St. Louis at SXSW: The Pragmatic, Black Spade, Theodore and more

Going into SXSW this year, I was curious to see how the economic meltdown was going to affect the festival. I had heard that fewer labels were having showcases, and fewer journalists and label employees were attending. More people I know personally went down to Austin on their own dime, with no plans to buy the badge or wristband needed to attend many showcases and events.

Despite such ominous portents, the festival rarely felt different than it has in years past. The main drag, Sixth Street, still teemed with partying college kids and drunk denizens of the music industry. If anything, it felt like fewer people decided to pony up for the expensive admission free-pass, and instead preferred to pay money to get into a show - or just cruise around the many free day (and night) parties happening in Austin.


The Pragmatic - Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski
The Pragmatic
The St. Louis music scene was well represented at SXSW this year. On Wednesday night, the Pragmatic suffered through some serious equipment problems - a laptop and keyboards refused to cooperate with each other - but turned in a solid set of its Rubik's Cube electro. The band is always a pleasure to watch live, mainly because each member is having so much fun onstage; this show was no different.

Liz Anjos, The Pragmatic - Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski
Liz Anjos, The Pragmatic

At the Undertow showcase the following night, Theodore impressed a small but supportive crowd. Depending on nuance rather than drama for its emotional impact, the group's roots resonated from the heart. The highlight of its set was the "encore" -- the group had some extra time to fill, and so it unleashed a soul-twang beating and a hollering hootenanny that showed off its ability to cast aside restraint.

Magnolia Summer - Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski
Magnolia Summer

Magnolia Summer performed next, to the biggest crowd I've ever seen it play to at the annual showcase. The setlist focused on the more rock-oriented material from last year's Lines from the Frame and From Driveways' Lost View; the brisk, upbeat setlist was a good fit for this particular lineup of the band.

Rockwell Knuckles, Nato Caliph and Black Spade - along with recent Atlanta transplant Gotta Be Karim and DJ Trackstar on the decks - opened the Smoking Section/Nah Right party on Friday.

Rockwell Knuckles (left), Black Spade (right) - Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski
Rockwell Knuckles (left), Black Spade (right)
Because St. Louis still seems to be seen as mainly a pop-rap town, it was nice to have some of our underground artists in Austin representing. Knuckles went onstage and did his thing -- "Livewire" and "See 'N' Say" were highlights - to a crowd that responded well to his rubbery-faced, movie-quoting style. Caliph's soulful flow recalled Nas, and his depth-filled lyrics brought a thoughtful edge to his set. Black Spade too suffered from some sample/equipment problems, but ultimately performed a set that was as playful as it was full of his airtight beats and lyrics.

Nato Caliph - Annie Zaleski
Annie Zaleski
Nato Caliph
Gotta Be Karim, who recently relocated to Atlanta, also performed. The move South has helped him toughen his flow and rhymes; look for a release show in St. Louis soon, he told me.

And finally, John Henry & the Engine earned an encore from an appreciative outdoor crowd at Jovita's at Saturday's KDHX/Twangfest day party. The group's organ-bolstered rock certainly brought to mind Bruce Springsteen, but the Southern sensibilities and honest edge reminded me more of the Georgia Satellites.

It's always interesting to see how perfect strangers and out-of-towners react to our local bands - and this year, the city's finest musicians certainly represented St. Louis well.

Apologies to Teresajenee, whose Saturday night showcase I missed, and to Via Dove and any other St. Louis acts I didn't get to see in Austin.

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