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Charles Bradley

This soul singer with a heart of gold emerged from a life of odd jobs and a vagabond lifestyle when Daptone records discovered him moonlighting as James Brown under the name “Black Velvet.” From there, the label recorded several of his songs, putting out some of them on vinyl and releasing his debut, No Time For Dreaming, in 2011. A documentary about the singer called Soul of America was debuted at SXSW in 2012 and helped spark interest in Bradley, and his sophomore album, Victim of Love, came out in 2013 to a host of critical acclaim. At 55, Bradley continues to tour the nation performing his authentic mixture of blues, funk, and soul.

Fri., Jan. 17, 9 p.m., 2014

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The Return of John Sayles and Other Observations from SXSW

They say everything’s bigger in Texas — a sentiment that apparently extends to wait lines for airport taxis, the noise level of hotel air conditioners and, in the case of Austin’s South by Southwest Film Festival, that much sought, unquantifiable thing called “buzz.” Zeitgeist value isn’t the only thing that’s big about SXSW. The Austin Convention Center, which serves as festival ground zero, seems scaled for the Olympics; the credential pick-up area alone occupies a massive arena that resembles those containment wards where survivors are herded in apocalyptic disaster movies. Which is an apt reflection of how one often feels at the end of a festival, but a rather ominous way of kicking things off.

Aesthetic concerns aside, SXSW (or “South By,” as it has been christened by those with a penchant for abbreviation) certainly merits its girth. Steadily over the course of the past two decades, this once cultish, regional event, gazed upon quizzically by old-media gatekeepers, has evolved into something that even Vanity Fair can no longer ignore. (I know: I ended up on sharing a microphone with their wide-eyed correspondent on a SXSW radio show produced by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, another moth drawn to the flame.)

You can argue over whether this means SXSW has inched its way toward mainstream respectability, or whether the mainstream has slowly been made over in SXSW’s image, where so-called “geek” culture and high culture have been placed on a level playing field from the start, and where the holy union of Silicon Valley and Hollywood was first foretold. (The festival, which began in 1987 as a music-only event, has included dedicated film and multimedia components since 1994.)

When I first came to Austin in 2009, as a juror for the narrative feature competition, film still felt very much like SXSW’s redheaded stepchild, with a handful of high-profile premieres (that year, the Jody Hill mall-cop comedy Observe and Report and a special work-in-progress screening of Sam Raimi’s Drag Me to Hell) screening alongside many well-intentioned Sundance also-rans. But just in the few years since, the festival has noticeably stepped up its game, featuring the world premieres of Bridesmaids, The Cabin in the Woods, the Oscar-winning documentary Undefeated, Adam Leon’s Gimme the Loot and, perhaps most notably, Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture.

It was also here, legend tells, that the dreaded “M-word” — “mumblecore” — was coined to describe a certain brand of micro-budget American indie generally concerned with the ennui of post-collegiate white hipsters living off (or still with) mom and dad. And just like Sundance, which has taken its share of knocks for incubating certain plague-like strains of indie filmmaking (see: snarky self-empowerment comedies starring Steve Carell, Steve Coogan, or Steve Zhan; the entire career of Lynn “Humpday” Shelton), SXSW too has now been around long enough to incur similar charges of aiding and abetting. No generalization holds true across the board, of course, but suffice it to say that if the movie you’re watching is called Big Ass Spider or begins with a scene of a single guy in his late 20s masturbating, you’re probably in Austin.

No single filmmaker has been more closely associated with SXSW in recent years than Joe Swanberg, the prolific mumblecore savant who directed a dozen DIY features before his 30th birthday, collectively responsible for introducing Greta Gerwig to the world and for inspiring Kael-vs.-Sarris-esque trench warfare among young film bloggers (culminating in a much-ballyhooed 2012 boxing match between Swanberg and Badass Digest critic Devin Faraci at another Austin film festival, Fantastic Fest). Now all of 31, Swanberg was back at SXSW this year to premiere Drinking Buddies, a romantic comedy starring “it” girls Olivia Wilde and Anna Kendrick, which I missed during my five days at the festival, but which was well-liked by almost everyone I spoke to and generally seen as one small step for Swanberg towards serious indie credibility and one giant leap away from the contours of his own naval.

