Friday, March 18, 2011

SXSW Thursday Daily: North Mississippi Allstars, TV on the Radio, Das Racist, and more.

Posted By on Fri, Mar 18, 2011 at 11:36 AM

Our second day at Austin's South By Southwest Music Festival got a somewhat earlier start than our first, with one late-afternoon day set and a full slate of night showcases. The highlights:

The North Mississippi Allstars Luther Dickinson trading licks with special guest G. Love at Stubbs.
  • The North Mississippi Allstars' Luther Dickinson trading licks with special guest G. Love at Stubb's.
Locals: With two official showcases and a handful of daytime parties and live radio performances, the busiest Memphis act in Austin this week may be the North Mississippi Allstars, who have rolled into town as the culmination of a brief tour promoting their new album, Keys to the Kingdom. The band has squeezed this tour in during a break as the opening act for the East Coast and — coming up — the West Coast touring leg for Robert Plant's Band of Joy. (For the Plant tour, the band is performing as a duo, just brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson. Bassist Chris Chew is back on board for their headlining tour.)

Seeing them indoors at Stubb's early Thursday night, the Allstars were as good as I've ever seen them. Playing a set that seemed to come almost exclusively from their new album, they were sharp, Luther Dickinson finding a perfect balance between song form and his masterful guitar playing. A constantly smiling Cody Dickinson was crisp behind the drum kit and Chew added bass lines as big as he is, with help on tambourine, backup and, at times, lead vocals. The gospel undercurrent on Keys to the Kingdom came out even more clearly on stage and added more gravity and soul to the band's trademark blues-rock sound.

Before they performed, I had an extensive conversation with the brothers Dickinson in which we talked about the passing of their father, Jim Dickinson, his influence on their current album, the future of his Zebra Ranch studio, the duo's long list of side projects, the difficulty of pleasing fans and critics who want different things from the band, their personal SXSW history, and other topics. Look for plenty of material from that interview in next week's festival cover story — and probably a collection of interview outtakes in this space after the paper hits the streets.

Amy LaVere wielding her bass at Swan Dive.
Later that night there were competing showcases from two somewhat similar local acts and former $5 Cover roommates — folk/blues/country artist Valerie June and bass-wielding roots singer Amy LaVere. Happily, these showcases were close enough to each other that we were able to catch the first few songs from June and the last few from LaVere. Both were, like the Allstars, in fierce form. And, happily, both played to strong crowds. At the Hilton Garden Inn, June held her crowd in a hush as she worked her way through a mix of originals and vintage folk-blues covers.

Around the corner at Swan Dive, LaVere was leading a newish three-piece band — including guitarist Dave Cousar, who got a rousing happy birthday reception from a group of locals outside the club after the set — through a set featuring material from her forthcoming album. Playing a showcase from management firm Thirty Tigers, LaVere had an almost uncomfortably crowded room at her disposal. Her performance was intense, but as soon as she was done, she brightened: "I'm just so happy," LaVere announced to the room. "We had three shows today and we're done. Now we can go and just watch music and have fun. Here's the springtime in Austin, everyone. Cheers!"

Das Racist: They got a plant!

Emerging Acts: "This is gonna be weird." Those were the first words spoken from the stage — such that it was — by one of the rappers from Das Racist when we saw them inside the exhibit hall Thursday afternoon.

It was perhaps an odd setting for a hip-hop group — a meeting hall setting with rows of stiff chairs and a slightly elevated stage, middle of the day, following a panel discussion. But it ended up being the perfect setting for these guys — a quartet of brainy "brown" dudes who became "internet celebrities" as "the guys who did that Pizza Hut and Taco Bell song."

But if this one-time dorm-room goof seems like a modern music spoof as "one of the festival's most anticipated acts," as a festival rep intro'ed them, they are very much in on a joke that is far more than just surfaces.

Opening with the anthemic "Who's That? Brooown!" (lead-off boast: "Brown Elvis/I can't help it/Brown Larry Bird, y'all/The ’97 Celtics" — and yes the ’97 part is probably the most curious good sports-themed lyric since Chuck Berry's "3-4, the count, nobody on") and later rhyming "Stars and Stripes Forever" composer John Philip Sousa with conservative columnist D'Nesh D'Souza with Iraq War hotspot Fallujah, these guys are like a liberal arts-school collision of Licensed to Ill-era Beastie Boys and Ego Trip's Big Book of Racism.

Their brief convention center set sometimes brought collegiate hip-hip to a Marxian (in the Groucho sense) level of inspired lunacy. "Everybody stand on your chairs," one MC commanded at the outset. And everybody did! Impressed with his power, he tried other stuff — "Everybody take off your shoes! Get comfortable!" and "Everybody leave!" — but those didn't work. They were true to themselves and their audience with their attempts at standard hip-hop audience exhortation: "Make some noise if you like tea! Make some noise if you like green tea!" And, better: "Make some noise if you like computers! Y'all look like you love computers." One MC wore a big flashy medallion advertising his Twitter feed — @heems. They brought a scraggly white guy on stage to rap with great delight — "We got a caucasian rapper!"

All of this goofing would only go so far if the music weren't there. But it is. This is smart, witty, sometimes incisive stuff that makes hay of music references from Jay-Z to Billy Joel. It's the kind of music that is easily dismissed by those who takes themselves and/or music too seriously. But this is a profoundly unserious band. We're going to try to catch them again this week.

I had missed Puerto Rican garage-punk sensations Davila 666 in Memphis last week and caught up with them at Club DeVille for their early Thursday night showcase. Filtering early rock-and-roll styles via punk aggression with musicality and charisma, this band evokes the great New York Dolls despite not courting the comparison visually. They ripped through a set of songs drawn evenly from their two albums for the In the Red label and threw in a Spanish-language version of Blondie's "Hanging on the Telephone." This might be the most fun guitar band around right now.

TV on the Radios Tunde Adebimpe at Stubbs
Established Acts: Seeing TV on the Radio was on our short-list and we made it into Stubb's for their 12:30 a.m. set just before the crush arrived.

It was my first time seeing the band live after resisting their first two albums and eventually falling hard for 2008's Dear Science. At this point, the band's critical stature probably exceeds any other American band (remember: Arcade Fire is Canadian). With singer Tunde Adebimpe controlling the stage with his physicality — long arms flailing against the light and smoke — and the band's brand of art rock getting bigger and more commanding, TV on the Radio seem to demand a big stage and big audience.

Sometimes called the "American Radiohead," the band showed why that appellation implies an improvement, starting with a similar art-rock base but adding flesh and blood rather than icy electronics — elements of free jazz, gospel, soul, punk, and South American music. This band's version of art rock makes room for groove and lust, and selections they previewed from April's 9 Types of Light — like the leaked single "Caffeinated Consciousness" — sounded as great as the sure-shots from Dear Science.

I'm not sure TV on the Radio needed Austin to drum up even more anticipation for this album, but their bravura showcase certainly elevated my eagerness.

On tap for Friday: I'm hoping for full immersion in the festival's emerging hip-hop and indie-rock acts, with local rapper Skewby's first official SXSW showcase at the top of the list.

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