SXSW 2009: Futuristic Nostalgia with Janelle Monáe and Phosphorescent

Janelle Monáe (Stubbs) Phosphorescent (Club De Ville) SXSW Wednesday Night, March 18

I would declare that a bunch of Decemberists fans crowding the front of the stage four hours before the sea shanties etc. even begin just to insure their spot is not exactly Atlanta r&b space-cadet Janelle Monáe's target audience, but this would suggest I have any idea who her audience is, which I don't, though I hope someone out there (preferably at her label) does, because she deserves to find it. She is deeply strange and supremely confident in her strangeness, rattling off dystopian sci-fi torch songs with both Bond-theme and Tron overtones, her backing band very Purple Rain in its commitment to almost cock-rock heights of excess, lots of guitar shredding and whatnot, as if every part of every song is the last 45 seconds of "Let's Go Crazy." The daffy concept-album conceit driving Metropolis: The Chase Suite is plenty off-putting, sure -- the cover sums it up well enough -- but onstage, with shredding guitar and copious strobe-light action and her own lithe ballet moves at her disposal, she seems destined for a stage and a spotlight so huge and futuristic they don't exist yet.

And though we're dealing with someone between several years and several decades ahead of her time, the tune that annihilates the once-aloof crowd this evening is "Smile," the old Nat King Cole tune, a brave-face pep-talk ("Smile though your heart is aching/Smile even though it's breaking") she delivers with both deep reverence and just a hint of modern American Idol sass, heated but not overheated, demure electric guitar her only accompaniment. Though not quite as groundbreaking as the furtive, slinky funk she more frequently dabbles in as only an Outkast affiliate can, it's a killer moment nonetheless, a star turn for someone with her head stuck in another galaxy entirely.

Cheerfully delivered depression is also Phosphorescent's guiding interest -- primary engine Matthew Houck (who pulled a reverse Monáe, Georgia to NYC) plays dewy, misted-over, sad-sack folk that valorizes shiftlessness, stasis, stunned inaction: "I'm a Full Grown Man (I Will Lay in the Grass All Day)," as his best song puts it. His new deal though is To Willie, a full album of Willie Nelson covers, delivered lovingly, faithfully, and joyously, a full band of fellow beardos tonight giving him as full and as energetic a backing track as he's ever had as he spins through Willie's unfailingly cheerful odes to depression: "It's Not Supposed to Be That Way," "Too Sick to Pray," "Heartaches of a Fool," etc. He appears to be having the time of his life up there, smiling beatifically though his heart is breaking, or his inspiration's heart at least.

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