Sure enough, SXSW had announced earlier in the day that Janelle Monae would be replacing Cee Lo Green as the capper to a showcase at La Zona Rosa Thursday night. But her appearance was a surprise to me — a magical surprise, really, and I only use such words lightly when I write copy for children's breakfast cereals. You see, I figured I'd end off the night seeing Green, partly because I wanted to see if I would have any problems getting into a wristband/badge-exclusive show (and basically, while some events are more exclusive than others, this one was certainly open to anyone officially registered for SXSW; no VIP treatment here), and partly because I had a hope in the back of my mind that Green might bring along his Muppet friends, who I really just imagine following him around everywhere — on tour, into his dreams, on the john.
No such luck, but plenty more in seeing Monae, the pompadoured Atlantan from the future by way of the past who moved from classic soul to cabaret jazz to hardcore during an hour-long set, absolutely knocking out a rather small (200 or so) group of "industry" folks. Monae made her SXSW debut in 2009 (and I caught her set at Bonnaroo that same year), and has certainly established herself in the meantime, appearing as part of a medley during this year's Grammys, selling umpteen copies of her Archandroid record. But the set had an unannounced, pop-in feel, and even if Monae isn't the latest discovery, she's certainly one of the most impressive live artists I've ever seen, a prankish showperson who conceives of each song as setpiece, welcoming the Grim Reaper in the form of a cloaked backup singer on "Sincerely, Jane," painting an abstract nude on-stage while closing up another song, wearing a fringed sleep mask that accentuates eyes that can move from manically possessed to puckishly wry in a just a step. Stylistically, she covers the territory, helped out by a superlative band — for instance, her show-stopping cover of Chaplin's "Smile" was aided immeasurably by a guitarist who knows his jazz.
Even if the show felt like an exclusive drop-in, there were, of course, cameras on hand; the show was sponsored by Cisco and broadcast live on UStream. Wiz Khalifa, who was in town recently at the Murat, preceded Monae; he really likes his weed and can't quite understand why you're not smoking it right now, because weed is good and wonderful and the key to all happiness. I wasn't super-impressed by his swagger crew, including a hype man who could well have been carrying a stash in his backpack, but I like the muted, woozy spaciness of his "Up," the track which ends with Khalifa wondering, "If you don't smoke, I don't know why."
Monae's show was the highlight of my festival thus far, but I caught some other impressive acts yesterday, including an absolutely hot Columbian dance band, Herencia de timbiqui, that ought to play the Lotus Fest's party tent one of these days. They were one of the two bands I caught at a music from Columbia showcase; slightly weirder and less interesting musically was Estados Alterados, whose lead singer took the stage wearing a disco ball hat, white-rimmed sunglasses and a black jumpsuit lined with white Christmas lights, but then went on to croon out a sort of dark dance-rock that sounds about the same in Spanish as it does in British-accented English.
Stubb's is quite the venue — a huge outdoor space attached to a BBQ venue, it has a sort of dirt-surfaced, rodeo feel, albeit with a huge stage and a capacity for thousands. Noah and the Whale played early in the night; I was lured by a description in the Austin Chronicle that described its lead singer as a cross between Lou Reed and Stephin Merritt, but found that, while his voice is in the same register, he's way more optimistic than those guys, singing of ultimate redemption after hard times in plenty of his songs. I also found that I had heard the band's single "Five Years Time," as had much of the crowd. It was a night of pompadours for me; the singer and violinist each wore one, with the violinist's being the more teased up.
When I saw voice artist and Asthmatic Kitty act Julianna Barwick at Big Car last year, I was impressed but unmoved; her work with a looping set-up was technically impressive, and she certainly matched harmonies and tempi skillfully, but something was missing. Turns out it might have been the venue. While Big Car is great, it does sort of have a constrained feel, as a small space in a labyrinthine building. And Barwick sounds amazing in a church, where her usually wordless, layered vocals can take on a sacred, sometimes ecstatic feel, and where, leaving behind my analytical side, I wasn't as compelled to compare her approach to, say, Meredith Monk as to sit back, relax and enjoy her pristine oohs and aahs offered up to the heavens.
That does it for last night: I'll quickly recap my afternoon, when I wandered, overwhelmed, from showcase to showcase, usually screwing up my timing. Standard Kevin messaged me early in the day: Mr. Heavenly, a band comprised of members of Modest Mouse and other indie greats with Michael Cera on guitar, is playing at 1:45 p.m. And I rushed and huffed and puffed, because I am nothing if not someone who loves to be in the presence of movie stars, and managed to get there to see the last 10 seconds, which were pretty good. Such was the case for the day; I was a little slow on my feet, and there are so many unofficial parties, which don't come with a handy pocket guide like the evening's official showcases. At least I had my own star sighting: I swear I saw Slavoj Zizek at Swan Dive, and will accept no word otherwise.
I can say for sure that I saw local singer-songwriter Kate Lamont accompanying Cincinnati roots singer Kim Taylor. Lamont, who recently picked up new management and is trying to get some of her new songs licensed for TV and the like, has been singing with Taylor for a little more than a year, adding her peerless harmonies to Taylor's gruff voice. The two played a showcase hosted by Paste Magazine, which is happy to tell you that it still exists in online form after ending the run for its print publication last summer. J. Mascis closed the night at the Paste show in a solo setting, knocking out a cover of Paul Simon's kind of devastating "Circle of Friends" ("Me, I'm a part of your circle of friends and we notice you don't come around") that nicely matched up with his own ballads of maladjustment. And David Wax Museum, which played just before Mascis, is another group the Lotus Fest might consider trying to bring in; their take on the string band tradition covers both sides of the border, incorporating jaw bone and tap-dancing on Mexican numbers.
And here's where I wrap up to get back out there. Indianapolis is represented by two showcases this afternoon — Standard's Commodore von Keepsies's Craftacular Music Carnivale and My Old Kentucky Blog's Glitter Taco Smoosh Party. Both get started in about ten minutes, and maybe if I hurry to catch the 7 bus, I just might be able to score some free tacos.