’t You Fight, which starts with guitar solo and features lead singer Sam’s ragged but clear vocals. The chorus further demonstrates their fiery stance.

Don’t you fight, don’t you fight

It’s a brand new revolution

Time is running out, so let’s go fight

The song shows off their musicality and features a brilliant little break at the end.

The crunchy guitar and deep, heavy bass of Keep on Going, with its strong urgent vocals, subtle harmonies, and crisp drumming, finished off their energetic, anthemic set. This is the music of a people who don’t want to be oppressed by a dictatorship anymore. 

Mellow, The Chairs

Following FireEx was The Chairs, a retro-pop combo who performed in an indoor shrimping-fishing venue. Having spent some time shrimping in Taipei I can attest to its authentic Taiwan vibe and it was a fitting location for The Chairs’ mellow, jazzy set, with their sweet three-part harmonies and acoustic and electric guitar sound. Dressed in neat suit jackets over turtlenecks and collared shirts with white shoes, The Chairs sang in both Mandarin and English, demonstrating how next level Taiwan is.

Thrashy, Drinking Boys and Girls Choir

East London’s Damnably Records showcase was one the best of the lot that I watched, featuring five artists from Asia. The set of the South Korean skate punk trio Drinking Boys and Girls Choir was literally shot in a garage, which all made sense considering their clean, sharp, thrashy sound. The group consists of two girls on drums and guitar and a guy bass player and their sound vaguely resembles the Shaggs on speed. Their Busan compatriots, the quartet Say Sue Me, performed in their practice room which was dressed to look like a suburban living room. Driven by the bass, they played some nice mid-tempo surfy power pop.

Lo fi, Hazy Sour Cherry

Japanese indie power pop quartet Hazy Sour Cherry’s set was fun, poppy, and light. Consisting of four members from Tokyo’s indie scene who play spare, lofi guitar-based pop, they say their biggest influences are the Beatles and it shows. The Damnably showcase also included Grrrl Gang from Indonesia. Another fun power pop group, their sound, with its melodic, plaintive vocals, is mildly riot girlesque, though softer than classic punk. 

Muscular, Otoboke Beaver

The highlight of Damnably’s showcase was the all-girl combo Otoboke Beaver, the superb punk band from Japan lead by lead vocalist Accorinrin, whose powerful throaty growling drives the band’s muscular sound. The band’s set was a perfect mix of party dresses and speed thrash.

Corrido, Janine

I also loved Marca Unica’s showcase of Música Regional Mexicana, the first in the history of SXSW. These cool Spanish-language groups performed in what looked like an auto dealership, with fancy rims on the wall and flanked by two all-black vehicles. From Houston’s South Side, Equilibrio, billed as trap corrido, mixed plaintive narcocorrido harmonies, dual guitars, and some gorgeous tuba runs. My Spanish skills are very lacking, but their emotion came through in the singing. Solo vocalist Janine was backed by a nine-piece mariachi band including guitarron, horns, and strings, and her set highlighted her big, beautiful corrido vocals. 

Yoiking, Ozas

Another nicely organized showcase was Northern Expo, which highlighted performers from the north of Norway. Northern Expo really tried to cinematically tie together the performances as the showcase traversed a snow-covered city from street level to a tram to a mountaintop. 

The showcase opened with a street-level performance by Ozas, a duo of sisters Anine and Sara Marielle from the indigenous Sámi people who performed their excellent yoiking (traditional Sámi singing) backed by a sideman on a double-necked acoustic guitar. The film then followed the rapper Oter, riding in a car through the snowy streets while showing off his intense flow as he spit rhymes over metal beats. 

Lilting, I See Rivers

Oter ended up at a tram station, where the showcase transitioned to the performance of I See Rivers, This female duo on guitar and what looked like an electronic autoharp had a fun, quirky neo-folk pop sound with sweet, lilting soprano harmonies.

Once the tram reached the top of the lift the scene cut to the last band, Heave Blood and Die, who performed their 90s-style grunge rock on the rooftop of the building. As indicated by the name, theirs is a more traditional rock style, with screamo vocals over a guitar-bass-drums sound. Props to this showcase for being both musically and cinematically engaging.

Comfy, The F16s

A few other acts scattered throughout the massive music festival program also caught my eyes and ears. The F16s, from Chennai, India, played a lively, engaging indie rock set. Lead vocalist Josh Fernandez has a nice range, with good, deep low notes and a sweet raspy falsetto. A fun detail of their set was their bassist sitting comfortably on the floor with the rest of the band ranged around him on sofas or standing up. I’m not sure why but this seemed metaphorical for the casual, comfy mood of their set.