One SXSW generalization that definitely holds true: the festival is very, very young, from the average age of the filmmakers to the audience to the staff. At the world premiere of the Neil Labute-scripted Some Girls, the programmer introducing the screening noted that Labute had first come to SXSW in 1997 with In the Company of Men, a movie made “before my time.” When it was announced that Labute was unable to attend the screening, I wondered if he had really been waylaid by snow in New York (the official excuse), or perhaps been carted off by SXSW minions to participate in the fiery ritual of Carrousel.

Only when I saw another indie eminence grise, John Sayles, at the premiere of his latest, Go For Sisters, did I once again rest easy. Speaking onstage before his screening, Sayles noted that Sisters, a kidnapping drama of sorts set along the California-Mexico border, was made for less than $1 million and on a tighter schedule (17 days) than his landmark debut features, Return of the Secaucus 7, in 1980. And age notwithstanding, Sayles made for a perfect addition to the SXSW program: Secaucus 7 was nothing if not mumblecore avant la lettre, and in his work over the subsequent decades he has remained the very embodiment of the independent spirit, continuing to make his panoramic social dramas by any means possible, unaffected by the fickle demands of the marketplace.

Sisters carries more than a few echoes of Sayles’ great and twisty 1995 Texas noir Lone Star, which charted the overlapping lives of the residents in a small Texas town, any one of whom might have been responsible for a long-ago unsolved murder. This time, the setting is L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, where a middle-aged, widowed parole officer (LisGay Hamilton) searches for her missing son — last seen helping to smuggle illegal Chinese immigrants north from Tijuana into the U.S. — with help from an estranged childhood friend (Yolonda Ross) and a retired San Diego cop (Edward James Olmos). At times, the plot veers dangerously close to Cagney and Lacey Go to Mexico, but most of the time Sayles gives us vibrant, complex characters inhabited by actors who burrow deep — a reminder of how scarce classical, involving human drama is at the movies nowadays.

The outré side of local filmmaking was on full display in Bryan Poyser’s fitfully amusing The Bounceback, a ribald rom-com set against the world of “air sex” competitions (whose participants bump and grind against imaginary partners) — and a movie that seems unlikely to ever again find quite as enthusiastic an audience as the hometown crowd that greeted its first screening in the 1,200-seat Paramount Theater. Meanwhile, a more lyrical and melancholic Lone Star mood permeated director Yen Tan’s Pit Stop, a parallel portrait of the lives of two gay men on the rebound from failed relationships in a small rural town. It’s a movie of considered silences and deliberate pacing, superbly acted and surprising in its cumulative power.

The festival’s standout narrative feature, however, arrived in the form of Short Term 12, a powerfully affecting drama from writer-director Destin Daniel Cretton, whose debut feature, the soulful indie-rock drama I Am Not a Hipster, was one of the highlights of last year’s Sundance. Here, Cretton’s setting is a group home for emotionally and psychologically troubled teenagers, as seen through the eyes of the counselors, who are barely grown-ups themselves. They include the aptly-named Grace (Brie Larson), a calming force at the center of this storm, but considerably less assured in her personal life, which includes a live-in relationship with her fellow counselor, Mason (The Newsroom‘s John Gallagher Jr.). Like Hipster, this is a small, intimately realized film, void of the self-righteous sanctimony and bathos of many an institutional melodrama, closer in tone to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Like Sayles, Cretton is particularly good with actors, and the film marks a breakthrough of sorts for the incandescent Larson, who’s had scene-stealing supporting roles in a number of bigger films (including Rampart and 21 Jump Street) but here takes center stage as a fragile young woman sailing the rapids from post-adolescence into adulthood.

Elsewhere, SXSW 2013 was distinguished by a number of outstanding nonfiction features, including director Penny Lane’s playful found-footage assembly Our Nixon, which screens this week locally as the closing night of MOMA and Lincoln Center’s New Directors Festival, and Milius, Zak Knutson and Joey Figueroa’s loving portrait of legendary Hollywood screenwriter, raconteur and self-styled man’s man John Milius, which makes a compelling case for the Apocalypse Now screenwriter as one of the industry’s greatest storytellers — on- and off-screen; and Downloaded, an exhaustively researched and impressively assembled report on l’affaire Napster by director Alex Winter. That Winter began his career as an actor — specifically as Bill S. Preston Esq. to Keanu Reeves’ Ted Theodore Logan in a much-loved 1980s time-travel adventure — seemed largely lost on the SXSW audience. Onstage following the screening, when Napster co-founders Shawn Fanning and Sean Parker made a joke about taunting their director with air-guitar riffs, audible incomprehension filled the room, leaving old man Winter (now all of 47) once again outside of his own time.

