The music (and film and tech and everything else) at South by Southwest almost always looks to the future. Emerging acts and novel sounds and panels try to make sense of a music industry turned inside-out.
So what a treat to wander into a club set from ’70s rock experimentalist Todd Rundgren at the end of Thursday evening’s slate of music at 1 a.m. There are usually a few legacy acts or established mainstream performers each year, but it’s rare to catch a singer-songwriter who has been pushing the outer edges of rock since the ’60s — and has a worthy new collaborative album to add to that legacy.
Rundgren had some chart hits in the U.S. (“Hello It’s Me” and “I Saw The Light” among them), and his double-LP “Something/Anything?” is a touchstone for acts like Tame Impala. But today, he’s more of a cult figure and deep inspiration for today’s crop of psychedelic acts and electronic producers.
His new LP “White Night” has collaborations with current electronic boundary-pushers like Trent Reznor and Robyn, and nods to his classic rock legacy with turns from Joe Walsh and Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.
So when he took the stage at the Red River club Elysium, he was doing what every band there was doing — hawking a new record. But in an era where everyone knows that the sands in the classic rock hourglass are slipping, it was a rare pleasure to see him up close, playing with such fervor.
There’s always pleasure in discovering something brand new at SXSW, but there’s just as much as rediscovering something older that turns out to still sound brand new. “You're playing checkers and I'm playing chess,” he sang on “Let’s Do This,” from his newest LP. That’s been true for 40 years and counting.
Meanwhile, back at Banger’s on Austin’s Rainey Street, our current future looked to be in good hands with Cuco, the frighteningly young L,A. singer whose aw-shucks charm and deft songwriting have made him an unexpected pinup for cool teens around L.A.
Omar Banos’ sound is quintessentially Los Angeles, like a day’s worth of Art Laboe’s oldies show condensed into three-minute pearls of modern pop, with flourishes of reggae, synth-pop, psych-rock and self-deprecating humor.
The Austin crowd maybe didn’t quite know what to make of it at first. But by the time Banos took to his trumpet over looping squalls of feedback and heaving bass grooves, he needed so other reference points than himself. Cuco is one of L.A.’s most exciting young stars, and watching him win over big crowds elsewhere is a joy.
The Havana-based DJ Jigue came to Austin from much different circumstances, but with a similar purpose — to show how a current generation of musicians is nodding to their own distinct pasts and a connected future. His roots, on the other hand, come from a comprehensive knowledge of Cuban percussion and contemporary dancehall, dembow, reggaeton and Latin house music.
I’d seen him before at the inaugural Manana festival in Cuba, where he stood out as one of his scene’s and country’s most promising musical emissaries. The 2016 election threw a bit of wrench into those plans, but he’s still managed to play the U.S. a few times and cultivate a label, Guampara, that’s at the forefront of new Cuban club music. He was the only act from Cuba at this year’s SXSW, possibly owing to visa issues (his go-to live percussionist El Menor had to stay home for that reason).
Those bureaucratic hurdles are a shame, because given all the attention on Cuba’s opening and Caribbean and Afro-beat sounds on pop, Jigue has every reason to become a major voice in electronic music. And at his set at the Flamingo he was just plain fun to watch — the stellar live drum accompaniment adds a physicality and showmanship to whatever room he’s in, and his sounds are savvy to current club trends while remaining fundamentally Cuban.
Hopefully enough of the right people saw him at SXSW to bolster the argument that he and his Cuban peers should be able get back to the U.S. very, very soon.