Sinous, Altin Gun

I also really liked Dutch-Turkish psych rock band Altin Gün. They had a good groove with electronic and guitar/bass/drums instrumentation, along with an electric oud and a doumbek, the ubiquitous Turkish hand drum, combining sinuous polyrhythms with some funky grooves to create a memorable sound. 

Digital, Theon Cross

Also of note was UK jazz artist Theon Cross, who played lead tuba (!) over a funky afrobeat groove. Cross also appeared as a digital avatar at the SXSW’s virtual reality showcase, offering an alternative to live performance in the time of COVID-19.

Fun, Teke::Teke

I also enjoyed the off-kilter set of Teke::Teke, a seven-piece Japanese combo based in Montreal. Led by Maya Kuroki’s growly vocals, they have a fun electric enka sound.  

Bombastic, Millenium Parade

Another big ol’ group, Tokyo-based Millennium Parade, had what seemed like ten people on stage. A collaboration between musicians, visual artists, filmmakers, designers, and producers, their big, messy, bombastic funkiness includes two trap sets, a sax, synths, and a rapper and several vocalists as well as a dude on a megaphone. The epitome of chaotic good, Millennium Parade produced a full gorgeous sound, with pentatonic scale vocal processing, rapping, horns, and an animated video backdrop with dancing and swimming babies, expanding brains, and electronic singing fetus in VR headset. It’s P-Funk + city pop for the 21st century. 

This is only about half of all the acts that I watched at SXSW which combined with the film festival ate up a good portion of my life for five days back in March. Though it doesn’t replace the thrill of experiencing live music, SXSW Online helped to ease some of the pain of the cessation of live performances during this pandemic year. Here’s hoping this online iteration of SXSW is an aberration and that next year’s SXSW will be back to live music in person in all its loud and messy glory.

May 8, 2021 at 5:50 am Leave a comment

Talent Is An Asset: 2021 SXSW Online, part one: Film Festival

Wit, The Sparks Brothers, 2021, photo: Sparks

When the COVID-19 tsunami hit the U.S. back in March 2020 Austin’s SXSW film and music festival was one of its first casualties. The entire event was dependent on live performances and screenings and with the country going into lockdown there was no chance it could happen that year, so the whole shebang was cancelled outright. But subsequent film festivals began pivoting to fully online and this year SXSW was an entirely online event, including films, music, conference panels, and networking. Luckily for me, this format also gave me the chance to attend my first SXSW and I ingested a huge amount of content from the comfort of my own home. Because of the sheer volume of performances that I consumed Imma split my review into the film side and the music side, starting with the cinematic treats I watched. 

Brilliance, Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche, 2021

The festival included two documentaries about influential and innovative pop stars that have flown somewhat under the mainstream radar. Poly Styrene: I Am A Cliche looked at the life of the leader and vocalist of the legendary UK punk band X-Ray Spex. As a baby punk back in the 80s one of the best things about early punk and new wave was the presence of women of color such as Pearl E. Gates, Pauline Black from Selecter, and Poly Styrene. Poly was not only a punk icon but also a woman of color icon and it was great for me to have a Black woman role model who could belt it out with the best of them. The film traces Poly’s meteoric brilliance as the leader of X-Ray Spex at age 19, as well as her struggles with mental illness and her involvement with the Hare Krishna sect later in life. Told from the POV of her daughter Celeste Bell, who is credited as the film’s co-writer and co-director, the film interweaves her narration with a plethora of archival footage and photos. As a mixed-heritage child (or half-caste, the term that was in common usage at the time) raised by a single mother in 1960s Britain, Poly (nee Marianne Joan Elliott-Said) faced a fair amount of casual racism and ostracization. The film shows the range of Poly’s artistic endeavors outside of her singing career, including several passages from her journals (read by Ruth Negga), as well as her unique and idiosyncratic fashion sense which she developed in her teens and which she highlighted in her years as the face of X-Ray Spex. Celeste Bell’s somewhat mournful narration adds a gravitas to the film as she searches for the truth of her mother’s life and legacy. But throughout it all the story is driven by the power of Poly’s clarion voice and poetic vision. 

