Dispatch from SXSW: Janelle Monae is queen



The following is a guest dispatch by Riverfront Times music editor Annie Zaleski, who is courageous and awesome.

By day four of SXSW, everything is a chore. Waking up. Standing up. Drinking beer. Even mustering up enthusiasm to see bands becomes more difficult, mainly because the constant barrage of music - we're talking from the moment you land in the airport until you leave Austin - brings on sonic fatigue.

This was my mindset on Saturday afternoon, at the Chop Shop/Atlantic Records day party, which was held in a giant tent outside near the Austin Convention Center. I missed the Republic Tigers, who played earlier in the afternoon, but was incredibly excited to see Janelle Monae, the proud Kansas City, Kansas, native who was drawing quite the buzz in Austin this year.


Clad in dapper black-and-white outfits, her band walked into the show several minutes before her, like a group of penguins on a serious mission. A good omen, I thought, as I sucked down a can of Dos Equis like it was a bottle of water. Monae walked in later, her combination Mohawk/bouffant hairdo, crisp white shirt and confident stride making her impossible to miss.

Now, these SXSW day parties can be sedate affairs, where the musicians are generally hungover and audience members are simultaneously nursing and cultivating their own hangovers. But a sizable and energetic crowd gathered in the tent as Monae's band soundchecked and worked out some speaker kinks. After a brief intro - where Kansas City and her adopted hometown of Atlanta drew props - the place exploded.

And I do mean exploded. A sea of flashing cameras, more than I had seen at any show thus far, immediately appeared. The audience started dancing and grooving like it was midnight, not 6:30 p.m. And Monae and her band delivered a scorching set of soul/rock/punk/funk/hip-hop music, where genre was less important than the vibe expressed. Hendrix-like guitar work and "B.O.B."-era Outkast beat stutters collided, driven by Monae's powerful, no-effects-needed voice. (She showcased that singing voice, in fact, on a ballad that was moving without being cloying.)

Like Sharon Jones had she been new-wave, or a punk kid weaned on soul, Monae owned the stage. A friend up front taking photos returned after the second song, red-faced and sweating, and simply said, "Wow!" Capturing Monae still was a useless task, apparently, as the pint-sized dynamo threw herself around the stage with abandon, a true performer in every sense of the word.

Even at SXSW, a place where thousands of bands are competing for attention, it's hard to find a few that simply blow you away, the few that just have that intangible it. Janelle Monae certainly does, and proved it in Austin.

By the Way:

Other KC folk spotted: The folks behind popwreckoning.com and I'm pretty sure the members of the Republic Tigers. I'd know those hats and pointy shoes anywhere.

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