Playback: Austin Week in Angers, France
Kevin Curtin runs into more than a handful of musical Austinites on the other side of the globe
Austin Week in Angers, France, has come and gone. The dignitaries – a cavalcade of 50 musicians, artists, chefs, radio deejays, two-step instructors, yogis, mixologists, and journalists – have boarded planes and trains back to Austin. Only Ethan Azarian hangs behind to complete a mural.
The painting, brushed onto a concrete wall running alongside the Maine River, depicts a bridge extending from Angers' St. Maurice Cathedral to Austin's Frost Bank Tower (revisit "The French Connection," Sept. 16). It's a contrast of ancient France and new Austin that cracks Azarian up. Equally amusing is the fact that the project seems to baffle the local university students tasked with helping him paint.
Nevertheless, like Azarian's songwriting over the decades in our capital city, the mural communicates a big idea in a simple way, specifically, the value of connecting two municipalities that are very different on paper. On one side of the trans-Atlantic bridge, there's capitalism, on the other: socialism. Bordeaux and baguettes over there, Lone Star and breakfast tacos over here.
Austin's considerably larger, but Angers is much older. Our "sister city" relationship isn't historic, having begun in 2011. Yet something about the castle-filled college town in western France unequivocally vibes of our homeland.
"It almost feels like you're in Austin, except people are speaking a different language," smiles local bard Kalu James, who played three Austin Week gigs and served as a helpful translator for other musicians. "I wasn't sure what to expect. All I'd heard was, 'Angers is a sister city to Austin. There are lots of young folks. There's good music and art.'
"I thought, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. We'll see.' Then I stepped outside and it was exactly true what they said. Everyone here has the same feeling: This experience is real. It's real through music, through arts, through connecting with people."
Concerts in venues, bars, and public parks account for the largest portion of programming at the annual six-day showcase of Austin culture, with 25 total ATX musicians each playing up to five shows. Highlights included Afrodelic aliens Golden Dawn Arkestra's main-stage triumph at Levitation France, the 4-year-old Euro incarnation of Austin's psych gathering, where the locals won over a 1,000-strong crowd with their sage-stoked bacchanal of funk and interplanetary humanitarianism. Black Angels frontman Alex Maas, whose Reverberation Appreciation Society co-produces the fest with French booker Christophe "Doudou" Davy, also made a strong impression with a solo set alternating between guitar pop and wild world music played on his taishogoto, a Japanese lap harp with strings and buttons.
Other high points were Azarian and his saw-fiddling/phone-singing sideman Jeff Johnston's exquisite set in the courtyard of a cathedral; Kalu James' soul-lifting performance at Le Boléro club; and every performance by Mood Illusion, an experimental lounge troupe led by pedal steel renegade Bob Hoffnar that sounds like Bert Kaempfert on mushrooms. That includes the gig at a frat bar where the manager ordered them to "Stop playing jazz!" and they defiantly closed with Santo & Johnny's timeless "Sleep Walk."
While the conference's other media representative, KUTX minute-woman Laurie Gallardo, broadcast daily on noncommercial French frequency Radio G 101.5FM, "Playback" put heads together with the hardworking staff of local alt-monthly Angers Mag and sat on a well-attended music panel with Maas and booker/marketing-wiz Samantha Phelps, who organizes the stateside conference Angers Week, about Austin's music scene.
"I know music and branding don't seem like they go hand-in-hand, but they really do," said Maas.
Doubly interesting to the people of Angers were the ATX6, a group of homegrown songwriters swept off to a series of international performances during which they live together and collaborate. Their shows were standing room only, with French folks turning up to see Beth Chrisman's rough and tumble Americana, the heartfelt rock of Elijah Ford, the Deer's Grace Park and her earthy indie folk, Beatles-esque songsmith Andy Bianculli, and blues siren Jai Malano. Country shit-kicker Tate Mayeux had to cancel after being hospitalized with pneumonia, leaving organizer Chris Brecht filling in as sixth man.
In truth, the ATX6 isn't an accurate representation of Austin music because they're too talented as vocalists, totally unlike the scrappy, personality-driven singers that are Austin's calling card. My own appreciation for the full six-pack swelled as the week progressed, but the one who blew me away most was Star Parks frontman Bianculli, whose stunningly sad pop hit me in the heart. The breakout star for 2016 was Malano, who stole so many shows that the French police are probably after her.
That indefinable "it" quality – hers.
"The most challenging part of this experience is working with musicians from different backgrounds and never having met them before," reflected Malano. "You'd think it'd be like a pickup band, but even a pickup band is familiar with your genre. A blues band can do blues, but this isn't that. It's indie rock, it's folk music, it's bluegrass, and almost like the Beatles. Then you got me in the middle.
"I don't know what Chris was thinking, but I'm glad he thought it," she continues. "I never would have even had conversations with these people if he hadn't brought us together."
Brecht calls it his "social experiment," watching a group like this year's interact in their castle-like abode, which became the go-to spot for late-night parties and jams for all the American werewolves in France. It was like watching a season of The Real World in fast-forward: deep friendships forged, arguments striking like lightning, unpredictable craziness, and golden moments of inspiration coming in quick succession while members fall into roles: the peacekeeper, the house mom, the shit-starter, the aloof one impervious to drama.
"I'm a singer," smiles Malano. "That's my instrument. The singer is the queen; she always gets her own room and the red carpet. Here, I'm getting the same shit these guys are getting and that's not a bad thing. It's actually a very humbling and beautiful experience."
"They're tested in front of a microphone," says Brecht, who video records the trip for a documentary series. "Their expectations are tested, and, most importantly, their character's tested behind closed doors. That's where they're forced to bond with one another, forced to work with one another. It's the family dynamic where everyone is challenged by a journey that can be exhausting, but that's the unmistakable beauty of doing a project where you take six distinct lead singers and personalities and they work together to create something as a unit.
"There's lots of tears and lots of laughter and a lot of growth."
On a blurry Monday morning, "Playback" set off by train to the Paris airport. Onboard, there's Park, Gallardo, Ford, James, Malano, Maas, Bianculli, and Chrisman. Most are headed to Austin, but some continue touring abroad. All take something back with them that's not in a suitcase: friendships and connections that will manifest in new bands and shows together, new cultural understandings, and a commitment to an improbable international cultural exchange that will endure through young artists.
The exchange reverses in November for Angers Week, where French bands, chefs, and artists invade the Lone Star seat of government. Austin Week, well-funded by the French government, spoiled our troupe with lodging and resources (isn't socialism great!), while Angers Week operates on a four-digit grant from Austin's Economic Development Department and private fundraising.
"I'll pick up people from the airport if that helps," shrugs Kalu James. "Anything to show them we appreciate how they treated us. I see this as a vessel to bring people together, make the world smaller, and grow real connections that last a lot longer than a week."