SXSW Music Day 1: Mirel Wagner, Lila Downs, ZZ Ward

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I'm in Austin to blog the SXSW Music festival for the second year. With evening slates that usually have around 50 official showcases happening at any given moment (and many more unofficial shows), one person's perspective can feel dreadfully unrepresentative.

 

To be at SXSW is to know you're missing out on a lot of good music. Fortunately the music you do see makes up for the difference, and very often it's the unexpected showcases, the things that weren't on your radar until that very moment, that end up being the highlights of your experience.  That said here are some of my impressions from Wednesday's evening slate:

Ethiopian/Finnish singer Mirel Wagner played the first set of the night at Red 7. I spoke with her earlier in the day about her haunting songs that tend toward the darker side of existence. While in person Wagner doesn't come across as terribly morbid, she does have a healthy dose of scandinavian deadpan. When introducing her third song she said "This is a song called Joe... and it's about a guy named Joe."

 

After that it was off to the Mohawk Patio for an outdoor show with French band Anoraak. They delighted the crowd with their gleeful, synth-pop. 

 

On the way to the ZZ Ward show I stumbled across Grupo Canalon playing on a street corner. A friend from SF who's not  here had earlier recommended them as an act that couldn't be missed at the festival. They hail from the town of Timbiqui in Cauca and play traditional Afro-Colombian roots music, with lots of percussion, a marimba, and acapella vocals. Even the hipsters on 6th Street couldn't resist dancing. 

 

Amidst an extended sound check plagued with feedback and technical issues, a frustrated ZZ Ward assured the Parish audience that her performance would be worth the wait. The words seemed cocky in the moment but she and her band delivered. Based in LA, the chanteuse's "dirty blues with beats" sound has gathered its fair share of buzz and she seems to have the poise and the chops to become a star.

 

As I walked through the heart of 6th Street not only was every venue overflowing with showcases but it was hard to walk 10 feet without stumbling across an impromptu "unofficial" street showcase. I snapped photos of two guys furiously strumming acoustic guitars in front of the Ritz Theater. When asked what their band's name was the taller one replied "Well I'm Mike and he's Gabe... that's as far as we've gotten."

 

Continuing down 6th Street I ran into a pedicab driver who had rigged a big, boxy speaker to his ride. As I ambled past he was dancing to his latest selection while waiting for a fare. I asked him what he usually likes to blast from his system and he replied "Most of the time I play dubstep, but just now I needed to hear some Jay Z."

 

After that it was on to Andres Levin and Cucu Diamantes' showcase at Speakeasy. As I walked in Mexican singer Lila Downs was just setting foot on stage... resplendent in a flower-covered dress. The word on the street is that she's working on the score for a Broadway adaptation of Like Water for Chocolate. After breaking out a bottle of mezcal (making sure to point out the worm) and making an offering to "the spirits that have come before us," Downs broke into a rendition of the ballad Maldito Cariño that brought down the house.

 

Last stop of the night was the Casa do Brasil showcase at Maggie Mae's where carioca Tita Lima's band was playing forro. A lone couple on the dance floor tried to adjust their ingrained salsa moves to forro's more folky steps, with middling success. As Tita began her last song of the night she told the audience to check out the music of fellow brasileiro Junio Barreto, saying that "his music is comparable to Chico Buarque's." Buarque's music is so revered that it would be hard to give higher praise, so I'll take Tita's advice and see what Barreto is up to.