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Pazz & Jop: A Trip Through Fiona’s Wheelhouse

“You’re imaginary!”

Fiona Apple stood onstage last spring at Stubb’s in Austin, during her Wednesday-night South by Southwest set, and assessed the crowd between songs. She looked more muscular, her hair darker and wilder than the last time I’d seen her, when I was 19, and she was only a couple years older. Then, she was promoting 1999’s When the Pawn, the follow-up to her 1996 debut, Tidal, both of which placed the singer in the headlines and margins of the pop-culture conversation. The fans back then were not so imaginary: The high school friend I attended the concert with threw her bra onstage.

Last spring, Apple was back in our arms again, with her first album in seven years. All of her albums have been personal, confessional readings of a sort, and her fans devoted listeners. Over the past 15 years, many of us, myself included, have matured from pained, shy teenagers to more confident thirtysomethings along with her. That can’t be said of many pop stars, who often outgrow their fan bases, or vice versa, as trends come and go.

Her critics have never been imaginary, either. Back in September, Apple was arrested and jailed in the Texas border town of Sierra Blanca for hash possession. Many media outlets rolled out the tired “Fiona Apple is crazy” argument that began around the time of her 1997 MTV Music Awards “This world is bullshit” acceptance speech. Apple addressed fans at shows after her release, and the press chose to print several of her more obtuse quotes on the situation out of context to further the crazy conversation. A bizarre, misogynistic follow-up letter from the Hudspeth County sheriff’s Public Affairs Office asserted that “two weeks ago, nobody in the country cared about what you had to say—now that you’ve been arrested, it appears your entire career has been jump-started.”

By her own admission, though, “crazy” has been a refrain on Apple’s previous three albums, the last being 2005’s Extraordinary Machine. Last year’s The Idler Wheel Is Wiser Than the Driver of the Screw and Whipping Cords Will Serve You More Than Ropes Will Ever Do is mostly free of the accusation, despite the slightly wild-eyed title. It’s almost exclusively her and a piano, accompanied by percussionist Charley Drayton, who used things like Velcro, gravel, and “thighs” as instruments. Also, the imagery is more vivid and aware; she shows us werewolves, volcanoes, and knives, all things potentially deadly, as well as analogies for desire, which might be the crux of the album.

Unlike the younger pop stars of 2012, like Grimes or Rihanna, who are playing with a more progressive, future-tense version of feminism, power, and ownership, Apple is still working in the present. She is not selling a rebellious image or mentality, or mining the Tumblr crowd for page views, just sharing an emotional weight. With little pre-promotion, just a devoted fan base hungry for new material, she released one of the most well-received albums of the year.

Apple once again wrestles with the idea of mind as machine, but The Idler Wheel‘s rambly title is just the skeleton. Here, Apple’s voice is the main instrument that gives it pulse and breath, often growing from cadenced whisper to heaving scream within a few lines. Right from opener “Every Single Night,” we understand this is a machine of her design, and the domestic dream state of the song is spelled out via poetic physical imagery: “The rib is a shell/And the heart is a yolk/And I just made a meal for us both to choke on.” Throughout the album, I am reminded of a line from a Nikki Giovanni poem: “It seems no matter how/I try I become more difficult to hold/I am not an easy woman to want.”

Over the years, Apple has learned how to deal with the media, and she is good at doing a bit of improv. That comes across in The Idler Wheel‘s confidence. “I just want to feel everything,” she sings on “Every Single Night,” elongating six words to 12. She’s cataloging her mental state, putting it all out there to set the scene. Shouldn’t we, as artists, but moreover sentient beings, want to feel everything? Like Rainer Maria Rilke wrote in Letters to a Young Poet: “Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any misery, any depression, since after all you don’t know what work these conditions are doing inside you?”

