SXSW Music 2017 From Suzanne Ciani & Muzak John to Gary Wilson & Roky Erickson

A light (Photo: Weaver)

Music does the trick, but it is sound that I purely love. Any sound, any song. That is, primarily, I enjoy music because it is sound, not simply because it is music. Traffic, talk, rhythm, melody — if it’s audible, I’m listening. Forget the Spector in the studio: life is a wall of sound. By nature, sound stands in opposition to silence, and silence is the enemy.

You guessed it, SXSW had some sound. The sound of a Gatorade rolling toward the gutter, the sound of a minor fender-bender in a drive-thru lane, the sound of a thousand snares on the three beat. Sure, if I let it, aural hedonism could’ve quickly turned into aural anhedonia; I didn’t let it. That’s what earplugs are for. The best method for extracting the nutrients out of the sap is through distillation. The complexity of the festival was an illusion, seemingly complex only because there was so much of everything everywhere. Boiled down, it was paleolithic, like when I stare at my wall and call it “caveman entertainment.”

Like Jericho, SXSW had a lot of wall to go around. It mixed pleasure with pleasure, sound with sound, Gatorade with gutters. Regarding SXSW and friends, both official and unofficial, Yeast by Sweet Beast, Moogfest, Desert Daze, Holodeck Records, Resistor, KVRX, WNYU, WKVR: sounds good to me.

Muzak John

Any ghosts of juvenile poets left in Greenwich Village were in trouble when H-Town’s Muzak John let his strings loose. His popcorn, flashcard interpretations of blues, traditional, rock, poetry, and noise would make any poor singer-songwriter Saul fall off the pale horse of the Chelsea Hotel-brand saddle and see the light. From behind Muzak’s eyes, music genres are both relayed and rewritten. Like Barney Smith’s toilet seat art, history is treated respectfully, but also flexibly; customs made personal. But how those strings were on the loose, as flexible and as rubberfaced as Al St. John, as wild as an old yodeler shaking the morning dew off the mountain moss.


In the mid-afternoon, Quttinirpaaq jammed for health and longevity, building a dumping ground of positive feedback atop one short, measured rhythm. They rattled the longevity into nasty, the health into sickness. They made the swamp buzz with their interchangeable frets and horned necks, stirring up the ugly into a zone of comfort and confusion, like a whirlpool in the sea. This is why you should always bring your own amp to the gig.

Suzanne Ciani

Photo: Sean Hellfritsch

The audience seemed eager to dance at the drop of an ostinato, but Suzanne Ciani set the boundaries, quadraphonic boundaries. Out of Ciani’s switchboard aviary, synthetic birds flew, bouncing around the quad, then free and outside the box, off the rock wall, around the corner, toward the Red River, down the winding path where I imagine there was much to see — uncommon trees, lights on and off left-to-right, eyes open or closed, a fluid, shifting structure, more switchboards — like the future of ping-pong. It was a celebration more than a meditation, great electronic music in flight, with the great outdoors flanked by a falling-rock zone.

Curved Light

Cleaned up and out of the isolation tank, sentinels they were, Peter Tran and Deirdre Smith, at their stations armed with their gear under the canopy. The Queen’s Guard doesn’t break character and neither did Curved Light. They were cool and still as cool and still can be. Their visuals did the walking, visuals which were complementary, sure, but not absolutely necessary. Their sound alone was evocative enough to generate image. It caused me to see what was actually there — like the saint in the garden with her nose eaten by the air — as well as to see — under the pineal microscope — made up stuff, like new fiction and new science, new condominiums, new Blade Runners, new facial expressions.

Gary Wilson & Tredici Bacci

Photo: Walter Wlordarczyk

The rubber gloves came off when small town Friday night met Thursday’s pool party. The velvet jacket came off too, but then it went back on, over the head, then back off, back on. Then it was used as a whip, then as a prop, a shawl, a cave, a torch; a coronation, a ceremony. What else can one jacket do? Plenty with Gary. What can one big band do? Plenty, when it’s Tredici Bacci. Conducted by Simon Hanes, Tredici Bacci — guns-for-hire — turned the voltage up and hotwired Wilson’s timeless songs of longing, while Gary crawled on the floor, while Gary wanted to be alone. Dr. Frankenstein must have been up in heaven grinning wide, watching the odd glamor and sticky celluloid shine, watching the cement and analog laments cook to a crisp.

How I Quit Crack

Was it the Spring equinox when How I Quit Crack performed? Maybe it was, or maybe it was a combination of the blue sky and the hot Sun, the herbs growing in front of the tin can stage, the ladybug on the beer can, the fly on the T-shirt, the video projections on clean linen, and Tina Forbis and Chris Cones’ relaxed, confident attitude. It felt like tradition. It wasn’t all bluebonnets though. Their dark texture was like thick purple paint globbed onto a moldy, black-velvet canvas. The dead ringer delay and decay of Forbis’ vocals drifted over Cones’ lo-tribe rhythms and knife sharpening tricks, some of which must have been perfected in the woodshed, some in the knife sharpener’s truck, some in the magic shop, where the dragon slept upstairs, its tail wagging out the window in celebration of life.

Roky Erickson

Then Spring fling turned Autumn horror. Roky Erickson sat facing the moon and clouds, with a guitar in lap, surrounded by treble bliss, nodding his approval at the shrieks and feedback, admiring his own unholy creation, howling out, It’s the Night of the Vampire! like Gothic gospel. The live rendition was comparable to the original recording of “Night of the Vampire,” that hymn of horror, yet went beyond it, an unreal classic made more unreal by Erickson and his backing band, the Hounds of Baskerville. They refused to transport back to 1966 or 1981; tonight, the vampire was alive, painlessly — or painfully — brought to life under the stars and sky, where the moon hits your eye like a big liquid slide, spinning and spitting oil, in a big liquid light show. Was I supposed to smile or shiver?

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