I kicked off the SXSW music festival by stopping in to check out the International Music Festival at Friend’s Bar. My main motivation was to see 127, a band from Tehran, Iran who are SXSW veterans. All partisan politicking and saber rattling aside, I am fascinated by the prospect of a distinctly American-style rock band coming to exist in a strict Islamic state. The bizarre confluence of Eastern traditions and Western traditions making it to Tehran was too good to pass up.
The crowd was mixed: part world music enthusiasts expecting some djembes, part hard-rock fans and part confused college kids expecting the bar to be a dance club like it usually is on Tuesday nights. Also in the mix were the support staff of bands from Germany, Brazil, India and a host of other countries. It was definitely a unique crowd: traditional beards and turbans coupled with trendy pop-punk t-shirts. Supporting were the unfortunately named MenWhoPause, a 5-piece hailing from New Delhi who did a perfect Imperial British version of Joy Division, complete with the King’s English and an Ian Curtis baritone. Despite being from a city of almost 10 million, they said this was the biggest gig they’ve ever played.
127 stole the show, though. They were a suprisingly heavy band, with an obvious influence from British classic rock. They all sported beards, naturally, but I was suprised to see one of the band members with a neck tattoo. They played a high energy set that included long jams, some old-style guitar rockers and some ballads and, overall, sounded very much like a hip American rock act. But mixed in were moments that captured the distinct percussive and atonal elements of Middle Eastern music. The show was compelling, but the fact they were Iranian lent the night a certain excitement. Part of it was a refreshing hope that our media isn’t 100% correct about our supposed “enemies” and that culture, particularly rock and roll culture, is very much alive in places we don’t expect. And part of it was that the promise and energy of live music goes way beyond our stereotypes and cliches.