2019 Music Festival
Last month 1,964 musicians played at South by Southwest 2019 and I think I’ve recovered. SXSW is my own version of March Madness and I think next time I’ll take a lesson from the college basketball fans and make a bracket. SX is probably the worst best place for the commitment-phobic and the decision adverse. My music taste meanders across genres, styles and decades so decision making often comes down to what I can fit into my schedule and honestly, who gets to me first. Musicians and their representatives send music to writers every day. I can’t listen to all of it. Sometimes I can listen to the first ten seconds of a song. Within five seconds, I know if I want to hear more. When I find a song by an artist I’ve never listened to before becoming part of my Spotify heavy rotation list, I’m delighted.
Emerging artists are the best. They care about their art, they work tirelessly with no guarantee of monetary reward. They don’t need to be handled and are legit gracious about writers taking time to meet with them. People who think that music is a lucrative career should think again. Many musicians never see a fraction of what they gross. The practice is demanding. If they tour, they sleep erratically. Relationships fracture or strain. I wish I could have seen more, discovered more gems that help me walk faster to the subway or calm me down when someone is rude to me or even remind me of why I love certain artists and songs in the first place.
(or the lucky 13 in no particular order)
Andrew Bird bends his voice to meld with his instruments with an effortlessness that only comes with years of practice. He picked up the violin at the age of four and hasn’t seemed to put it down. The “multi-instrumentalist” and songwriter, whistles, sings, composes, and is a legit storyteller. Bird’s latest album, My Finest Work Yet is out on Loma Vista Recordings— Bird creates intimacy when he performs whether it is in one of his living room concerts or on an outdoor stage in a park. Inside, he welcomes guest artists to chat or perform with him like Yola, the British Americana folk singer. Hard to pick a favorite but the Andrew Bird song I find stuck in my head is Bloodless. There’s a sexy languidness to it incongruous to the lyrics.
They’re profiting from your worry
They’re selling blanks down at the DMZ
His voice, calming and confident makes us want just one more story, please. Along with the new album, Bird’s animated video by Andrea Nakhla for Manifest can be watched here.
City of the Sun
In one evening alone I found myself skittering from the Verve Showcase where I felt as if time stopped when I heard the acoustic trio “City in the Sun” for the first time followed by J.S. Ondara whose dynamic range is what makes him different than the American Folk singers he so admires to a honky tonk where I transitioned to the deliciously raw, pure rock ‘n roll band, Balto. City of the Sun defines what makes music impossible to live without. It seems so simple, two guys with guitars and a drummer. Being present and not sucked into the vortex of the external feels nearly impossible in 2019. Listening to City of the Sun somehow brings me back.
Originally from Kenya and now calling Minneapolis home, J.S. Ondara wears a suit like no one else, tells hilarious stories about his mom fretting about him finding food to eat in America (and a nice Nigerian wife to cook it) and sings of an America he loves and a land perhaps, we have forgotten.
The Chills have a cultlike following in their home country of New Zealand and honestly, I’m a sucker for a good cult because I’m not a joiner. They also came to SX armed with a documentary about their founding member and lead singer, Martin Philips that will be released in the US at a later date. They played eight times at SX. I went to four. Here’s the thing: They have a repertoire of over 200 songs but stuck to a set list of ten songs in the same order and it never sounded repetitive. The band is a cross between all business, completely humble, at home on the stage, connected with the audience and honestly, delighted to be there. Martin plays every show as if it’s his first, like he’s still so happy to be in front of a mic, a couple of feet above the crowd (you get the idea that if he could figure out a way to perform at eye level he would) with a guitar in his arms. He sings from a place that only he knows and we just want a glimpse of. And if he knows you, he’ll acknowledge you for being there.
Filmmaker Peter Michael Dowd spent three and a half years making a documentary about Mr. Jimmy (Akio Sakurai) whose day job was as a kimono salesman but his passion was mastering Jimmy Page’s guitar repertoire—All of it. If you want to geek out about Led Zeppelin, Dowd won’t disappoint. He fell in love with A Whole Lotta Love in a friend’s car in high school. The guitar riff got under his skin and into his head and just stuck. If Mr. Jimmy could locate the portal, he would be Jimmy Page. Mr. Jimmy fell in love with Led Zeppelin the way most teenagers do. He heard Stairway to Heaven and he was hooked. Give it a hot second. I bet you can remember the first time you heard Stairway to Heaven. I remember because it was the first time I ever saw twelve-year-olds slow dancing while firmly gripping each other’s tuchus’ at sleep-away camp. (It made me wonder all right.) Dowd’s film dignifies the life’s work of Sakurai, a serious musician in his own right and not an impersonator nor an imitator. Mr. Jimmy, the man, and the film explore the nuances of the Led Zeppelin canon. Though short(ish) for a Led Zepellin ditty, I think The Immigrant Song is one of the best technical examples of Mr. Jimmy’s mastery. You’ll have to wait until the film comes out to see Mr. Jimmy play the acoustic gems. Not all songs remain the same.
Ella Vos is a classically trained pianist with an indie pop sound that rocks with the best of ‘em. It’s almost impossible not to describe Vos as beautiful. She writes songs about what concerns her and she definitely sees the world through the perspective of someone who knows what it’s like for life to throw surprises her way. Diagnosed with lymphoma at the beginning of her last tour, instead of canceling she somehow fit her treatments into her schedule. Her philosophy? It’s Only Temporary.