There are now four albums documenting the work of these conditions. The Idler Wheel is Apple versus her mind, doing a dance. Sometimes she steps on her own toes. We may be imaginary. She’s only human.

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Bad Brains

Now in their 35th year, give or take a hiatus and lineup change or two, Washington, D.C.’s volatile, reggae-loving hardcore-punk legends have seemingly always found a reason to keep touring and have kept their original lineup intact for close to a decade. Most recently, the group appeared in the documentary Bad Brains: A Band in DC, which appeared at this year’s South by Southwest conference and tells the story of the band through archival footage and animation. On top of this, they’re rumored to be entering the studio to work on a new album soon. With H2O and fellow DC hardcore group Scream.

Tue., April 17, 7 p.m., 2012

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READY, SET, LOOP

Fresh from recent appearances at South by Southwest in Austin and at the Ultra Music Festival in Miami, U.K. beatmaker SBTRKT hits New York this week for a pair of engagements, including tonight’s Webster Hall concert and a DJ set (with “very special guests”) Monday at Music Hall of Williamsburg. Although it’s already sold out, we recommend the live show, which features vocal and keyboard contributions by Sampha; he gave several tunes on SBTRKT’s self-titled 2011 debut a sensual future-soul vibe that called up fond memories of two-step softie Craig David. With Willis Earl Beal, a mythology-cultivating Chicago folkie who also headlines the Mercury Lounge on Sunday.

Tue., April 3, 8 p.m., 2012

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Muscling in at SXSW

I’m not above looking silly when it comes to sussing out the name and artist behind a song that hits my ear in a particularly pleasant way. I’ll walk around stores and streets and, should the beat of something strike me, I’ll whip out my phone and hold it high above my head as the mobile app Shazam, a music-recognition service for smartphones, listens along with me. Should the song be in the service’s database—it claims to have some 15 million post-1950 songs on file—my phone will light up with the title and the artist responsible for the track, with handy links to download it legally should I feel the urge.

These single-song moments are the opposite of the music portion of the annual South by Southwest Festival, which wrapped up on Saturday and which in its ideal form is a garden of delights for those people who want to gorge on newness. Any space in Austin that’s big enough to hold 50 people and an amp or two can become a venue, which results in half a dozen show-going options in less than half a city block. But the festival has grown so large that it has become almost impossible for people not slogging their way through the city’s maze of invite-only events and official showcases to get a bead on who the Next Big (Let Alone Medium) Things might be; this year, the most boldfaced names—Bruce Springsteen, the recently resurgent Fiona Apple, the soda-sponsored Lil Wayne, a stage designed to look like a giant vending machine that served up a super-size version of the Dorito—sucked up the bulk of column inches and tweets read by those who, like me, were following along at home. (Jay-Z, once again displaying his business savvy, bypassed the music portion of the conference entirely; instead, he performed during the segment of SXSW devoted to new media and reaped a whole lot of press as his reward.)

The prospect of discovery was still present in Austin, as evidenced by bands that played as many as a dozen times in order to make their names stick in the minds of those people wandering through open-air open bars that happened to have live music and the writers who, whether uninterested in the bigger stars or daunted by the long waits in line required to see them, went off the beaten path. But the heavy weight of larger names (and those super-size snacks) made it tougher for even the most talked-about up-and-comers to gain critical mass among the deluge of press beamed back from Austin.

Operating squarely against the filled-to-the-brim principle of SXSW is This Is My Jam (thisismyjam.com), a new social-music service created by two former employees of the social-music site Last.fm. In the overloaded world, This Is My Jam’s concept is irresistibly simple and direct: Users post one song (the declared “jam”) for a maximum of one week to the site (and, if they choose, to their followers on Twitter and Facebook). People can stream a playlist of their friends’ picks, and declare whether or not they like what they’re hearing. It’s the “hey, check this song out” concept taken wide and delivered elegantly.

The back end is handled by the repositories of songs posted on the streaming-video site YouTube and on music blogs, and there’s a sort of irony to the way This Is My Jam’s setup is rooted in both the social-media world and the music-blog realm. Last week, the San Francisco music writer Casey Newton, spinning off a recent announcement by the streaming-music site Rdio, posted a thoughtful essay (it’s at crumbler.tumblr.com) about what he called “the slow death of MP3 blogging,” the writers-gone-DJs form that allowed readers to hear and read about new or blog-worthy songs at the same time.

