Fellow Red Giant guitarist Damien Perry twitched and convulsed as if an electrical current were passing through his body. It was a loud, unabashedly self-indulgent display. The crowd hooted in approval at Headhunters, a voodoo-themed joint festooned with totem poles, thatched wooden walls, and tough-looking dudes with lots of facial hair and little restraint.
"We're Red Giant, we're from Cleveland -- we'd rather be here, though," Perry announced.
Red Giant was one of seven Northeast Ohio acts that traveled to Austin this year for SXSW. The festival has a way of bringing out the best in bands, and not because groups know they'll be playing in front of at least a handful of journalists and music-biz types who could help their careers. The four-day fest is a marathon of booze and bands in a town that smells of sweat, barbecue, spilled beer, and porta-potties. In Austin, inhibitions are low and expectations high. "It's like a rock-and-roll Mardi Gras," says Ryan Weitzel, one of the heads of Exit Stencil Records, the Cleveland-based label whose band Roué played to a packed house at SXSW last Wednesday night.
The festive atmosphere electrifies the crowd, which in turn drives bands that much harder. This was certainly the case with Cleveland's Disengage, which followed Red Giant at Headhunters. The band came with quick karate chops of dark agitprop rock. Guitarist Jacob Cox swung his axe as if he were warding off some invisible foe, while frontman Jason Byers charged the crowd, swinging his mic as if he were out to lasso some drunks.
Some returning bands found a much warmer reception than in previous years. At SXSW 2004, Canton's Lovedrug played the patio of a small Japanese restaurant in front of maybe 50 people. A year later, with a distribution deal from Sony in hand, it was greeted by 100-some people in a line that snaked out the door of the second-story club where it was playing. Almost as many people were turned away from the show as got in.
A few blocks away, at the Ghostly International showcase, a pair of highly promising regional acts played at Capo, a shadowy nightspot with red lighting and arched brick walls that had the feel of a funky Mexican cantina. First up was Canton's 7EVE (Severiano Martinez), founder of the Oberlin arts collective/label Shinkoyo, which also features Oberlin's Skeletons, who played the showcase later in the evening. Backed by the Skeletons, 7EVE impressed the well-heeled crowd at his debut live gig with equally seductive and spectral electronic-based numbers. Clad in a gray hoodie pulled over a black ball cap, 7EVE shook his hips, swung a tambourine, and sang in a strong, resonant voice as his set drifted from throbbing electro to hushed, late-night driving music.
7EVE later returned to the stage as the drummer for the Skeletons, which is basically multi-instrumentalist Matt Mehlan and a revolving cast of backing musicians. During the Skeletons' 45-minute set, Mehlan's kaleidoscopic pop spilled over into every known genre of music -- from knotty funk to confrontational free jazz. Mehlan sang in a thin, reedy voice, his weightless vocals tethered to a shifting backdrop of burping disco beats and percussion that occasionally approached a raga-like intensity. Sporting a white vest and a shaggy beard, Mehlan swung his knees to and fro wildly, looking like a kid learning how to roller skate for the first time. He banged on a big iron spring, a pile of free weights, and himself, while alternately blaring on a trumpet and a clarinet. The din that ensued was an amalgam of loud, absurdist art -- surrealism with a PA.
A few hours later, cops on horses began clearing the streets of Austin as SXSW wound to a close. Although the fest was over, the bands expect it to continue paying dividends.
"Just from the perspective of the amount of people that we met that hopefully we'll stay in contact with, it was definitely well worth our while," Weitzel says of Roué's reception. "I'll definitely be attending next year. The whole experience was just out of hand."