She’s currently in the middle of her Watch and Wait US tour. At SX she wore a leopard spotted catsuit that seemed to say, you never know what’s underneath. The booming bass was so intense that it felt like the air near the stage was buoyant. Her voice danced above the bass the night I saw her at The Palm Door. You can read more in my interview with Ella last month. She’s truly a delight. Her sound like Ella is here to stay.
CHKBNS (pronounced cheekbones and autocorrects to chicken) is based in St. Petersberg, Russia, writes songs in English, is no stranger to our indie music scene and takes electronic music to another level. With a keyboardist, drummer, and guitarist they create studio worthy tracks and loops during live performances. There’s a half hour video of them from their KEXP appearance online (yeah, they’re that good). Their music feels dreamy, hypnotic and danceable. Take the track, Renamed, I love the couplet:
How do you name me in November,
This brutal month for fragile temper?
Like much of the song, everything’s about juxtapositions. Music knows no borders. Creativity is immune from politics. Makes me wonder how many other bands are out there?
Casii Stephan has an incredible head of black curly hair that seems as alive as she is and a quick infectious smile. People want to compare artists, particularly female lead singers. I’ve heard Casii compared to Adele, Celine Dion and Florence and the Machine. (I could think of worse.) I’m going to suggest that she’s an artist in her own right with a band, the Midnight Sun that augments yet never overwhelms her vocals. Casii is fearless when it comes to surrounding herself with dynamic talent. Everyone loves what they’re doing and they play off of each other like a band that’s been together for years not just a year. The percussionist, Amira Al-Jiboori doubles as the band’s manager.
Listen to three of Stephan’s songs in a row and the styles are different yet not incongruous. What I hear is a clear, confident voice of a woman who writes her own lyrics, plays keyboards and holds nothing back. I catch R&B, some soul in “In I Like the Way” and “When Winter Comes.” with a definite foot stomping rock n’ roll backbeat like in her song “Letters.” Casii’s voice has this rich gospel quality to it that imbues the words with a texture that you can almost feel. In the live version of “I Like the Way,” it seems like she’s singing for us, not to us. She’s expressing what so many of us can’t because we’ve all been in the place she’s singing about. Her humor comes out in one of her earlier songs, “Yo-Yo,” a super upbeat song about being someone’s emotional yo-yo and calling out the guy on it. Based out of Oklahoma, look for a full-length album in the next year and keep your eye out for tour dates.
Forget everything you ever thought you knew about techno music. Put on headphones and experience what happens to your body when you listen to Komfortrauschen. The trio out of Berlin sports a clean almost minimalist aesthetic of white sportswear. It’s like they could go from the club to well, the tennis club.
The music pulls you in without beating you up. You feel part of the ramping up of intensity like you’re being invited to participate rather than being assaulted by thumping bass. The problem? Playing at the level of machines requires physical stamina that is superhuman. You want their sets to last hours, which is not possible. Ever been to a techno club where people are dancing facing the DJ? When you are at a Komfortrauschen set you might face them or close your eyes but only because you want to be absorbed by the magic that they create
Deaf Poets hear poetry in the mundane. They’re kinda punk, kinda rock, super high energy, put on a fantastic show and have a big sound. And wait a hot second—there’s only two of them. Drummer/singer, Nico Espinosa and guitarist/singer, Sean Wouters are Brooklyn based, Miami transplants with an intense, raw energy that reminds me of Jane’s Addiction and early Ramones. They’re totally different but the rawness, the ability to put everything they have into a performance feels right what we need at the moment when music can be a little too curated or overproduced. If you’re in New York, watch for show schedules. They are about to start a big tour so watch for dates. Meanwhile, listen to some of the lyrics from Degenerate Minds:
I need no obligations
I’m counting 1 through 10 so I get my concentration
If you are thinking that the world could live without another white rapper, change your thinking. MC Bravado’s lyrics and delivery are probably the only legit way of expressing his story so that people will actually hear it. The New York native, Baltimore transplant was a cocaine-abusing, high school English teacher. Say WTF? What the world can live without is another self-help book. What we need is spoken word artist, MC Bravado who plays on his English Lit background with the name of his latest release Like Water For Hangovers (produced entirely by Militant Marxman). Laying one’s soul bare is nothing new in music let alone in rap but oh the analogies are so much fun even if the story is for real.
Balto is like the answer to what to listen to in the car on a road trip or maybe while making dinner with your best friend. They are a rock band out of Los Angeles in the tradition of the storytelling ballads like The Eagles but with their very own groovy style. They’re also fantastic live, they give it all up on the stage. The lead singer, Daniel Sheron’s clear somewhat bluesy voice infuses the overall sound with a clarity that makes you pay attention to the entire song
Yola proves that I’m living under a rock sometimes. I heard her live for the first time at Andrew Bird’s living room concert at SX and I was shook. Not wanting to box this Brit ex-pat in the genre of folk singer, country, rock ‘n roll. Yola’s voice is rich, smooth and a little bit sexy. She is more than the “new Nashville” sound, she’s all Yola.