"We're the next big thing, see," Botswanas frontwoman Eileen Ziontz mock-declares from the foot-high stage at Emo's Jr., where her New York City-based band (by way of New Haven), not long into its 40-minute 1:00 a.m. Friday night/Saturday morning set, performs for only a handful of the garage-rock faithful and assorted burnouts at last week's twelfth South by Southwest Music and Media Conference (SXSW) in Austin, the annual five-day Tupperware party for music-biz movers and schmoozers, shakers and fakers.
"That's the last big thing," she continues, flopping an arm in the general direction of the adjacent Emo's, the club's mothership room, where Nashville Pussy, the object of her fey scorn, has presumably launched into its own 1:00 a.m. set. Then Ziontz pauses for a moment, left hand on hip, head cocked to one side, to reconsider her last statement. Eager to dismiss the Botswanas' considerably more popular cross-club rivals in a playful manner but mindful that it would be a grievous error to offend so offhandedly -- someone important might lurk among the few attendees -- she adds with a hint of circumspection: "Or a current big thing."
Judging from the breathing-room-only crowd of approximately 750 shoehorned into Emo's, Nashville Pussy, unlike the entertaining and criminally ignored Botswanas, would appear to be the band of the nanosecond -- at least for the pierced-nose and buzz-cut brigade that constitutes the au courant alt-underground. These two groups exemplify the music fest's extremes: the recently anointed (Nashville Pussy) and the benediction-seeking (Botswanas), with most of SXSW's 800-plus groups/solo artists falling somewhere in between. Not that you've heard the music of Nashville Pussy -- or of the Botswanas or of 99.9 percent of SXSW's other fest performers -- on Planet Radio or Coast or Power 96.
Of course, showcasing the music of relative unknowns -- relative being the operative word, because every artist here has some kind of following -- is the whole point of SXSW. Such as a six-member Dutch oi band (Human Alert) that features three grimacing frontmen: a Beastie Boy knockoff, a guy in a sergeant's uniform, and a howling hunk draped in a coat with "Master of Anarchy" stitched across the back. Representative song: "I Hate People." Such as smoldering French vocalist Francoiz Breut, who breathily talk-sings while accompanied by a quintet oddly reminiscent of Chris Isaak's backing band Silvertone. Such as cartwheeling Arizona glam revivalists the Beat Angels. Such as whiny Belgian acoustic trio Zita Swoon. Such as the thunderous Nashville Pussy. A two-man/two-woman quartet from Athens, Georgia (scheduled to appear at Churchill's on Saturday, April 11), they play a throbbing and visceral metallic boogie that brings to mind the best (or worst, depending on how you feel about such things) aspects of Black Oak Arkansas, Motsrhead, and the MC5. In the vernacular, they rock.
And yet it seems readily apparent that Nashville Pussy owes its current cognoscenti buzz as much to its Circus Maximus stage show as to its relentless sonic assault, particularly when you take into account that to date the group has issued only three singles and a just-out full-length debut CD, Let Them Eat Pussy. The latter was released by venerable indie iconoclast Amphetamine Reptile Records, with production by Fastbacks/Young Fresh Fellows guitarist Kurt Bloch. Squat rhythm guitarist-antifrontman Blaine Cartwright -- all bald pate and side-of-the-head frizz, handlebar moustache, midriff bulge pushing a navy blue T-shirt out over saggy jeans, and leather-throated yowl -- is flanked by lanky, golden-tressed lead guitarist Ruyter Suys (his wife) and tower-of-power bassist Corey Parks (six feet, three inches), both clad in skintight pants and brassieres, with sweat-drenched, stringy-haired drummer Jeremy Thompson flailing away locomotively behind the front-line triumvirate. In terms of both look and sound, Nashville Pussy = a magnificent kick-out-the-jams-motherfucker collision of crank and beer and trailer-trash Weltanschauung.
