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For a distant native son, there’s nothing quite like the first day of SXSW.
SXSW DISPATCH: DAY ONE
Jeff Leven Begins His Annual Immersion
in a Reflective Mood
Few people think of me as a Texan—with a slight trace of a Northern Ohio accent instead of a drawl, few overt trappings of my state’s stereotypical Marlboro men and hopefully a bit more linguistic facility than its more famous politicians, there isn’t much about me that belies nearly two decades spent in the heart of Texas. Still, it’s something that creeps into you, plants subtle but visceral allegiances and finds recognition in moments of homecoming. Coming up I-35 every year, there’s a part of me that feels a profound joy of return, and the lyrics to a song by Texas’ inevitable Robert Earl Keen always creep back into my head: “Feels so good, feeling good again.” Not that I don’t feel good at least a good chunk of the rest of the time, but the point remains that, for a distant native son, there’s nothing quite like the first day of SXSW. It’s the reintroduction to a familiar ritual, the opening of a lane of memory that’s stacked with past remembrances. That said, as something I started in high school, there’s something about SXSW that forces me at least to come to grips with the inevitability of aging in a business where the endless struggle is to stay current. Like the Warped Tour, SXSW is an institution that’s older than a fair percentage of its attendees and at times you catch yourself becoming the rockist version of the jazz world’s moldy figs or the cranky old men who hovered at the soundboard back when you started going to these things who stood arms folded, not quite grasping the very things you thought were new and exciting. Hey nineteen. 

So tonight I found myself yearning for punk rock and simultaneously wondering whether my very yearning for punk rock is proof that I’m getting old. Even those who love punk rock are hard-pressed to argue that it’s all that shocking any more. As many bands as there are playing great versions of it, its basic gestures have become a relatively accepted stylistic package and its been a few decades since hip hop usurped it as the thing that suggested the possibility of any form of social upheaval that would force anyone to reimagine our society’s possibilities. But has even that hit the skids? It seems like America essentially has a handful of people who are offended by everything and a much larger majority who are offended by virtually nothing, and it’s entirely possible that any machines we have are sponges that absorb the impact of anyone’s raging. Maybe it’s no surprise, then, that EDM has taken over as the counterculture of the moment. Arguably, it alone offers the uncertain crowd control, incendiary juxtaposition of youth and substances and opaqueness to outsiders that it takes to be jarring at a time when a lot of other formerly envelope-pushing music has become perhaps inherently conservative.

But what of it? Maybe in the post-post-post-whatever era we’ve bootstrapped ourselves back to a place where music is just music, and in that regard the energy of its delivery is as important as the content of its context. In that regard, LA’s FIDLAR (an acronym for “Fuck It Dog, Life’s a Risk”) is about a perfect a latter-day punk rock outfit as you’re likely to find. Loud, tight, kinetic and scrappy as hell in its energy, they tore up the Black Iris party with sparks to spare. A moment later, across the street, acoustic flag-waver Frank Turner offered a different gloss on the options of modern punk, playing a triumphant set of plainstated anthems about love and music. Recommended to me once by none other than Social Distortion’s Mike Ness, Turner is the one man acoustic version of what would happen if Billy Bragg fronted the Dropkick Murphys, as utterly arresting, thrilling and charismatic as anyone alone on the festival’s stages this week could hope to be. Turner, in turn, was inspired by a thrashing introductory set by Welsh gutkickers Future of the Left, who rose from the ashes of the gone-too-soon McLusky. Along with Turner and Scotland’s rapidly ascending Twin Atlantic, they are among the best of this year’s burgeoning delegation from the British Isles.

Tonight found other great surprises as well a Danny Brown and Kendrick Lamar set that gave way to an unannounced Mobb Deep performance, and an amazing culinary experience featuring wild boar and ginger-infused chocolate soup on the northern edge of town with Capitol’s Michael Howe and manager Brandon Schmidt. Also impressive was the multi-sponsor Warner activation at La Zona Rose, spearheaded by Lisa Bennett and John Reese’s Entertainment 3Sixty agency and Warner/Atlantic’s team. Featuring  Neon HitchSantigold and others, the place was just jam-packed, although I was able to thread the needle and catch a set by Outasight. While another indicator of my age may be my knee jerk skepticism about vaguely preppy guys with a fleck of neon and a bit of hairdo doing vaguely hip-hop-influenced young-skewing pop, there’s something undeniable about a song like “Tonight,” and with immaculate production and genuine energy, acts like Outasight occupy the same pleasure spot that something like yacht rock, Dan Hartman or Rick Astley might have claimed in years past (with a considerable tonnage of record sales), and I don’t even mean that as hipster-fighting words. There’s a craft and a spirit there that’s very real and this sort of confection is as much a part of the music business as the scrappier edges the more critically-minded among us sometimes cherish to the exclusion of its more accessible alternatives.  So maybe there’s something healthy about confronting our age with youth and the dizzying ambitions of a generation that may not entirely remember its antecedents, but just doesn’t care. Let’s look for the fountain of youth in Texas this week and see what we find. F-ck it, dog, life’s a festival. Or something like that.
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