South by Southwest: The Rest Stop

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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. In the first entry, they saw Mirah and met the Sway Machinery; in the second report, they checked out the underground Iranian hip-hop scene and got into the Shabbos spirit.

Here’s the final of three locational reports — okay, and gossip — straight from the country’s biggest collection of concerts.

ezra furmanSaturday morning, after taking a quick walking tour of the Texas capital building where everything from the chandeliers to the door hinges declare the proud state’s name, we hit up the Birthright Israel NEXT/JDub showcase, “Rest Stop” — a show by Jews that was intentionally held on Shabbat.

And a rest stop it certainly was. With the hectic, crazy, nonstop action of SXSW, the value of a laid-back Jewish music event called “Rest Stop” held on the Day of Rest was not lost on us. And what was everyone talking about? Iranian death metal. Half of the bands playing that afternoon had been at the show the night before. Not only was this even more validating for us, but now the two awkward shomer Shabbat people could finally sit at the cool kids’ table.

monotonixThe show, featuring three of the same acts that performed at the previous JDub showcase, was remarkable. This new atmosphere, with the chill in the vibe and the cool breezes, the free bagel-and-lox lunch and full open bar, the lawn furniture and patio dance floor, lent itself perfectly to creative license for the artists. Most even strayed from their original setlists (including DeLeon’s cover of TarantisT’s “More bass!” sound-check song).

But it was definitely more about the crowd this time than the audience. People from all walks of life, Jews and non-Jews alike, from redneck Texans who’d never even seen lox before (and loved it) to Israeli expats and their children, came to enjoy the respite. Even the volume of the music was turned down from the SXSW standard ‘eleven’ to a refreshing ‘ten.’

This JDub and Birthright NEXT “Day Party,” as it’s called in SXSW lingo, took us pretty much right up to the end of Shabbat. And then, as soon as three stars shone in the sky, more strange things started happening. Perhaps the Heavens were trying to communicate something to us, or perhaps we had simply become hyper-aware of our Jewishness over the course of our stay, but whatever the reason, we began noticing some very clear symbols of Judasim everywhere we looked. Walking down Sixth Street, a stretch we’d been down at least two dozen times already, we found a Star of David laid into the brick in one of the older buildings (an old synagogue that the decades turned into a music venue?). We found a Chanukiah with unlit candles, of the very same design that we own, atop a buffet in a Thai restaurant (a Jewish Thai restaurateur?). And we found another friend/musician from home, whose show we had planned to attend that night anyway, and who happens to also be Jewish: Ezra Furman.

monotonix at sxwEzra was one of this last year’s Heeb Hundred, a list of 100 influential Jews compiled annually by Heeb magazine. He’s also a master class in folk-rock songwriting unto himself. Together with his band, the Harpoons, he put on a rocking show at a great venue. What a terrific way to bring in the new week.

But the real celebration — the Melaveh Malkah, if you will — was a performance by Monotonix, a heavy-metal hair band hailing from Tel Aviv, and reminiscent of Spinal Tap, but even more insane. At 1:15 A.M., they began their show without a sound-check, by removing the equipment that had been set up for them on the stage, and putting the drumset in the audience, the guitarist on top of the four foot-high speakers, and the lead singer in the rafters on the ceiling. After all, why should a band be confined to a stage? Musically, they were mediocre to awful. But it didn’t matter.

Over the course of the show, band members and their instruments (yes, including the entire drum set and guitar amp) went bodysurfing while still somehow managing to get through their songs, rarely ever landing back on stage. After all, why should a band be confined to the floor? To end the show, they bodysurfed their way out of the club entirely and continued to play outside on the street, where the audience dutifully followed. After all, why should a band be confined to the venue? It was ridiculous.

So maybe we were too quick to judge SXSW. It’s not that it isn’t Jewish. You just have to look for it.

Posted on March 24, 2009

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