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Thursday, March 19, 2015

Oakland at SXSW: A Dispatch

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 2:23 PM

Fantastic Negrito - MARTIN HIRSHLAND
  • Martin Hirshland
  • Fantastic Negrito
The screeching of airplane wheels hitting tarmac jolted me from my power nap. Landing in Austin, SXSW was spread out before me like an all-you-can eat buffet. My seat neighbor Ca$hew Carter, a rapper from Atlanta, was getting ready for his first-ever trip to Austin for the perennial music and everything else festival.


On the flight we chatted about the state of hip-hop in the ATL (it’s still good), how to make the most out of South By, and commiserated a bit on the murder of Bay Area hip-hop staple The Jacka, who Carter knew as both a collaborator and a friend. He left with my business card and I left with a mixtape; the networking starts early here.

The hotel was still cleaning up the detritus of the interactive portion of the festival, and at 11 a.m. the room I had hoped to occupy wasn’t ready. Dropping my turtle shell of a backpack at concierge, the first stop would be Container Bar on Rainey street for the Lagunitas Couchtrippin’ showcase. Once inside, I enjoyed some fantastic free beer and the soulful caroling of Fantastic Negrito, NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert winner and one of Oakland’s native sons.

Well-dressed for the occasion, he wrapped the crowd in an intimate embrace of delta blues, gospel rock and folklore. Falling to his knees on several occasions, his voice strained high to the heavens as he pointed and gestured at the audience, making eye contact and impressing everyone within earshot; his gusto left little doubt of his deserving place atop NPR’s tiny desk, and he closed the show with ‘Lost In A Crowd’, the tune that won him the title. 

The strained voice of garage rocker King Tuff faded away like an ambulance passing as I made my way out to head up to Hotel Vegas, where rock and roll is in the soil and the Bloody Marys are garnished with Slim Jims. I caught the end of a blistering set by Oakland’s Big Tits; whose brand of scuzzy power-pop summoned demons from cracks in the Texas earth.

As night fell the streets bursted with bodies. Lines stretched around blocks at every turn, and my plans to catch Meat Market at Mohawk were thwarted by a cue that wasn’t moving an inch. Somehow I got into Stubbs down the road without a hitch, where the NPR night showcase had drawn a sizeable crowd. Shamir’s bubbly and conversational electro funk was hard to pin down, but easy to dance to. Brightly laced with keys, and backed by strong female backup vocals, he lit the crowd with all the coordination of the Bellagio Fountain. 

Courtney Barnett lighting it up at the @nprmusic showcase at #Stubbs #Sxsw #npr #courtneybarnett #passgo

A photo posted by Pass Go (@passgomgmt) on


Up next was Courtney Barnett, by many measures the toast of the town. The gifted Australian songwriter serves up indie rock with deadpan delivery, and proceeded to play the entirety of her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit. She sums up her relationship with the hype that surrounds her in "Pedestrian At Best": Put me on a pedestal / I’ll only disappoint you. Well, disappoint she didn’t, and based on the enthusiastic crowd reaction, her place on the musical pedestal is warranted.

The day ended where it began, with some locals at Container Bar for the Professional Fans silent disco. Hanging with Bay Area music industry folks, we donned headphones and grooved to some danceable jams from Marisa and Katie. I popped next door to Bar 93 around 1 a.m. to catch Oklahoma’s best export Broncho, who ripped through cuts from their two superb releases. My ears are still ringing.   

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Martin Hirshland

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