Saturday, March 19, 2011

SXSW Friday Daily: Wild Flag, Skewby, Screaming Females, and more.

Posted By on Sat, Mar 19, 2011 at 4:24 PM

Day three of the South By Southwest Music Festival exploded, tens (hell, hundreds?) of thousands of civilians pouring into the mix of festival registrants and turning 6th Street into a roiling ocean of colorful, unkempt humanity.

Wild Flag guitarist Carrie Brownstein, onstage at the Parish late Friday night (or, I suppose, early Saturday morning), was speaking for many of us when she couldn't remember if her band had played the club earlier that day or the day before: "I don't remember. It's not alcohol. It's just walking down 6th Street. That's a mind eraser."

Apex Manors Memphis-bred Ross Flournoy at the Parish.
Luckily we had photographic evidence and a notebook filled with barely discernible scribbles to help us remember what we saw. Some of our Friday highlights:

Locals: Memphis or Memphis-connected acts were dotting the SXSW landscape. Memphis garage/punk institution Goner Records was holding an unofficial showcase at familiar haunt Beerland, with locals Harlan T. Bobo and The Limes scheduled to play. Playing official showcases at opposite ends of the festival mainland were experimental rockers Cloudland Canyon (at Emo's Jr.) and the North Mississippi Allstars (following their early Thursday show at Stubb's with another showcase at Momo's). Folk-rockers Star & Micey, done with official business, were spotted out busking. And local artists hitting town for shows off the SXSW grid were said to include young indie bands Bake Sale and Modern Convenience and songwriter Bryan Hartley as well as rapper Jason Da Hater and producer Infinito, who showed up at fellow Memphis rapper Skewby's day show and then, apparently, played later Friday night at the Victory Grill.

We ran into Valerie June at Buffalo Billiards. With a day off between gigs — having played an official showcase at the Hilton Garden Inn the previous night and scheduled to play a Folk Alliance event at Threadgill's on Saturday — June was enjoying the fest and conducting a little business, having been approached by a significant booking agent after her showcase the night before.

But we carved out "locals" space on our schedule for a couple of showcases located close together in the middle of the action.

First was Apex Manor early on at the Merge Records showcase at the Parish. The California-based Apex Manor is the brainchild of Memphis native Ross Flournoy, who is returning after the break-up of his fine previous band, the Broken West.

Flournoy was born and raised in Memphis, but his family moved to California when he was 21. When Flournoy was in college, at Amherst in Massachusetts, his family returned to Memphis. And though Flournoy is currently California-based, Memphis is "home" again — where he comes for holidays to visit parents and a grandmother in East Memphis.

The Broken West was a bright, winningly melodic band. Apex Manor, which debuted early this year with the album The Year of Magical Drinking, scales back a little of the previous band's power-pop sound and adds a little more classic-rock muscle.

"[The Broken West] made those two records and weren't really making a lot of money, and that burned everyone out a little bit," Flournoy said after his showcase, slipping out to the club's fenced-in back alley for a little respite from the noise. "But I knew I still wanted to keep writing. I made demos and sent them to Merge [which had released both Broken West albums] and they liked them."

Assembling a new band that also includes Broken West bassist Brian Whelan, now on guitar, Flournoy tweaked his sound a little. "I grew up listening to classic rock," he said. "I sort of wanted to rock out without any preciousness. Just balls-out rock."

At the Parish, Flournoy and his band were really strong, opening with the rave-up "Teenage Blood" before moving into the hooky "Under the Gun." I had been listening to and enjoying The Year of Magical Drinking on and off for the past couple of months, but seeing the band live really brought the album home.

Skewby gets some crowd love at his first SXSW showcase, at Fuze.
  • Skewby gets some crowd love at his first SXSW showcase, at Fuze.
A little later, local rapper Skewby made his official SXSW showcase debut at Fuze, bracketed by a couple of harder-edged, more well-known Atlanta rappers, Gorilla Zoe and Pill. Joined by DJ Crumbz and manager/partner Antonio Tubbs on stage, Skewby more than held his own in a potentially tough environment, performing "Authentic" and "Sweet Dreams" from his most recent mixtape, More or Less and earlier songs such as "Angels Remix," "Get Retarded," and "Talk 2 ’Em."

Girls with (or without) Guitars: Before and after Skewby's showcase, we enjoyed terrific sets from a couple of guitar-heavy, femme-lead indie-punk bands.

