Probably the most rewarding aspect of SXSW is the ability to finally see artists you’ve been wanting to see for years. Such is the case with indie band Run River North Even without extensive knowledge of their discography, I was desperate to see them live.
I’d only had random encounters with the band’s leader and lead singer, Alex Hwang, in previous years. Most memorably, I’d run into him and briefly chatted with him prior to Big Phony’s performance in 2016. No surprise, really, once you realize that Bobby seems to always have incredible artists around him. (Greats follow greatness, don’t you know?)
My history of seeing artists live, especially when I finally find out about them, is a bit dicey. Namely, once I finally find out about them (or see them live once), I’m oftentimes thwarted in any attempt to see them perform at any other time… ever! It’s a curse that I blame Dean for. (Actively ignore a guy for two years, then watch him utterly decimate a stage for the first time…. Apparently he took those two years of avoidance personally, because I’ve not been able to go to a performance of his since!)
It was beginning to look like that curse was going to make a comeback this year in the from of Run River North. Then the heavens (and my schedule) opened up and gave me a shining opportunity.
There’s a reason for all this backstory. Prior to seeing Run River North’s set at Maggie Mae’s, I’d only heard about how genuinely remarkable the band is on stage. Of course, hearing the oftentimes exaggerated accounts of fans doesn’t really do the moment justice. First of all, you have to know that Alex Hwang isn’t really an insistent fellow. He’s quite friendly, and hilarious when you first meet him. But he’s not an overtly showy person. So when he alights the stage, there’s a quietness to his introduction. It’s the only time he shows this kind of seeming timidness that night.
Once the music gets good to him, his entire presence changes. Quite literally you can see his demeanor shift, his eyes are always kind, but there’s something… different about his gaze. The look of a performer, a magician who knows every trick to get his audience to fall in love with him. And we do with very little resistance.
It’s almost instantaneous. The music starts, something between indie pop and new-age blues, and every single person in the crowd becomes overwhelmed with a mutual feeling. We are all trapped here, unable to avert our gazes from the stage. From this wicked man with the infectious smile. He’s got a heart of a gold, a voice of a king. But what’s most striking is his brilliant ability to make every single person out in the crowd hang on his every word, every small movement, every joke. We are his and he knows it, and he never lets us forget it for one moment.
There’s a very actively inebriated woman in the crowd. When she’s not howling at the stage or trying to coax Hwang to pay her a certain amount of attention, she’s strutting about in the crowd. Just as it did with our leader, the music gets really good to her, and she decides she just has to dance, or her interpretation therein. Not satisfied to gyrate and tip her tipsy self around the front of the stage, she attempts to coax other people to join her. She succeeds in getting another fan to do his best to interpret the music through his body. Hwang, of course, encourages not only our leading lady. He also rallies behind the fellow, a Japanese fan Hwang recognizes almost instantly.
It’s this meeting of like minds, no matter how awash in alcohol they are. We are connected by the spirit of the music, the emotional spark of Hwang’s vocal, the flame it incites once the band is in full swing. Every moment of Run River North’s performance is full of romance and fire.
This isn’t to suggest every song is about the happiness and sugary drip confection of love. No. In fact, many of the songs are about the melancholy and heartache of that demon thing called love. The tragedy and the triumph of moving on. However, there’s nothing quite as gothic as a true romance: drama, pain, pleasure, the heat of passion, the frigid winter of a break-up. It’s all there in Run River North’s music. All aspects of the human condition, of how one person relates to another. It’s all acted out in front of and around us.
I can say without a doubt, this year began on something magical. As my first official showcase of 2019, I couldn’t have asked for a better introduction to what’s become my favorite festival. I know one thing for sure: Run River North has cemented itself as one of the more magical bands to breeze through SXSW. It takes something pure, something possessed of genuine love to unite people the way this band did.
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Photos by Cy