From Downtown Boys, a powerhouse call to action at SXSW

Downtown Boys, with Victoria Ruiz at center, at SX San Jose in Austin, Texas on Friday March 17.

I did the unthinkable.

I walked out halfway through a Waco Brothers show.

Please forgive me, Jon Langford.

But first, let me explain.

One of my annual life-affirming SXSW rituals is to escape the craziness of downtown Austin and cross the Colorado River to the South Congress avenue strip, where a funkier, more bohemian Austin still thrives, and free outdoor shows happen in parking lots and back yards

The place to go is Yard Dog, the wondrous folk art gallery that puts on full slates of afternoon shows under a tent out back, always including a Bloodshot Records showcase that usually ends with the Wacos, the fabulous Cash-meets-The Clash super- smart and formidably rocking Chicago band led by Welsh-born renaissance man and Mekons founder Langford, who shares vocal duties with Dean Schlabowske and Tracy Dear, the mandolin player who gets to sing “I Fought The Law.”   

The Wacos are always great, as they were on Friday, ripping through their raucous repertoire while Langford, a visual artist who’s showing his paintings of legendary musicians and skull-faced cowboys at Yard Dog (and is also playing gigs around town with band Jon Langford & the Far Forlorn), let loose with politically astute witticisms between songs with a gift of gab most welcome at a time when, as he put it, “we’re all craving reasonable behavior.”

So how could I tear myself away? Well, it was a mob scene at Yard Dog and with the angle of the slanting rays of the late afternoon sun - sorry Philadelphia, but it’s 80 degrees in Austin - it impossible to even get a glimpse of the band without pushing your way into the tent that was stuffed pole to pole with Lagunitas swilling middle aged bodies.

Plus, Downtown Boys were playing down the street.

The other free venue that’s grown in prominence in recent years is known as SX San Jose, an all day every day procession of bands happening in a parking lot next to the boutique San Jose hotel.

Riding my Austin city bike up the hill after interviewing former Philadelphian guitar player Ron Gallo outside a Yeti store where he had just played one of his 12 shows of the fest - look for that story next Sunday - I had made an unplanned San Jose stop when I heard the insinuating soukous-like grooves of Tribu Baharu, a Colombian chambata dance band from Bogata dressed in NBA gear. Great, irresistible stuff.

Punting on the Wacos - which maybe I did too soon: there’s a video being shared of Langford coming into the crowd, handing his electric guitar off to one woman to play and picking up another and carrying her around the venue - I headed back down to SX San Jose, for the Downtown Boys, the Providence, Rhode Island punk rock band fronted by Victoria Ruiz, a ferocious front woman who unleashes a populism-of-the-left rage in songs that shake you by the shoulders and don’t let go.

“We have to fight fascism, we have to fight white supremacy!” she commanded, sounding a battle cry.  And before delivering “Promissory Note,” in a guttural, laying it all on the line voice while backed by a multicultural band that includes a honking saxophone, she described it as a song about “how people of color will not continue to set themselves on fire so white people will be warm.”

This SXSW has unsurprisingly been marked by sounds of political dissent, ignited in part by a pre-fest controversy about language in the festival’s artist’s contract that was viewed as being anti-immigrant by many, including the Downtown Boys, who were among the list of acts who signed a letter of protest.

No band that I’ve seen, however, has come across as fully engaged in their confrontation as Downtown Boys, who are recent signees to storied Seattle label SubPop. From many pop culture quarters, calls to #Resist are already beginning to seem like easy gestures of half-baked hashtag activism.  In Downtown Boys hands, though, the struggle feels real, and while Ruiz is the bona fide break out star you can’t take your eyes off, the band as a whole backs her commitment up with a muscular attack and an understanding that the music needs to be fun to get its message across.

On their way back home to Providence, Downtown Boys play Everybody Hits in Philadelphia on Thursday.