This multimedia marriage doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but 10 years ago, it was somewhat mind-blowing. And it was pretty easy for those people with an Internet connection and a lot to say about music to jump in on either side: Writers would select individual songs from albums, post them online, and provide commentary, and link to blogs that posted simpatico music. In a way, these bloggers were doing the work of promo teams, picking “singles” at a time when technology allowed individual songs to able to be loosed from the tether of an album (not to mention that album’s $14–$18 price tag). Thanks to labels being skittish about their product being distributed piecemeal and for free among people operating under the “enthusiast” label, the MP3-blog format eventually became somewhat professionalized and smoothed-out; promotional teams serviced bloggers with particular songs, thus allowing them to blanket the Internet in a coordinated effort. It was a re-creation of the singles market; instead of plunking down money for a 45, consumers would only spend bandwidth on a four-megabyte download, and instead of a popular song hitting No. 1 on the Billboard airplay charts, it would float to the top of the appropriately named Hype Machine.

In addition to the rise of streaming-music services like Rdio and Spotify, which allow entire discographies to be sampled on demand, the reduction in people engaging in the idle browsing that was back then known as “surfing the Web” has been a large factor in MP3 blogs’ decline. Walled gardens provided by content-consumption apps and, increasingly, friends directing one another to outrage-stoking stories and cute cat pictures via Facebook and Twitter are two of the factors behind peoples’ online-browsing habits becoming more targeted (while the browsers become more unaware of what they might be missing). As a result, the sort of serendipitous Web-surfing that led users to a blog by someone who wasn’t famous or employed by a brand name, but who instead really liked music and wanted to share it with passersby, is dropping.

It’s a sad coincidence that Newton examined the decline of this form, in which enthusiasts effectively developed a new way for labels to promote and disseminate their artists’ music in the Internet age, during the same week that already-existing musical (and snack) brands from all genres declared themselves to be worthy of “discovery.” But is it surprising? As attention becomes its own currency, those who already have deep pockets—whether in the form of sponsorship cash or a name that can make news without playing a single note—will win out.

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Cloud Nothings

With songs crafted in his Cleveland bedroom, 18-year-old Dylan Baldi collaborated with producer Steve Albini on his record Attack On Memory and swiftly became one of the most hotly-tipped acts of SXSW. Recorded with a thick cloud of depression, Baldi engages in poppy futility rock, making memorable riffs out of tracks titled “Cut You” and “Stay Useless.” The incisive sense of desperation behind his songwriting has gained him comparisons to Sunny Day Real Estate, but behind his melancholy bedroom recordings is the wish fulfillment of every teenage boy with a Nirvana poster.

Tue., March 27, 7:30 p.m., 2012

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CALIFORNIA DREAMING

With everyone—from Fiona Apple to your sophomore-year roommate who used to get high and make beats on his laptop—heading down to Austin for this year’s South by Southwest festival, this weekend has less noteworthy concerts than almost any other. Nevertheless, EMA, she who famously began last year’s #15 Pazz & Jop single with a resolute “Fuck California,” now says “Fuck Texas” and comes to the Music Hall of Williamsburg to play tracks off her #15 Pazz & Jop album Past Life Martyred Saints. Expect an emotional Lou Reed–influenced performance, sung, whispered, and pleaded over droning guitars. With Nu Sensae.

Fri., March 16, 9 p.m., 2012

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DARK GLITTER

Next week, the South by Southwest music conference in Austin will propel a handful of young acts to next-big-thing status, and one safe bet for ascension is London-based pop singer Charli XCX, who plays her first New York show tonight as part of Neon Gold’s New Shapes party. Something like a junior-varsity Lykke Li, Charli XCX doles out gloomily sensual electro-pop ditties with titles like “Stay Away” and “Nuclear Seasons”; the music feels destined for adoption by people who make a living packaging glamour. With a handful of other Austin-bound buzz bands, including Sweden’s Niki & the Dove and local synth-rock dudes Ghost Beach.

