South by Southwest: The Jewish Edition

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Alan Jay Sufrin and Miriam Brosseau form Stereo Sinai, a self-described “biblegum pop” band based in Chicago, IL. This week, however, they’re taking it below the Mason-Dixon to report live on the Jewish happenings at South by Southwest, the nation’s largest music festival in Austin, Texas. Here’s the first of three locational reports — okay, and gossip — straight from the country’s biggest collection of concerts.

South by Southwest (SXSW) is not Jewish. At all. The only semblance of religion is the few hopeful Hindus passing out semi-free copies of the Baghavad Gita and complimenting people (me) on their headgear. And, of course, there are the ubiquitous heavy metal crosses dotted on black t-shirts and swsw jewish jdubgeneral rock bling. But the real religion at SXSW is live music. Its worshipers glide from temple to temple, eagerly taking in the words of its preachers…or dismissing them as false prophets. They also drink a lot of beer.

We spent the entire first day running around the city of Austin, Texas trying to find out where we could find and buy wristbands, which would allow us entry into many of the official SXSW showcases. Since the volunteers and venue employees were of almost no help at all this took literally hours of walking, running, cabs, shuttles, hot sun, and confusion. However, during that time we learned what it’s like walking down Sixth Street. From any given corner you can see countless musicians carrying raggedy instruments around on their shoulders, and artists and fans alike wearing everything from Flock of Seagulls-esque hairdos to Samurai robes as far as the eye can see. A genuine gimmick fest. And at any point, you can hear up to five distinct bands playing. And when you hear a band you like, you go inside that bar and simply… enjoy.

Or not. Some bands suck.

mirah, live at sxswWe caught an afternoon show by Mirah, a literate folk-rocker in the spirit of Shawn Colvin. Mirah, a tiny, redheaded, openly lesbian Jew, appeared in front of what was eventually a full house decked in purple jeans and a pink high-collared shirt with frills on every edge. Her quietly powerful set was met with occasional whistles of recognition and dreamy, appreciative smiles from the clearly knowledgeable crowd of fans, even through the multiple technical difficulties.

Her last song, “Cold, Cold Water,” apparently her “hit,” was by far the most dynamic, displaying the band’s hidden energy. It had the same haunting, lilting sound that carried the rest of the material, but with more grit and practice behind it. Overall, her set was dripping with that moody introspective folk-pop everyone needs on rainy days, but aside from Mirah and some of her fans, nothing about it was decidedly Jewish.

Then began the marathon. We had two showcases to catch simultaneously — one from the hip, irreverent Heeb Magazine, the other by eclectic Jewish record label JDub.

The Heeb showcase, held in a Communist-themed club called The Red Seven, featured a group of bands that were, as far as we could tell, not in the least Jewish. In general, it was a disappointing event. The show lacked the funky, in-your-face and self-deprecating attitude you typically get from Heeb Magazine. In addition, there was little to indicate that the showcase was hosted by Heeb Magazine with the exception of a back-corner table idly strewn with the latest editions. When we’d absorbed all the reverb we could handle from the first group, it was off to JDub.

The Heeb event had been on an obscure back patio just off of the main strip of Sixth Street. JDub was in a classy, split-level bar on Congress- stepping outside gave you an awesome view of Austin’s massive capital building. The line-up, by nature, was more distinctly Jewish the sway machinerythan Heeb’s by virtue of the JDub name. And the bands were better. They were more fun, more professional, and more diverse than Heeb’s showcase. Unfortunately, however, we felt like two of the lucky few. Turnout was way too low for an event this good.

Every band presented a unique take on Jewish identity- from the vaguely Irish yai-dai’s of The Wailing Wall to Girls in Trouble’s retellings of biblical women’s stories, to the bright, Spanish-inflected stylings of DeLeon. The incomparable Golem rocked the final set; you can always rely on them for a fun show.

But it was indie supergroup The Sway Machinery who stole the evening. Transplendent. The group — a powerhouse combination of three horns (including a massive bass sax), lead vocals/guitar, and drums- has forged an act that is both wildly inventive and deeply rooted in Jewish traditions. The show itself is a musical reenactment of the Jewish immigrant experience — arrival in a new world, arguing with G-d, setting old traditions to new modalities. It’s a high-octane, inspiring, and somehow disquieting experience that can invoke involuntary prayer.

So far, SXSW has been an incredible experience for us, both as music fans, and as Jews. With just about every musical culture imaginable represented here in Austin, Shabbat at the music industry’s biggest festival should be interesting….

Posted on March 20, 2009

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