SXSW Diaries: The Final Night — Tucson Rules!

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A few thoughts on the last full day of SXSW, Saturday, March 16, a couple of days removed.

*Someone at SXSW has a real sense of humor; they booked New Orleans bounce star Big Freedia at twelve noon on an upper stage of the Convention Center, backed up with free Bloody Mary’s. Big Freedia is generally going to be the last act up in any given evening, and in fact was the last act, at 1 a.m., on a stage somewhere in Austin later that evening. But, it was perversely perfect: Big Freedia’s insanely in your face persona and messaging (“Ass Everywhere,” basically), brutally simplistic grooves, and booty shaking dancers was in fact the perfect way to rouse a sluggish crowd up for the final day of the festival after several days of ever-increasing burn-out. But really, check out Big Freedia on video to get the full effect. This is what they warn you about in church: the libido run wild, all eyes on the booty, lasciviousness as a POV. Really, really.

*Detroit’s The Sights distilled that city’s rich musical history - punk and garage rock, soul & R&B and girl group pop - into a perfectly balanced guitar-bass-drums-sax-keys + two back-up singers set that suffered only for being booked at 1 in the afternoon after 4 days of music. Great stuff; catch them in a smoky club sometime for the full effect.

*I found myself talking to a gent that turned out to be Kevin Godley of 10CC and Godley and Creame fame, in town to pitch some sort of audio device to the accumulated masses of musicians. He was a delightful gentlemen, with eyes that actually twinkled, and more proof that you can run into just about anybody, randomly, at SXSW and have some sort of pleasingly off the cuff exchange.

*Back at the Convention Center, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and Sly Stones’s cute-as-sweet potato pie daughter (sporting a pink ‘fro) indulged in a free-floating mutual appreciation society, obstinately on a panel discussion about the History of Funk (there’s a film coming out), but really just an excuse to give each other props about how funky they all are. Which is perfectly true, of course: if this wasn’t the funkiest panel in history, I’ll turn in my Funk Card and retire.

*Other than a brief early foray out to see the wonderfully off the wall, absurdly high energy Brazilian electro/hip hop combo Bonde Do Role, the rest of the night belonged to Tucson, and Tucson stepped up and blew the house down. The full band showcase was at the Speakesy, right in the middle of downtown, and it was a night to treasure. Getting there a little late I missed Andrew Collberg (sorry man, that’s twice at the Festival!) as Chicha Dust were laying into their first number, and they had the crowd from the get-go. If you haven’t seen Chicha Dust - fronted by Gabriel Sullivan and Brian Lopez, and featuring several of the Old Pueblo’s best players - well, your loss. Using the basic template developed in Peru in the 1960s of mixing cumbia with American psychedelic and surf music and localized sounds, Chicha Dust have very quickly developed into one of Tucson’s best live acts, and the Austin crowd was completely bugged out. Following Chicha Dust was left to Tesoro, who more than stepped up and delivered a set of incredibly high energy, passionate Flamenco-rock that took the room energy even higher, before giving the stage back to Gabe Sullivan and his huge Taraf de Tucson collective. Taraf’s big-band mix of cumbia, Balkan and spaghetti Western themed rock pretty much blew the crowd down, playing to a ever-more-packed dance floor that had been filled to capacity for hours already. Fortunately, one of Tucson’s only acts capable of following Taraf, Sergio Mendoza y la Orkesta, were on next and somehow managed to take it up to an even higher level of intensity. Sergio and his band of ringers really brought it all to a sustained crescendo, playing a show that would be hard for anyone at the Festival to follow, one of the only real positive ways of looking at the last hour, when headliners Giant Giant Sand didn’t appear in any form that the crowd was clearly expecting.

You may have already heard it by now: for whatever reason, Giant Giant Sand mainstay/front man/singer/songwriter Howe Gelb wasn’t present in the club, instead Skypeing himself in via video link to a huge screen over the stage for a very short short set while Gabe Sullivan and Brian Lopez (on guitar) and Sergio Mendoza (on drums) did their best to follow along on stage. It was...odd, and clearly very disappointing for a good size crowd who had come to see Giant Giant Sand play the heavily coveted, Festival final, 1 p.m. on Saturday night time slot. Gelb has made a career out of defying any expectations and always finding a new approach to his music, band concept, etc., and this was certainly another dramatic deviation from any expectation. Howe is, of course, free to follow his own path where-ever it may lead. Beyond that, whether it was wise or satisfying or any number of other possibilities is for the audience to decide for themselves, but there’s no denying that there were a lot of disappointed folks that wanted to finish off the Festival with one of Tucson’s longest running and most legendary acts, but left perplexed and not at all happy.

None of which, ultimately, took the edge of of what came earlier, and it was a night when Tucson stepped up and delivered an evening as full of joyful good vibes, fabulous musicianship and showmanship, originality and communal camaraderie as I saw all week. In truth, it was the best set of back-to-back-to-back shows I saw all week, and once again made me proud to be a Tucsonan. Am I perhaps a bit biased towards the hometown bands? Sure I am, but the astounding outpouring of energy directed towards the stage from hundreds of non-locals speaks for itself. Tucson stood and delivered and left a huge impression on crowds who had already been impressed for for or five days straight.

Tucson rocked and Austin rolled. Score a big one for the hometown team.

- Carl Hanni

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