Friday, March 20, 2015

SXSW takes on Colorado, Sheboygan and Anakin Skywalker

Posted By on Fri, Mar 20, 2015 at 12:51 PM

  • Altas did Denver proud at the Colorado Music Party

The music industry loves to talk about itself — who doesn't? — and that becomes more than apparent during SXSW's daytime panel offerings. Thursday's sessions ran the gamut from "Beethoven to Beyonce: The Science Behind a Hot Beat" to "How to Fill a Club When You Play Sheboygan."

The majority of these panels are geared toward record industry insiders and career-motivated artists, who are really the only people incentivized to venture out into daylight after long days and nights of musical debauchery.

"New bands come up to me and say, 'We need a publicist," recounts Ken Weinstein, owner of the prestigious Big Hassle agency. "And, in most cases, I tell them, 'No, you DON'T need a publicist. What you need is to get in that van and play. And then call me in a year. Or two."

With repeated apologies to the Wisconsin town that inspired the panel's name, Howard Wuelfing of Howlin' Wolf Media led his fellow publicists in a discussion of tertiary markets, places where musicians can put still put the word out through locally originating podcasts, Yahoo groups (!) and record stores "where they still exist," as Rounder Records publicist Regina Joskow put it.

In another panel, "AES Platinum Producers & Engineers," the topics of the hour ranged from technical talk to overall commentary on the industry's increasing instability. Recalling his personal excitement about digital downloading as a way to hear everything, panelist Eduardo Cabra went on to talk about how he eventually became aware of the long-term consequences.

"It's like the Latin industry found Anakin Skywalker and then Anakin went to the dark side, and now Luke has to come and save us." Exactly how that'll happen is still anyone's guess. "I really don't know why I'm talking about Anakin and Luke Skywalker," he joked as the metaphor began to wear thin.

As for Thursday evening's musical performances, many fell into the not-unexpected categories of exuberance, disappointment and revelation that SXSW is known for. The Brothers Landreth, who'd just received a Juno Award (which will forever be described as the Canadian equivalent of a Grammy) may have celebrated just a little too much, as they messed up the opening bars of Paul McCartney's "Let 'Em In." From there, the going got much easier, as the bluesy Americana act eased into a more surefooted rendition of their Canadian hit "I Am the Fool," a song they borrowed from their dad, musician Wally Landreth. ("Hey, old man, YOU'RE not using it.")

Elsewhere, neo-soul newcomer Leon Bridges filled a cavernous space called the Hype Hotel, showing why he's becoming the Next Big Thing among Daptone-revering R&B fans. Bridge's eight-piece band — which included two excellent backing vocalists and a sax player who would occasionally venture into overly loungey terrain — sometimes reached the point where a polished performance becomes a lackluster performance, but there's no doubt that the understated soul man at front and center is the real deal.

Later in the night, Wyclef Jean took things in the opposite direction, blasting the crowd with hyped-up renditions of songs that were, in som cases, approaching drinking age. Among them were the obligatory Fugees hit "Killing Me Softly" as well as a take on "No Woman No Cry" in which Wyclef went on about his taste for marijuana and resulting negotiations with a drug-sniffing dog. ("They brought Mister German Shepherd to talk to me...")

Later still, Death Valley Girls, a retro-punk band who've garnered comparisons to The Flesheaters and Mo Tucker, offered off-key unison vocals that showed they need to take serious lessons from bands like The Mutants.

Fortunately, the night's true revelation was right across the street at the Colorado Music Party, with a 1 a.m. set Altas. If they were from Europe or Asia instead of Denver, Altas would be worshipped by fans of German trance bands like Can and American post-rock groups like Tortoise. And while a microphone loomed at the front of the stage, which would have allowed that tremendously appealing instrumental soundscapes to be spoiled by disappointing vocals at any moment, THEY NEVER USED IT! Instead, the five musicians stared at their instruments — or into a space halfway between them and something no one else could see — and delivered what was, for me, the most unexpectedly brilliant set of the night.

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