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Final Day At SXSW's Charnel House

Neumu Senior Writer Kevin John reports: First off, mea culpa mea culpa! It's United STATE of Electronica, not States. More on them below, but visit this State today! Now on to final-day festivities.

Caught the tail end of the World Music panel for the eternal "what is world music?" conundrum. But the real treat was a brief, unannounced (well, curiously, not even the panelists were announced in the SXSW guide) performance by Senegalese hip-hop group Daara J. Lovely harmonies. Live or Memorex beat-boxing. Too bad I didn't get to see more (see below).

The Erykah Badu interview/panel was a tad subdued. Mainly, she discussed the programs she has been working on in the forgotten communities of Dallas, bravely passing off inquiries on what she can do for similar communities in Scotland, my hometown, etc. to one of her behind-the-scenes laborers.

Ditched Ms. Badu to jog around the trade show. Naïvely, I thought I would encounter labels hawking new product (i.e. free CDs!). Instead, I got managers, Web sites, publishers, masters storage facilities, and various other oddments. Oh, and magazines. Pounds and pounds of magazines. I overheard one participant complain about how loaded down her bag had become, to which a helpful soul suggested "Get rid of some of the magazines. When things get too heavy, you can always sacrifice magazines." So Big SXSW 2006 Suggestion: more labels hawking free CDs, fewer bulky magazines. Although I must say, my shoulders look great. And our bathroom is stocked with literature for countless weeks.

Floated over to "Dissecting the Buzz," a panel on publicity attended by Robert Vickers, now of Jetset Records but then of The Go-Betweens. (Reverent pause.) The talk consisted largely of advice to other publicists and artists. As a writer, I felt at times as if they were talking about me in front of my back. Still, I never got the sense of what is at stake (financially or otherwise) in sending out a CD. And hell no, I didn't ask. I did learn, however, that publicists, often at major labels, are often stuck with product they know sucks rocks. So it was nice to hear that whoever was pushing, oh, the Why Store knew they were an awful band too. Right?

Off eastwards for another United State of Electronica show at a 200-capacity charnel house. I'm sticking by my Doobie Brothers analogy from the first night. Even though their hot live and Memorex drummers extracted pools of sweat from us, there's something vaguely hippie and laid-back about this great mixed-gender/race/(sexuality?) collective. The electronica they evoke is oddly goa trance but with none of the piddly doodlings nor the you-gotta-be-on-drugs-to-appreciate-this vibe. Goa trance if it had its thighs on taking over the world (or just the Billboard Hot 100…same thing?). So pop and yet so stretched out towards the dark stars. So urbane and hip yet so homegrown and huggable. Look for a reissued album soon, fools!

Quick stop at home to lose the loot and off to Emo's for Pony Up!, a terrible all-gal combo from my beloved Montréal. As with no doubt countless other bands granted an early slot, their bored indie blah just wasn't ready for the public sphere. What a shock, then, to finally see the great Buck 65 immediately afterward. In some ways the best show I saw; Nova Scotia's native son reconceived hip-hop as broken performance art. His greatest role is the old coot, using the microphone stand as a walker and rap-singing like Abe Simpson's pal Jasper. He rubbed his chin like he was constantly sizing up the audience and periodically sprinkled glitter ("razzle dazzle," he called it) all over the stage and himself. And he did an auctioneer version of his calling card, "Wicked and Weird." Somehow, though, he came off friendly and normal. Or maybe viable is the word. His exceedingly bizarre characterizations were just that — perfectly realizable characterizations bearing no necessary resemblance to the mad auteur bringing them into existence. Unlike a Kool Keith or an Ariel Pink or whoever, he seems approachable, alive in the world at large. How do I know this for sure? I don't. But he excels in so many different musical registers (voice, performance, scratching, songwriting, sampling) and he cuts such a whitebread, workaday presence in between songs that his uniqueness could be publicly funded. Or is all this just another way to simply say that he's Canadian? In any case, an utterly captivating show.

Saul Williams took the stage afterward, and even with a DJ and violinist, he just couldn't live up to Buck's flame. So off to Maggie Mae's, where I caught the end of The Castanets. Quiet slo-core with a singer who reminded me of Jandek — the kind of band I like to see live and never think of again. But I was there for Ariel Pink. Easily the most psychedelic music of the Aughties, the two albums from this certified looney tune that I've heard offer many moments where I think I'm totally nuts and/or full of shit for liking them. But most of those reservations have dissipated after seeing him live. Immediately after the first song started, I looked around the room and locked eyes with a guy I'd never seen before. He had a stunned look on his face. I smiled and pointed at him. He smiled back as if to say "Oh OK good. This IS an extremely intense and bizarre sound that caught me and others completely off guard." And I'm glad to report that one of my fellow grad students who attended was grinning mightily throughout. So what was so damn smile-worthy? First of all, Ariel Pink is essentially a solo project. I hear that even the beats are Mr. Pink's own highly processed beatboxing. But live, he needed help to create his sui generis sound. So joining him on stage were a singer/bassist, a thin, scared-looking dude with oversized eyewear and a choker playing, what?, a little box (sampler? drum machine?) and looking intensely at Pink now and then for direction, and a keyboardist we didn't even know was there because he played on the floor. The madman at the helm fucked over his guitar sound with numerous effects, and his voice was echoed beyond comprehension. He communicated with his band, the sound man (looking surprisingly calm in front of such a tsunami) and us with this absurdly reverberating voice so one could never be sure what he was saying after "th-th-than-than-than-thank-y-thank-yo-thank-you-you-you." Underneath all these cavernous swirls were some pop songs. Some were new wave, à la Talk Talk. Some were 1960s pop paradise à la the Left Banke. So the way I usually describe Ariel Pink is by saying that it's like listening to a piece of Talk Talk, Left Banke, etc. vinyl you found on the sidewalk. Layers of soot, rain, grit, and tears on top of that half-remembered song you heard on the radio a while back. Or maybe layers of other songs as echoes. And then there's Pink himself, mumbling (Jandek-like again?) or twisting his pain into a painful falsetto. Perversely and predictably, the 11-minute "The Ballad of Bobby Pyn" was played in a set that only last 35-40 minutes tops. But at the end of the day, Ariel Pink makes his presence immediately felt in a landscape of too much shit to do/get to. He constantly gives me pause, a veritable social welfare program in the heart of go-go-go capitalism.

I stayed for The Nightingales because someone reminded me that they were an old band. They were called The Prefects at one point, and I seem to recall their name coming up on Typicalgirls, a mailing list devoted to women in 1970s punk. No women here, but the band was apparently from that era. No time/inclination to research. I'm sure it'll come up again. Their sound was a hefty, dramatic punk. I dug it while I was there, but it's slipping away already.

Off to Caribbean Lights for C-Mon & Kypski, a funkstrumental outfit from the Netherlands. Two DJs, two drummers, various strings, all very adept and danceable. But I had to leave (and miss Daara J later at the same venue) to catch Dalek at Elysium. The ONLY reason I went is because a high-school friend told me "I think of Dalek today the way we thought of Public Enemy in 1988." Dem's some big words there. So I bit, and eh. One rapper, one laptop terrorist, one DJ who periodically screamed into the needle. Their raison d'etre was to make one huge wall of sound, and they certainly succeeded. But I like my walls with holes poked through it (I'm still not the world's biggest Phil Spector fan). And funkier rhythms please. And how 'bout a side of song structure?

That's all folks. I do have to eat and sleep.

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