South By Southwest
By Scott Faingold
"That's how it's done," exclaims the vocalist for Houston's Fatal Flying Guiloteens (which features frequent Press contributor and former Nightfly Brian McManus on guitar). And he's not wrong. If punk rock is meant to be utterly spastic, crazed and joyfully antisocial, then this is, indeed, how it's done. The amazing part is that FFG's scalding, hee-larious performance on Thursday at the Soho Lounge (part of the French Kiss Records SXSW showcase) isn't even the most exuberant of the past several hours.
That, um, distinction goes to the Go! Team, which absolutely tears up the tiny outdoor stage at the Mean-Eyed Cat during the Uncut magazine party. The Go! show galvanizes in a way that its recordings have only hinted at. The band's almost overwhelming positive energy is organized around powder keg vocalist Ninja, one of the most engaging and magnetic front persons I've ever witnessed. This pint-size British black girl combines a "Baby Spice" pom-pom squad adorability with an MIA-ish dose of building-leveling attitude for an imposing charisma that makes her impossible to look away from for even a moment (I tried...believe me, I tried). The rest of the band was set on stun, with polyrhythmic drumbeats sounding like Hal Blaine laying it into Fela Kuti while guitarist Kaori Tsuchida's demolished her instrument with the glee of a six-year-old wrecking the same carefully built sand castle over and over again. There's nobody in this jaded crowd not smiling and very few not dancing, and it occurs to me that, given all the musical and cultural changes during the last 30 years, this band is as close as we're gonna get to our own Sly & the Family Stone. If the Go! Team ever succeeds in tapping into some "There's a Riot Goin' On" danger to match their "Everyday People"/"Stand!" party imperative, we will, all of us, be their minions.
It turns out to be largely a day of distaff music. Attendees of the Village Voice party at La Zona Rosa are treated to the spare and stately presence of American music scion Roseanne Cash, which contrasts dramatically with a pumped-up set from rockers Morningwood, whose zaftig vocalist Chantal Claret makes a memorable entrance, drawing her microphone from a thigh holster. As femme-rock progenitor Pat Benatar once remarked: "Stop using sex as a weapon." Or don't. It's really just a matter of taste, I guess.
The Fiery Furnaces' set at Stubb's proves the esoteric point that unpredictability itself can get...pretty darn predictable. Tight, precise and willfully eccentric, the band refuses to maintain any one tempo for longer than a few measures, seemingly as a matter of principle. At first this can be enjoyably unsettling in that rock and roll way, but after a while, it's hard not to become inured to the formula, anticipating each "wacky" change before it happens. Regardless, this is a band that admirably stamps its own personality on the rock template -- too bad it's such an irritating personality.
Even more irritating is Man Man's performance at the Velvet Spade. The band itself sounds great: The lurching carnival rhythms and clattering pots 'n' pan percussion do create a compelling wedding of sheer raw insanity to an almost orchestral level of organization. But the venue is so tiny, so packed and so hot, with the minuscule sunken stage so difficult to see, that enduring their set is like listening to the record played really loud while breathing in the BO of several hundred strangers. Appropriate to the music of Man Man, perhaps, but no more enjoyable for it.
Fortunately there is one perfect moment in the day. Earlier, at the Mean-Eyed Cat, the place was abuzz with the unannounced presence of one of the true modern rock godheads, Mr. Perry Farrell. The absurdly overdressed glam-rockers from a band called LivingThings took nearly an hour to set up their minimal equipment before taking the stage with Mr. Farrell and shocking the crowd with a loose, garage-y rendition of "The Mountain Song." Less than five minutes later, the whole thing was over, and Mr. Farrell disappeared. This might arguably be the ultimate SXSW performance: To paraphrase the seer Steve Martin: "One song: Good-bye!"