Off-kilter, The Sparks Brothers, 2021

The Sparks Brothers, directed by Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead; Baby Driver) explores the iconic cult band Sparks, utilizing a ton of archival footage, interviews with the band’s many admirers including Bjork, Giorgio Morodor, Todd Rundgren, and many more, accompanied by Sparks’ excellent and eclectic pop music. Emulating the cheeky and off-kilter attitude of its subjects, the film follows Russell and Ron Mael, the two brothers who founded Sparks, from their childhood in Southern California through their long and winding musical career. The film captures the brothers’ sardonic style as seemingly British invasion cult darlings (belied by their SoCal roots) with their first hit in the UK, This Town Ain’t Big Enough for Both of Us, through their survival in the fickle world of rock music in the more than four decades since. I’ve always been a fan of Sparks and their unique and twisted pop stylings, led by Russell Mael’s dramatic and operatic high tenor and Ron Mael’s sophisticated keyboards and songwriting, so this movie was a fascinating look at their career trajectory. Always ahead of the pop music curve, the film demonstrates the Mael brothers’ influence on disco, new wave, EDM, synth pop and much more. It also shows how their highly visual and cinematic presentation, with the more traditionally rock styled Russell contrasting with Ron’s odd Hitler/Chaplin persona, made them a perfect fit for the MTV era, when they scored their new wave hits The Number One Song In Heaven and Beat The Clock. Throughout the film their wit and intelligence shine through.

Relentless, The United States vs. Reality Winner, 2021

Two other docs in the festival looked at politics and current events. The United States vs. Reality Winner is a procedural agitprop doc ala CitizenFour, Laura Poitras’ Oscar-winning film about Edward Snowden, another famous whistleblower. Snowden even makes an appearance in this film, as do several other commentators who contextualize Winner’s case. The film follows Winner’s mom as she tries to get a fair trial for her daughter who has had the book thrown at her for exposing Russia’s influence on the 2016 US presidential elections. As with CitizenFour and other films of its ilk, The United States vs. Reality Winner has a definite opinion and relentlessly pursues it.

Ambiguity, In The Same Breath, 2021

In contrast, Nanfu Wang’s documentary In The Same Breath, which looks at the beginnings of the coronavirus pandemic in Wuhan and in the US, is all about doubt and questioning and its lack of clear answers reflects the confusing times we’re still enmeshed in.Included in the film is some stunning security camera footage of the very earliest days of the pandemic in Wuhan that shows how quickly the virus spread and how unprepared health officials were in their initial response. The film beautifully expresses the ambiguity and uncertainty of the COVID-19 era while sounding a warning about the inherent untrustworthiness of governments both in China and the US.

Filipino AF, The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, 2021

The Fabulous Filipino Brothers, Dante Basco’s directorial debut, is in some ways a spiritual successor to the iconic 2001 Asian American film The Debut. That movie, which starred Dante and also included appearances by his three brothers Dion, Derek, and Darion and sister Arianna, is much beloved in the Filipino American community for its lighthearted look at FilAm culture, traditions, and identity. The Fabulous Filipino Brothers is is similarly Filipino AF and it was interesting to watch more than 20 years after The Debut made its premiere. It’s set in Pittsburg, CA and loosely revolves around an upcoming wedding in a big-ass Filipino family. Many Bascos were involved in the making of this film, including the four Basco brothers in lead roles, with narration by Arianna. The film is a bit rough around the edges and never transcends its sitcom aesthetic, but all four brothers are talented performers and each does well in their respective vignettes. Their agile comic timing and ability to hold the screen makes me wonder why their careers didn’t take off after the success of The Debut, but as usual the answer is probably racism. A humorous side note: one of the characters is in a depressive funk which he deals with by composing atonal electronic music that sounds a bit like some of the stuff I heard at the SXSW music festival.

Empathy, Águilas, 2021

I also caught a couple excellent short films of the many that were included in the festival. Águilas, by Kristy Guevara-Flanagan and Maite Zubiaurre, follows a group of volunteers who scour the Sonoran desert near the Arizona border looking for the remains of those who have died attempting to migrate on foot to the US. A short, intense look at those who carry out this grim duty, the film is suffused with empathy for the people who have lost their lives traveling from their home countries as well as those who search for their last remains.

Snapshot, Red Taxi, 2021

Red Taxi, by an anonymous director, utilizes interviews with cab drivers on both sides of the Hong Kong-Shenzen border that were shot during the massive 2019 Hong Kong protests. The short documentary provides an interesting contrast between the pragmatic hopefulness of the Hong Kong cabbies and their PRC counterparts, who for the most part don’t have much sympathy for people of Hong Kong who were speaking out against the government at the time. It’s an interesting snapshot of the times and shows the divide in opinion on either side of the border without judging or taking sides. It’s also telling that the director has chosen to be anonymous, reflecting fears of the oppressive new National Security Law in Hong Kong that effectively punishes residents for speaking out in any way against the Beijing regime.

Next up: Part two, in which I attempt to encapsulate the huge number of international performers I saw on the music side of this year’s SXSW.

April 12, 2021 at 6:25 am Leave a comment


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