AUSTIN, TEXAS – As she strolled down 6th Street in the hot afternoon sun last week, her hair up in a leopard-print head wrap and a chalice-shaped necklace around her neck, Sophia Eris got what every musician wants from the South by Southwest Music Conference: noticed.
A photographer with Elle magazine asked if the Minneapolis rapper from the Chalice would mind posing for a photo shoot, which was sort of like asking your average SXSW-goer if they mind wearing a laminate pass or wristband to look important at a show and maybe drink some free booze, too. She jumped at the chance.
"Oh, you win!" bandmate Lizzo yelled as Sophia did her best model pose for Elle. "That's it. I'm declaring you the winner."
What's with Minnesotans going to Austin always trying to win something? The Gophers men's basketball team will be there Friday night, hoping to eke out a win in the NCAA tournament. Going back to when Mark Mallman similarly declared himself the victor of SXSW 2004, Minnesotans have a tradition of treating Austin's 27th annual music industry mixer like it's a contest.
Of course, SXSW has changed dramatically since 2004. Just drumming up an audience when Prince, Justin Timberlake, Green Day and Dave Grohl's Sound City Players are all playing can be a challenge.
This year was especially light on Minnesota buzz compared with last year. Nobody from the north end of I-35 got to open for Lionel Richie or follow the just-then-breaking fun., as Poliça and Howler respectively achieved last year. Dessa did wind up playing the Copycats Media party after Macklemore & Ryan Lewis for what seemed like the latter's 18th gig of the fest, but their single "Thrift Shop" had slipped to No. 2 in Billboard by then so they were pretty much over in the jaded eyes of SXSW registrants.
Likewise, no local contender had as magical a moment as Trampled by Turtles did last year, when a power outage at the new "Austin City Limits" studio forced them to play acoustic (big whoop in their case). The Chalice did manage to blow out the sound system at the MN Nice Party, put on by Vita.mn and McNally Smith College of Music at the Liberty Bar in east Austin. Some random dude in the crowd graciously offered his beatboxing services, which they freestyled over until the sound got fixed. Minnesota nice, indeed.
Lucy Michelle & the Velvet Lapelles and Haley Bonar performed on a four-story outdoor stage shaped like a giant vending machine, courtesy of Doritos, one of South by Southwest's major sponsors. I happened to randomly catch Public Enemy performing there one night, which is how SXSW goes nowadays: You happen upon one of your all-time favorite groups and can only stay for a couple songs, enduring powdered-chips aroma as you do so. Michelle pointed out the serendipity behind the gig, given guitarist Matt Latterell's nickname: "We actually call him Dorito," she said (not a lie).
Bonar played one of her four showcases there at noon Saturday, followed by Michelle & Co. two hours later. Going into the fest, Bonar was singled out on NPR Music's "Austin 100" list of acts to see (only at SXSW can one of 100 be considered "singled out"). She added to the buzz by debuting new songs and a rockier lineup of her band, which is essentially a non-wacko version of her other band, Gramma's Boyfriend.
Mark Gehring — who manages both Bonar and Michelle — watched off-stage with a satisfied look. "At least it sounds really good," he rightly commented. "That's more than you can say of most shows down here."
Good sound isn't everything, though. Dessa proved that at a gig that went down as one of the oddest yours truly has ever seen at SXSW, right up there with singing the "wa-wa-wa" guitar part to "Show Me the Way" with Peter Frampton in a hotel room and sucking in gas fumes at the Flaming Lips' car stereo symphony. Hers was at the Nice-N-Clean Car Wash in deep east Austin— an actual place of business, not some kind of glitzy party house set up by Spotify and Garnier hair-care that sprays tequila shots at patrons as they enter the doorway. (Party idea for next year?)
"We're gonna have as good a time as we can at a car wash at 4 o'clock in the afternoon," Dessa told the crowd, proceeding to walk around the graffiti-adorned parking lot with her microphone in hand to make sure her musical coating was well applied. Afterward, she and manager Doug Lefrak kicked themselves for not negotiating a wax job on the tour van as part of the payment.
A few Minnesota acts actually played some straight-up, nonsense-free gigs, too. Dessa's packed set at First Avenue's day party certainly fit that bill. So did the 4onthefloor's sweaty throw-down under a hot afternoon sun at a well-attended outdoor gig at the Sidebar, hosted by Austin punk band the Midgetmen (hooking up with Austin acts for a SXSW gig was as smart a move on 4otf's part as bringing an old bus to crash in at night).
Best of all, Gary Louris — who has performed regularly at SXSW since the Jayhawks came in 1990 — had a lovely little 1 a.m. set at the Green Room Music showcase, his first gig since canceling a tour last fall for health reasons. He looked and sounded tip-top, backed by Kevin Bowe & the Okemah Prophets and welcoming Big Star drummer Jody Stephens to the stage to sing "Until You Came Along." Come to think of it, that was one magical moment.
Encountered during a layover Sunday at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport, the typically cynical Bowe was surprisingly positive about his first SXSW trek in three years. Asked if the effort paid off, he half-seriously replied, "SXSW isn't something you do for yourself. It's something you do to yourself." If nothing else, in other words, it's a great challenge for good musicians.
I'd say we have another winner.
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