This is my first trip to SXSW, and as daunted as I was in advance by who to see, where to go, and how to get there, so far there has been a more frequent question that I didn’t anticipate having to ask: Who the hell is this playing in front of me right now? Unless you’ve seen the band before or heard them say their name (both rarities), chances are you’ll be guessing based on a lineup that may or may not be still in place, or walking up to the artist themselves afterward with the flattering query, “Who are you?”
That awkward scenario was exactly how I found out I had just witnessed Houston noise legend Richard Ramirez, in the guise of his solo project Werewolf Jerusalem. Ramirez has been making noise since the late ’80s as part of multiple groups as well as in collaborations with Merzbow, Skin Crime and a million others (just check out his insane Discogs page). Tonight, as part of the noise/punk lineup at Club 1808’s inside, uh, “stage,” he was clad anonymously in black clothes that looked too heavy for the 75 degree weather. He leaned almost motionlessly over a table and slowly turned pedal knobs, creating a gradual wash of static noise that froze the blank-staring kids huddled around him. It was a pretty awesome ritual of rapt, defiant stillness that served as a paradoxical noisy calm inside the storm of SXSW hyperactivity.
Which is not to say that the hyperactivity purveyed by The Mae Shi just a few feet away on Club 1808’s outside stage (part of a Moshi Moshi showcase) was any less awesome. The L.A. band has a rep for outdoing its records with its live shows, and while said records are still pretty great, their stage act makes almost anything else—records, books, movies, other bands—seem wanting. Running around screaming and slamming seems like it should be beyond cliché by now, but the Mae-Shi’s spilling, over-eager take on yell-a-thon punk/prog somehow gives the tactic a new face. Tonight they pulled out most of their trademarks—the guitarist and singer mixing with the crowd, the parachute handed out to the audience to lift up like grade-schoollers—but there were a few new moves as well: an awesomely catchy song possibly called “You Can Climb That Mountain,” and an elongated take on “Run To Your Grave” that included versions by a female solo on guitar, and a rapper freestyling over a remixed beat. By the end the band looked as exhausted as the set should’ve made them, which makes you wonder how they’re going to replicate this energy the next 100 times they play over the weekend. I wouldn’t bet against them, though.