Sat., March 10, 8 p.m., 2012

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Wheelchair Sports Camp’s Crip Life

Kalyn Heffernan is 24 years old, weighs 53 pounds, and measures three feet, six inches tall. She’s light enough to carry, compact enough to hide under a winter coat, and is sometimes mistaken for a child. But Kalyn, who has the brittle-bone disability osteogenesis imperfecta, is hardly innocent, precious, or inconspicuous: The Colorado native dabbles in graffiti, cusses gloriously, and has a septum piercing. She raps, scribbles rhymes, and has been known to cover the viral YouTube video “My Vagina Ain’t Handicapped.” If you ask—and even if you don’t—she’ll eagerly lift her shirt to show off the words “CRIP LIFE” inked on her stomach, an homage to Tupac Shakur’s THUG LIFE tattoo.

Kalyn is the founding member of Wheelchair Sports Camp, a fledgling jazz-hop trio cheekily named after a week-long youth-disability program she attended growing up and, by her own admission, “corrupted.” The Denver-based band consists of Kalyn and two able-bodied friends from college, Abigail “Abi” McGaha Miller, a towering, talented 22-year-old saxophonist/vocalist, and Abi’s Marvel Comics–nerd older brother, a 25-year-old mountain of a drummer named Isaac. Although both siblings are far more experienced musicians than Kalyn, they will comfortably concede that this project is “Kalyn’s show.”

On a wet Wednesday evening in October, Kalyn’s show is 1,800 miles, $1,323, and one important record-label meeting away from home. All three bandmates huddle in Zuccotti Park, on the soggy outskirts of an Occupy Wall Street General Assembly, with Kalyn’s girlfriend of five years, 26-year-old Jennah Black, who multitasks as WSC’s merch girl and surrogate roadie. In the distance, British comedy wank Russell Brand ducks into the Sanitation Tent, followed by a cameraman.

Wheelchair Sports Camp has traveled to New York City for CMJ, the annual five-day music festival that once functioned as an unofficial kingmaking ceremony but now serves predominantly as a reluctant excuse for networking, binging, blog-hating, Tweet-spying, and babysitter-finding among, for lack of a better term, music people. Kalyn and Jennah had already planned a trip to the city this week, paid flights to Syracuse University for a Saturday-afternoon panel about disability and hip-hop—“krip-hop” spelled with a “k,” so as not to be confused with the West Coast gang. Hoping to parlay the chance timing into something heftier, Kalyn applied to play CMJ.

The band was accepted, but they have no money. Kalyn is unemployed—she relies on $650 a month from the Supplemental Security Income program. Isaac offsets broadcasting classes with a telemarketing job, and Abi works at a local HoneyBaked Ham, but they both live at home. Kalyn hatched a plan to defray costs: They could stay at Occupy Wall Street! Not only did they all deeply believe in the cause—Wheelchair Sports Camp had already performed at Occupy Denver, with Isaac in a Guy Fawkes mask—but OWS also served meals, so they’d save money on food, too.

Simultaneously, in a last-ditch effort, Wheelchair Sports Camp launched a Kickstarter campaign, an increasingly common online mechanism for crowdsourcing creative-pursuit funds. Their Kickstarter pitch, paraphrased: Be a part of Wheelchair Sports Camp’s first show in New York City! The underlying message: Help the Little Band That Could! The fantasy-league version: CMJ was a Big-Time audition! As Abi and Isaac’s father adorably urged on Facebook, “It could be a really big opportunity for the kids finally turning them into full-time, professional musicians.”

CMJ is hardly the career catapult it once (if ever) was. But for three earnest kids with no resources from the Rockies, the footnote affiliation wields influence back home. “Regardless of how well or bad the shows do, the fact that you’re getting out of state? Everybody at home is like”—Kalyn gasps, by way of demonstration—”‘You went to Texas! And New York!'”

Besides, even from the most cynical perspective, all an act needs to jockey forward in this moment is one trigger: one substantiative interaction, one show, one song, one viral video. Never mind that as an emcee, Kalyn sounds like grime-shorty Lady Sovereign sucking helium, spitting vocabulary strings with the cadence of somersaults, or Animaniacs‘ character Dot rhyming “disagree” with “suck a titty.” Sure, the live band could use a little practice, but add a compelling human-interest narrative, hook up with the right mentor or coach, and you might just have a future. Or at least, a bed on tour.

