SXSW is a festival known for surprises. Whether it’s big-name acts crashing house parties or a legendary group showing up at your favorite hole in the wall, SXSW never fails to shock us. Even our little corner of downtown was not immune as Japan Nite descended upon the black walls of Elysium.
About an hour before doors opened and with bleak weather rolling in over our heads, the line outside had already started to build up and buzz with uncertainty. Just hours before, we’d been informed that three of the seven bands slated to play that night came all the way from Japan only to be turned away at customs due to problems with their visas. Atomic Stooges, KAO=S, and DEXTRINGS would be absent from this year’s lineup, leaving a huge hole in the timetable. Allusions to a ‘special guest’ was all the information that we had and many would-be patrons decided to leave in favor of other events now that their favorite acts were no longer playing. Speculation ranged from local fillers to a later opening. The only thing we knew for certain was that the show would go on.
About thirty minutes before the doors officially opened, a SXSW volunteer appeared with a hand-written timetable and taped it to the wall. Four acts had been added to the top of the show to fill the empty space: Panaquo, The Ed Woods, [Alexandros] and….did that say Yoshiki?!
After a small snafu with the credit card reader that had us squirming in the drizzle, we were finally allowed inside. For the astounding price of $5, we were promised an amazing show. The first to take the stage was Panaquo. To be absolutely honest, these guys were just not my cup of tea, though I do have to applaud them for their energy. The upbeat pair used a rather impressive panel of electronics to synthesize sounds and mix them into heavy dance beats, throwing in a heavily-modulated voice for good measure. It was a pretty rough choice for a cold open, but the crowd seemed to warm up to it in the end and it definitely got the place heated up.
Next up were trash rockers, The Ed Woods. As soon as I saw them, I knew I would dig it. A double bass, hollow-body guitar and a straw-hat wearing guitarist teased at some good ol’ southern rock and I was not disappointed. Peelander Yellow appeared in all his Peelander glory to give them an enthusiastic introduction before they launched into a psychobilly-infused set complete with wild theatrics that had the crowd roaring. A couple of songs in, the bass player stripped down to his underwear, produced a couple of condiment bottles, and proceeded to squeeze the sudsy content over his head before diving into the crowd. Honestly, I’m not real sure what I saw, but I know I want to see it again.
Then came my pop-rock guilty pleasure, [Alexandros]. I was just over the moon to see these guys added to the list. They presented a fully-charged show from start to finish, gracing us with melodic and sometimes bluesy rhythms with an obvious American influence. They followed The Ed Woods masterfully, keeping the energy high while bringing us back into the normal. They used pure musicianship to keep the crowd in the palms of their hands. These guys just ooze charisma.
A tremor went through the crowd again as [Alexandros] left the stage and a piano appeared. Loud symphony music piped through the speakers foretold Yoshiki’s appearance and finally he slipped through the back door to loud applause. He sat at the piano and a hush fell over the crowd as Forever Love poured from the keys. The crowd cheered wildly as the song came to a close and he stood to address the audience. He told us he heard about what happened with the other bands and since he “happened to be in Austin and be Japanese” he decided to come and play “as filler.” The reputation of Japan and Japan Nite was on the line. He closed his short set with an emotional rendition of Endless Rain before leaving just as suddenly as he entered.
Lo-fi act Tempalay was next, bringing with them a gentle, funky sound that reminded me of the 80’s. I could have sworn their first song was My Sharona when they started. I wish I could have stayed and finished out their set, but another show was calling to me from down the street that I just couldn’t miss. The amazing neo-traditional rock group, Wagakki Band.
When I first stepped into the little pop-up venue known as Des Moines Embassy, I have to admit I was a little worried. The band that was on was the quintessential American pop-punk fair, complete with fist-pumping jocks and over ambitious crowd surfers. The whole scene made me feel a little anxious. Was this the right crowd for something like this? How do you follow Green Day Jr with traditional Japanese instruments?
And then, they took the stage. Once the first heavy riff of 戦-ikusa- hit, all my worries fell away. The crowd went wild. Any nerves or fear the band felt dissolved into excited smiles as the tent filled with the powerful beats of the wadaiko and the mystical notes of the shakuhachi. The highlight of the show was a wadaiko vs drum kit battle, exemplifying the band’s ability to blend the traditional with the modern to make something unique. The energy of the place was magical, proving once again that, while the same ol’ thing might sell tickets, true innovation never goes unnoticed.
The group closed the show with Senbonzakura to wild applause. Seconds after they left the stage, a chant of “one more song!” began, rising in pitch until it could no longer be ignored. With wide smiles and bows of appreciation, the band reappeared to play Hanafurumai. The crowd gave everything they had left and the show ended with an air of wild accomplishment. There is no doubt in my mind that Wagakki Band came away with some new fans that night.
This year’s SXSW adventure left me feeling like I won the rock show lottery. What could have been a disaster for Japan Nite turned into a one-of-a-kind event with legendary performers. Not to mention Wagakki Band’s flawless performance. In the end, Japan was made proud as its community of musicians pulled together to make the night great. And, I’ll take that over a Cage the Elephant house party any day.