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Playback – SXSW Recap: Love, Hate, Garth & Trump

Final love / hate SXSW listicles

By Kevin Curtin, March 24, 2017, Music

"They say South by Southwest is the hippest, coolest thing around," grinned Garth Brooks while surveying 15,000 spectators that cast a distinctly red state vibe over Auditorium Shores last Saturday night. "Well we'll see about that. We're about to dip into the old stuff!"

America's all-time bestseller then performed an acoustic version of "Unanswered Prayers," as if familiarity with a 1991 pop-country No. 1 equaled the litmus test of hipness.

In a year when experts widely predicted a smaller sideshow surrounding SXSW – and it did feel refreshingly manageable – the hallmarks remained: secret shows, celebrities walking among us, electrifying hype surrounding young buzz acts, and every local scene reppin' their milieu. The inclusion of Brooks, who also played a pop-up show Friday at venerable honky-tonk the Broken Spoke, represents the fact that anything can and does still happen in Austin during March madness.

Didn't See That Coming!

Lana Del Rey made her hastily announced live comeback Friday at Apple Music's West Sixth headquarters, where the pop noir chanteuse debuted her new single "Love." Earlier in the week, across town, post-hardcore legends At the Drive-In stormed Mohawk with an unannounced reunion tour stop. The West Texas quintet powered through the recent defection of guitarist Jim Ward to deliver a far stronger performance than a 2012 Austin reunion tour kickoff, detonating a 50-minute set in which Cedric Bixler-Zavala ranted about acid trips, confusing the Who with Steely Dan, and how crazy it is that Mohawk invited him back after previously taking a fire extinguisher to the crowd.

The Avett Brothers surprised fans at Ray Benson's 66th birthday show, joining Asleep at the Wheel at GSD&M for a rowdy set of Bob Wills tunes, then making room for braided outlaw godfather Willie Nelson, who sparked up a half-hour set peaking with a magic version of "Pancho and Lefty." Another famous stoner, Snoop Dogg, reprised his role as a SXSW speaker with a late-breaking appearance on a criminal justice panel, then played a secret show at Rio. This came days after Donald Trump attacked the rapper on Twitter for a music video in which Snoop pretends to shoot the presidential clown. The Doggfather was a fitting addition since another thorn in Trump's side, top G-man James Comey, had to cancel his SXSW appearance.

Speaking of no-shows, familial obligations kept Steve Earle from the 2016/17 Austin Music Awards at the Moody Theater last Sunday, and Ryan Adams canceled his Friday night slot at the same venue due to an upper respiratory infection, then called out fans on Twitter who criticized him for skipping the show.

Love & Hate

Hate: Rumors of a Frank Ocean appearance spread widely after a page – the same website that promoted a fake Daft Punk appearance in 2012 – collected RSVPs for a party called Pyramids. The rumor mill spun toward Fifth Street event space Fair Market, where fans lined up Friday to see the idiosyncratic R&B singer despite the warehouse being clearly empty.

Love: Austin artists accounting for over 10% of the Festival's roster and some primo slots. Hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm uplifted Auditorium Shores as direct support for Friday's Prince tribute; Austin country queen Sunny Sweeney warmed up for Garth Brooks by generating fan-girl excitement, debuting ace new disc Trophy, and generally poking fun at her genre by instructing fans to edit pictures making her look extra tan and thin; and Shakey Graves got backed by Questlove and company at the annual Roots & Friends Jam on Saturday. Meanwhile, Spoon piled locals onto their three-night stand at the old Emo's, including A Giant Dog, Quin Galavis, Boyfrndz, Walker Lukens, and Sweet Spirit.

Love: Ferocious young Florida rapper Denzel Curry, armed with heavy beats and savage vox. RIYL Three 6 Mafia and Necro.

Hate: Atlanta MC Lil Yachty's clumsy delivery, boring beats, and his slew of sidemen incessantly dumping water on the crowd. When there was a fight during his set, he tried to stop it with impressive philosophical intervention: "Life ain't about fighting, it's about throwing water and beer everywhere."

Love: French pop artiste Jain, who grew up in the Congo and United Arab Emirates, wore a schoolgirl frock, danced nonstop, and imbued unconventionally catchy songs with vocal loops sometimes cultivated through voices of audience members; Maggie Rogers acoustic after the Maryland pop breakout's official showcase in St. David's suffered from overcalculation and she enchanted the pin-drop silent room with a solo rendition of "Alaska"; hip-hop/pop songstress Lizzo's positive body image messages ("Good as Hell").

Hate: Sixth Street. Still a clusterfuck plagued with erroneous stampedes, traffic jams of loiterers, and street fights. An Instagram video captured two female rappers, Bali Baby and Asian Doll, getting in the spirit of Dirty Sixth with a gold ol' fashioned fistfight.

Love: Every year, SXSW books a free concert at Auditorium Shores aimed at the local Hispanic community. This year's fiesta, featuring Panteón Rococó, Residente, and Ozomatli, felt like a celebration of Austin's cultural diversity as well as a protest against Trump's anti-immigrant rhetoric.

Fuck Trump

Political stink wafting from the White House casts a foul odor over American culture in 2017. No one escapes it, certainly not SXSW. The crosshairs of controversy locked in early on the conference's artist invite letter, which included threatening language implying the Festival would notify immigration authorities about artists who did anything to threaten the viability of their showcase. After a national uproar, the organization promised to reword their artist contracts in 2017.

