AUSTIN, Texas --Three days gone, three remaining at the South by Southwest music festival. Already, millions of notes and beats have been played using dozens of tunings and effects. Untold lyrical cliches involving love, nature, haters, enchanted forests and getting paid have been lobbed into unsuspecting (and unforgiving) ears.
Within this volume, profound moments of glory have arrived from unexpected places -- little sonic miracles and brief instances of grace that are the primary reason we are here.
In a place of so much bounty, it's sometimes tough to keep track of all of these epiphanies, which roar into the consciousness in real time and vanish just as quickly. Some of them should be placed into the public record, though, before they’re gone. Be it a melody, guitar solo, perfectly placed note, witty between-song aside or a masterfully delivered rap lyric, what follows are nine moments that have dented these ears so far.
Skream: The humidity was so thick and the atmosphere so unstable for London dubstep innovator Skream's late Thursday night gig at Barcelona that it's a wonder a tornado didn't erupt. The producer, whose work in the mid-'00s laid the foundation for the Skrillex generation, made full use, pumping a varied mix of minimal bass and dance music that wiggled its way through the sweaty bodies on the dance floor.
The mass of people, bouncing in the little rectangular room, had all the unified chaos of Pollack abstract -- shaking to an underlying throb that’s probably still making it’s way down to the Earth’s core a day later.
Iggy and the Stooges. On Wednesday night, Iggy Pop and the Stooges murdered the Mohawk outdoor stage with a mix of pillars -- “Raw Power,” “1970” and “Gimme Danger” among them -- and songs from their forthcoming record, “Ready to Die.”
The band, fronted by the eternally grisly Pop, proved equally timeless. A ragtag gathering of human power chords, the men Pop described as “the slimy Stooges” (guitarist James Williamson, drummer Scott Asheton, tenor sax player Steve Mackey and bassist Mike Watt) sounded as desperate and urgent as the zit-faced young punks over at the Burger Records party.
Pop introduced one new song that should be required listening for every budding artist in Austin. Describing himself as being “really bad at contract law,” Pop and his Stooges debuted “Dirty Deal,” about the various record business rip-offs Pop has endured. “The system’s rigged to favor crooks,” he screamed as the band played a locked-in rock groove. “It’s dirty!” he sang, “Beware, lookout! It’s dirty out there.”
Andy Stott. I don’t know if the swirling, glowing red and blue fog was supposed to be doing that with the freaky lasers during British dub producer Stott’s set at Elysium, but as he played ethereal tracks and remixes from his excellent 2012 album “Luxury Problems,” the lights played with the fog, the bass and the mysterious, whispery female voices that float through his tracks until they locked into some sort of synesthetic, unified whole. No, there wasn’t LSD or Molly in my system. Yes, it felt like there was.
Alice Gerrard. When the history is written on my South by Southwest experience, one asterisk will appear at the end of the final sentence. It will read: “Except he missed most of legendary folk singer Alice Gerrard’s set at St. David’s Episcopal Church on Thursday evening.”
That won’t necessarily be accurate: I caught the final song by the 78-year-old singer, banjo player and guitarist, best known for her work with Appalachian folk singer Hazel Dickens starting in the 1950s. The only song I saw her perform was a cappella and I don’t even know what it was called. It sounded like it was written by generations of hands, though, and she sang it with a voice that seemed carved by the history of American folk music, a shrine embodied within a single woman whose breath poured out truth. That it was performed to a rapt audience within a church only added to its power.
Japandroids: Near the end of its gig opening for the Stooges at the Mohawk outdoor stage, Japandroids singer Brian King stood before the microphone in earnest. He’d been throwing guitar chords while drummer David Prowse beat his drums for 40 minutes and wanted to make sure that everyone heard what he’d said earlier in the set: that he couldn’t believe he lived in a world where one day he would be playing on the same stage as Iggy Pop.
It was a moment that spoke directly to the spirit beneath all of this, and why so many millions of dollars are being thrown around in Austin. Because, sappy as it sounds, music inspires dreams. “It's a privilege to play before the Stooges,” he said, describing the influential proto-punk band as one of the main reasons he ever picked up a guitar. “It's been one of my lifelong dreams,” he said.
Cafe Tacuba. Lead singer Rubén Albarrán of Cafe Tacuba was a dervish onstage at Stubb's on Wednesday night. The band was performing on the NPR stage to a crowd that consisted mostly of Yeah Yeah Yeahs fans awaiting the hip New York band’s set. But that didn’t stop them from delivering propulsive, progressive Mexican rock, much of it from the recent “El Objeto Antes Llamado Disco,” which spun in wonderfully oblong and surprising ways.
The Winter Sounds. Singer and Winter Sounds founder Patrick Keenan offered one of the best dedications of the festival so far. During an afternoon gig at the Chuggin' Monkey, the New Orleans-based musician, whose band delivered catchy, rhythm-based new wave, said, simply: “This is a song called ‘Pine Box.’ It's about being buried alive, and it's for the ladies.” Whether any of them accepted his gesture remains unknown.
William Tyler. Nashville guitarist Tyler is a stunning player who creates instrumentals that owe a debt to country, folk and bluegrass. Any fan of John Fahey, Sandy Bull or Glenn Jones will appreciate Tyler’s style, which mixes strumming and finger picking to create cascading guitar runs. He uses a 12-string guitar a lot, and between songs he explained his love of the instrument, which he believes is returning into favor after being ruined by pop culture.
Like the saxophone, said Tyler, the sound of the 12-string guitar vanished from the airwaves, and he blames the theme from the '90s sitcom “Friends.”
He strummed, and conjured the spirit of Chandler and Monica in a single chord. Reflexively, a few people in the crowd added the “Friends” theme hand clap. “It’s funny how cultural memory works,” he said, seeming a bit miffed that the clap has eclipsed the guitar, then moved into his next song.
Earl Sweatshirt. The Odd Future member Earl Sweatshirt's Wednesday night debut was highly anticipated, but it was a simple mid-set observation from the 18-year-old L.A. rapper that perfectly captured the spirit of his show -- and the festival.
"This is fun!" he said, a smile on his face as his fans cheered. Indeed.
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit