Event: South by Southwest Music Festival, Day 3: Levitation Showcase
Venue: Hotel Vegas (outside stage)
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2016
Location: Austin, Texas
Date: 17 March 2016
Introduction: As previously mentioned, this was a long day, so I've split it into two reviews. The previous post covers the various day parties I attended, and this one covers the Levitation showcase at Hotel Vegas. I've come to really treasure the ability of the people who run Levitation to curate the bands they sponsor. The lineup of this year's Levitation Festival might look rather populist, but they still find lots of great bands. Last year's Levitation SXSW showcase was so impressive that it was an easy choice to return this year.
I got through the gate with what I thought was just a few minutes to spare before Elephant Stone started. However, things were running obviously late, and Vaadat Charigim was just starting. I didn't complain, except that almost every band of the evening was forced to play a truncated set. Anyway, Vaadat Charaigim are a noisy, shoegazing power trio from Tel Aviv, Israel. Their preferred sound was a thick, heavy, solid wash of guitar. It was actually rather nice to get lost in, but the lack of variation was disappointing. Since they sung in Hebrew, there was no additional thread for me to follow in the lyrics, although to be fair, meaningful lyrics are rarely important for shoegazers.
After a long break came Yonatan Gat, another rock trio originally from Israel. Their gimmick is to set up right in the middle of the audience and let the crowd encircle them as they flail about. The music was purely instrumental and focused primarily on the improvisational guitar of the frontman. The drummer was wild and intense, but I wasn't even sure there was a bassist for the first half of the set. I liked the energy level and the creative, tense, spindly guitar runs, but I wasn't up for fighting through the crowd, and I suffered from a lack of a view. It got a bit tiring to just listen when I really wanted to see.
Elephant Stone finally went on and immediately delivered some great psychedelic grooves. The frontman alternated between bass, keyboard, and sitar, while two other members handled guitars and keyboards (and some bass) and a fourth drummed. Alex Maas of The Black Angels joined them on vocals for one song as well. The mix was frustratingly terrible, but I still enjoyed what I could hear. The bass in particular was smooth and skillful, and when the sitar was audible, it added a great dimension to the sound. The music was just barely danceable, as if it begged to soar and be heard in a more pure setting.
[Elephant Stone with Alex Maas.]
After another long break, Noura Mint Seymali of Mauritania began playing. It was a little unclear where the soundcheck stopped and the set began, but their first extended piece featured the frontwoman playing an ardin, a type of harp, while seated. Her husband accompanied on guitar, and a bassist and drummer completed the band. I was disappointed that Seymali didn't continue with the ardin after the first song, but the guitarist increased the intensity of his playing to fill in the void. Between her vocals and his blistering guitar, they made for quite a powerful, twisting, contrapuntal musical experience. By the end, they were doing some kind of funky blues, but they were cut short by the limitations of their set length.
[Noura Mint Seymali, playing the ardin.]
The appropriate successor to Seymali was Bombino, who I've seen wield his guitar like a blazing hammer once before. The Tuareg bandleader had his own share of sound problems, including his guitar dropping out a few times, but did his best to bring an incredibly funky and infinitely groovy set. The bassist could be a star in his own right, and his solo was unbelievably good. Bombino even gave the drummer and rhythm guitarist their own turns at brief solos that were also no disappointment. The band was tight and the blistering guitar of Bombino was as mesmerizing as ever.
Finally, the main reason I was there: Faust, the storied, pseudo-mythical, avant-garde, German band from the early 70s. This particular configuration of the band features just two of the original five or six members: Jean-Hervé Péron on bass, vocals, and samples, and Werner "Zappi" Diermaier on drums. (Hans Joachim Irmler fronts another version.) They were joined by French synthesists Éric Débris (of Métal Urbain fame) and Maxime Manac'h (although the latter was absent for the first half of the set). After an infuriatingly long soundcheck, they fumbled into a song mostly consisting of repetitive vocal samples and aimless drumming. Péron would occasionally shout-sing seemingly disconnected phrases into the mic or veer into a flurry of rhythmic bass work. These trends continued for the remainder of the set. Most songs were apparently unstructured, and whatever message may have been intended was unclear. However, knowing this band's roots in dada, improvisation, and sonic experimentation, they might be more interested in the method than the result. The only attempt made to appeal to the audience was the inclusion of the refrain to the classic "Mamie Is Blue", but even that sounded little like the original other than sharing the same words. Their obstinate artistic sensibility and general joie de vivre was somewhat endearing, but I felt like I was missing the joke.
Here's my best guess at the setlist:
1. French National Anthem
2. Dada Hierarchy (written by Jean-Marie Drot?)
3. Fresh Air
4. Mamie Is Blue
5. Listen to the Fish
I was exhausted but still hoped to see one more band: Electric Eye, the Bergen, Norway psych band I'd seen on the inside stage of Hotel Vegas two years prior. They were an absolute highlight of my first SXSW and I still enjoy their debut record. This time, they were playing inside on the Volstead Lounge stage, but as things were not running late on the inside, I only caught the last ten minutes of the their set, which included part of a new song and all of "Tangerine". They were going strong but it was over all too soon.
Vaadat Charigim: C+
Yonatan Gat: B-
Elephant Stone: B+
Noura Mint Seymali: B-