Since SXSW never actually narced on anyone to Immigration, that proved merely an offense on our social sensibilities in light of Festival artists being denied entry into the U.S. Ten acts – Massive Scar Era, Trementina, Soviet Soviet, Yung Beef, United Vibrations, Dan Bettridge, Yussef Kamaal, ELOQ, MBA, and Don Malik – were either denied entry at the border or notified that their ESTA visa waiver was revoked. Colombia's 422 and Korean punks No Brain were detained on their way into America.

More troubling for everyone is the increase of groups having their travel credentials revoked in advance of the Festival. Sources say it's possible that the Department of Homeland Security has a new algorithm screening for musical artists operating on B1 tourist visas and visa waivers under the pretense that they're playing an industry showcase, not a traditional concert. More established artists have P1 or P2 performance visas.

Jonathan Ginsburg, an immigration law specialist now serving as immigration counsel to SXSW, says he's working to ensure that all applicable government agencies recognize festival showcasing as a valid and legal activity under those circumstances.

"U.S. immigration law allows foreign nationals to enter the U.S. using a B visa or the Visa Waiver Program to conduct business, but not to render services," wrote Ginsburg in a statement. "The U.S. Department of State, accordingly, has long recognized that entertainment groups may enter the U.S. to 'showcase,' but not to perform under contract with U.S. venues or other employers."

"Fuck Trump! This song is about resistance," countered Calle 13 frontman Residente – poised to cross over from Latin rap superstar to bona fide world music mover with his forthcoming solo album – shouted with a middle finger in the air at Thursday's Auditorium Shores performance. Similarly, Rhode Island saxophone-wielding punk en Español quintet Downtown Boys unleashed a potent song called "The Wall" that afternoon.

Trump's anti-refugee policies specifically inspired two positive demonstrations of musical unity. A specially organized concert from SXSW called Contrabanned brought together artists from travel ban nations Iran, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria at the Palm Door on Sixth Friday. Meanwhile, local recording wiz Justin Douglas donated his studio and engineering services to refugees who'd been resettled in Austin. Artists from Cuba and Iraq tracked at his King Electric Recording Co. and left with free recordings.

Out of the Blue, Into the Black

Sometimes the opener steals your heart from the headliner, while other times you're enchanted by a distant sound so you chase it down. For all the research and recommendations that precede SXSW, the accidental discoveries often make the strongest impression. Here are my unforeseen favorites of SXSW 2017:

Albin Lee Maldau: Swedish pop singer with a soulful voice, smartly written songs, and a potent wit. While performing in Central Presbyterian Church, he compared music to religion: "We just keep the bits we like."

Flamingods: Bahrain-born global-delic quintet mixed live drums, percussion, keyboards, and oud into a wild party that sounds like Animal Collective with rabies. Frontman Kamal Rasool preached peace between America and the Middle East, then dove violently into the audience.

Agnes Obel: Glacial compositions drift from the keyboard of this classical influenced, crystal voiced singer-songwriter of Danish provenance, backed by two cellos and percussion – all using loops to create a symphony of dreamlike sounds.

Dave: "I'm nervous as fuck," the 18-year-old rapper admitted at his Fader Fort gig. No need. He's gifted in wordy, emotional, self-aware storytelling, but he can also throw down energetic UK grime as well as pop tracks, like "Wanna Know," which Drake remixed.

Pissed I Missed

Sven Hiebig: German experimental composer borrowed the UT Chamber singers to execute his 2016 choral-oriented album I Eat the Sun and Drink the Rain, which he accompanied with a midi-vibrophone.

Earl St. Clair: R&B up-n-comer, whom the Chronicle's Kahron Spearman recommended as a "hip-hop Bobby Womack."

DhakaBrakha: Ukrainian folk music tribe with big furry hats and a wholly original sound hinging on hand drums and vocals incorporates elements of several regional genres.

Oshun: Ultra conscious neo-soul/hip-hop duo from NYC reminiscent of Lauryn Hill and Arrested Development.

Half Notes

James Cotton Died in a South Austin hospital last week at the age of 81. The Mississippi-born blues harp great was taken in by harmonica legend Sonny Boy Williamson after his parents died in the Forties. An energetic, expressive player enlisted by both Howlin' Wolf and Muddy Waters, Cotton made his name as a sideman, the latter legend including him on classic LPs Live at the Newport Jazz Festival and Hard Again. The man nicknamed "Superharp" was also a prolific solo artist, amassing some 25 albums including early classics Cut You Loose and Pure Cotton. Cotton moved to Manchaca in 2010 and considered Antone's his home base. In recent years, he performed there infrequently, though last summer he jammed with Steve Miller at the Long Center and faced off against a delighted Buddy Guy at the aforementioned Home of the Blues last fall. The Chronicle began work on a second cover story about Cotton, but interviews stalled out in December when he fell sick with pneumonia.

SXSW's Grulke Prizes were doled out Monday. Lemon Twigs nabbed Developing U.S. Act, Jain was awarded the Developing Non-U.S. Act, and British pop genie Robyn Hitchcock earned the Career Act trophy. Each award, dedicated to late SXSW Creative Director Brent Grulke, comes with a $10,000 grant, though the Career Act pot is donated to charity. Winners are voted on by industry professionals, media, and SXSW staff.

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