First was Screaming Females at Buffalo Billiards. A power trio from New Jersey, the band is led by singer-guitarist Marisa Paternoster, who packs more wattage into a smaller package than probably anyone in pop music.

Screaming Females Marisa Paternoster opens her mouth, and the universe cracks.
  • Screaming Females' Marisa Paternoster opens her mouth, and the universe cracks.
Onstage in a long-sleeved black dress with a ruffled collar, white shoes, and bangs falling into her eyes, the tiny Paternoster looked the part — I'm sorry, but it's true — of a 12-year-old being reluctantly dragged to church. And she didn't acknowledge the audience until well into her set. But when the beat kicked in, she morphed into a full-on rock goddess, with titanic punk-metal guitar leads and volcanic vocals. Looking down at her instrument, hair covered her face. Arching away from the mic, her eyes rolled back. You almost never saw her pupils, adding to the "possessed by rock" effect she has. She has enormous presence and the large crowd greeted the end of each song with waves of enthusiastic applause.

Later, we ended our night back at the Merge showcase for the lone "official" showcase by Wild Flag, a new band whose debut seven-inch is due out next month and whose first album is still just a rumor.

Wild Flag had played several shows already and was headlining the Merge showcase for a packed crowd at the Parish, among the larger club venues in the SXSW matrix. Why so much interest in a band that's never released anything? Because of who's in it: Wild Flag marks the reunion of singer-guitarist Carrie Brownstein and drummer Janet Weiss, two-thirds of Sleater-Kinney, the indie-punk band whose enormous run from the mid-’90s to the mid-’00s established them as one of the very best rock band's of their era.

Brownstein and Weiss are the indie-punk answer to Jimmy Page and Jon Bonham if anyone is, and it was thrilling to see them playing together again. Weiss' force and precision behind the kit is still astonishing. And while Brownstein doesn't kick quite as high as she did — gulp — 15 years ago, she's still as foxy, sharp, and enjoyable a guitar player as you'll ever see.

Mary Timony [left] and Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag cross swords. Janet Weiss keeps the beat.
  • Mary Timony [left] and Carrie Brownstein of Wild Flag cross swords. Janet Weiss keeps the beat.
As a Sleater-Kinney follow-up, Wild Flag misses the bone-rattling vocals ex-SK partner Corin Tucker, but neatly sidesteps this problem by creating a very different and totally engaging dynamic. Brownstein is joined up front on guitar and vocals by Mary Timony, former leader of ’90s indie notables Helium. Timony brings a different — more quirky, more sardonic — vocal dynamic and is a more forceful guitar player than I remembered. She had great chemistry with Brownstein, trading off vocals and hopping towards her for several fevered, dual-guitar excursions.

Filling out the band is keyboardist Rebecca Cole of Portland's the Minders, whose contribution gives Weiss some help as both rhythm section and background vocalist, with both Cole and Weiss chipping in liberally as secondary singers. The whole vibe of the band was great and they weaved catchy indie-pop and heavy guitar rave-up with ease. You couldn't get much of a sense of the lyrics from this live set, but if they have much to say — and Sleater-Kinney had plenty — Wild Flag could be a major band.

Another female performer I was happy to see couldn't be more different stylistically — Minneapolis rapper Dessa, who was described by the Austin Chronicle as "the Midwestern answer to Lauryn Hill," and not without some legitimacy.

Dessa is one of two standout members — along with leader P.O.S. — of the Twin Cities hip-hop crew Doomtree, and her lone solo showcase of the festival, on Wednesday night, conflicted with that of Raphael Saadiq (see our Wednesday post). Heading to the Doomtree showcase later to see P.O.S., I saw Dessa at the bar and introduced myself, expressing disappointment about the overlap with Saadiq. "I know!," she said, with a charming mix of exasperation and excitement. "How was he?"

But with a Doomtree crew performance at a day party at Venue 222 given more time presumably because of a late-arriving Das Racist, Dessa got a couple of solo spotlights, performing "Dixon's Girl" and "Alibi" from her terrific debut album A Badly Broken Code. Mixing rapped vocals with traditional singing and telling finely wrought stories infused with hip-hop-style wordplay, Dessa isn't a traditional rapper, but more of a singer-songwriter type who utilizes beats and rhymes rather than acoustic guitars or pianos to put her songs over. She radiated joy and intelligence. More proof, if we needed it — and some still do, apparently — that hip-hop is a tool available to any kind of person to tell any kind of story.

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