The band does not play its instruments so much as throttle them, nor does it work within the confines of the traditional song format so much as seize a song -- like, oh, a hoary chestnut such as Kokomo Arnold's "Milk Cow Blues" -- and inject it with a massive dose of steroids, producing a prodigious blare that they sustain over long instrumental stretches, punctuating the aural proceedings with the occasional Satyricon-like spectacle. Like when Parks tosses aside her bass, picks up a ready-made torch, sets it ablaze, ritualistically swigs a mouthful of god-knows-what, and then spews it back out into the flame, breathing a hogshead of real fire, as the Beatles termed it on their 1967 song "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" Like when Cartwright unstraps his instrument, scrounges up a beer bottle, empties its contents on-stage, and positions it so that a smiling Suys, who never misses a note as her fingers scamper up and down the fretboard ripping off torrents of notes, can fellate the thing. Like when Parks and Suys slowly approach each other, deep into some extended primal instrumental heaviosity, their hands pumping away furiously on their respective instruments, and suddenly plunge into a lengthy, wet French kiss. Vulgar and sanctified, if they're not the same thing.
Two hours earlier, around the corner and across the street at the cavernous Steamboat, the multi-culti, ten-man, L.A.-based group Ozomatli establishes a completely different vibe and sound -- actually, sounds. Rather than just clamber onto the stage, they make their way there methodically, entering through the densely packed club's front door single file, then wading into the crowd while banging rhythmically on drums and various percussive instruments while chanting "Ozomatli." Once on-stage they rip through a 40-minute league-of-nations set that segues from funk to hip-hop to cumbia to merengue to norteno and back to funk, all of it infused with a keep-it-positive-brothers-and-sisters sensibility, with the band members -- guitarist, bassist, drummer, two percussionists, trumpeter, two sax players, rapper (Charlie Tuna), and DJ (the Cut Chemist) -- in a state of perpetual motion, much of their hopping and swaying and strutting done in unison (chained to his hardware, the Cut Chemist can only bob in place, although he steps out occasionally when he switches to shaking some maracas).
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Singing in Spanish or rapping in English, Ozomatli exudes a sunny-side-up party gestalt that has, along with their tight playing and their facility with sundry musical genres, reportedly made the band a huge draw on their hometown's club circuit. (By the way, on the subject of Spanish-speaking bands, one hour before the Ozomatli gig, Miami's lone SXSW rep, Volumen Cero, played an energetic, searing set at Maggie Mae's West. More -- much more -- on them in these pages very soon.) One of the recently anointed, Ozomatli has been signed to a major label, with an album due out soon, and they could be massive in Miami -- provided someone tells the tall saxophonist that it would be wise to can his spiel about soaking up good vibrations from the Cuban people during the band's recent trip to the island. And not to flap a PC flag or anything, but given the united-colors-of-Benetton ethnic/racial composition of the group (Mexican American, African American, Asian American), you'd think that they could make room for at least one woman. Repete, s'il vous plait: Chum-ba-wam-ba.
Ozomatli's cultural and musical hybridization informed many of the acts at this year's SXSW, in part spurred by hip-hop and electronica bleeding into older, more rigid music forms. For example, at the Ritz, an old movie theater retrofitted to accommodate bands, the French sextet the Little Rabbits (strangely, not "Les Petits Lapins," as you might imagine, but then they sing mostly in appealingly fractured English) decorates its avant-everything sound with a turntablist, the vinyl snippets slicing through Franco-filtered garage rock, pseudojazz, psychedelia, and grunge.
At SXSW bands come, bands play, bands leave, many of them -- particularly the ones without major-label deals -- incurring significant expense. "It cost us $1500 to get here," Beat Angels frontman Brian Smith complains from the stage at the Copper Tank. "And we had to borrow $500 more." He elicits only a collective shrug from those in attendance, whose silence translates roughly as "Yeah, so what." But others, notably the ones from Europe, just radiate an aura of glee, happy to be here. Like the pop-jazzy Swedish quintet Cloudberry Jam, whose frontwoman beams as she thanks an enthusiastic audience at Maggie Mae's West for coming out to hear them "in our first American gig." Priceless.
Postscript: Not quite 24 hours after they performed feats of derring-do -- not forgetting the brutal rocking part -- Nashville Pussy's Cartwright and Suys stroll casually west on Sixth Street, main drag for the city's many clubs. Arms linked, they give off an air of domestic contentment, a he and she out for an after-dinner constitutional, nodding at the neighbors amid an enveloping cocoon of small-town tranquillity. All very Carousel.