Ten days before their CMJ show, Wheelchair Sports Camp not only met their $1,200 financial goal, but also surpassed it. And that’s how a shambling outfit of exuberant underdogs with no revenue stream, no out-of-state fan base, no publicist, no critical adoration, no technical preparation, and no connections quietly became the de facto Mighty Ducks of CMJ: All it took was stubborn idealism, fearlessness, and a quixotic little leader with a willingness to curl up in the rain.

Wheelchair Sports Camp didn’t sleep at Occupy Wall Street. Isaac and Abi chickened out. “Kalyn’s like, ‘Do we reaaaalllllllly need to get a hotel room?'” Isaac recounts. “We’re like, ‘Yeahhhh.’ I’m not gonna try to huddle up with my gear in a sleeping bag.”

Abi laughs. “Right? Tie my saxophone to myself and hope no one steals it while I’m sleeping?” Instead, they’re staying 45 minutes away and commuting with a rental car—a motel in Whippany, New Jersey, offered the cheapest locked room they could find on short notice.

You can understand why Abi and Isaac were hesitant to pursue Kalyn’s reckless road schemes: The last time they did, the brother and sister ended up with their mugshots on the Internet. Driving through Texas to this year’s South by Southwest, Wheelchair Sports Camp jumped onto a last-minute show in Denton, a hugely successful opening slot for activist rapper B. Dolan that closed with the crowd chanting in unison. Back then, there’d been a fourth member, Chris Behm-Meyer, a turntablist who adopted the persona DJ B*Money—he recently just stopped returning calls, as DJs sometimes do. Kalyn and B*Money decided to celebrate their tremendous reception by spray-painting “crappy tags” (Kalyn’s words) right outside the venue, in the middle of the town.

“I have a really bad idea of consequences,” Kalyn admits. “I don’t really think of it a lot because I’m in a wheelchair, and I get off so often?” Kalyn has a medical marijuana card in Colorado; the Texas cops found weed on the crew. Kalyn and B*Money got off. Taking a vandalism rap when she hadn’t been painting at all, Jennah spent two nights in jail.

But Jennah is used to Kalyn’s antics. Once in 2009, the night Abi first joined Wheelchair Sports Camp live, Kalyn called for a ride from Boulder: She’d had some drinks, fallen off a curb in her wheelchair (“I never wear my seat belt as much as I should”), puked on Scribble Jam founder Mr. Dibbs, and broken her face. “I loved it!” Kalyn squeaks. “When I break an arm and a leg, I’m out for six to eight weeks. So when I break my face and my head, it’s only gonna put me out for a couple days.” (Her disability causes her bones to break so easily that a former friend once foolishly tried to touch Kalyn’s toe to her face and shattered her femur.)

Kalyn has always exhibited a mischievous streak—that’s what made her love rap music in the first place. “When I realized how rebellious it was and that my parents hated it, I stuck with it,” she says. She was five or six. Her first time rhyming in public was at age 12, at a school talent show, where she rattled off stanzas about the Denver Broncos she’d written with friends. Her first job was in the Looney Tunes store at a Rocky Mountain amusement park; she saved all her earnings to buy a beat machine. For her high school senior portrait, Kalyn posed with a microphone.

Music was such a big deal that her Make-a-Wish Foundation request was to meet all-female R&B trio TLC. The organization flew Kalyn to Atlanta, where she rode around in a Bentley with singer Tionne “T-Boz” Watkins. “My doctor even lied to them and told them I was dying so that I could do that—which I wasn’t aware of at the time,” Kalyn snickers. “I milk my disability.” Like at venues, where her wheelchair became an all-access pass. “Once I found out how to take advantage of it, I wouldn’t even watch concerts, honestly. I’d go to all these shows and wait backstage to meet all these people.” Performers like Xzibit, Ludacris, Bubba Sparxxx, Erykah Badu, and Eminem. “I was such an Eminem kid.”

That’s why it’s a huge deal that we’re all squished into a freight elevator ascending to the downtown headquarters of Shady Records, Eminem’s 12-year-old label, which has been recently rejuvenated with the 2011 signings of Southern staccato beanpole Yelawolf and verse-volley super-crew Slaughterhouse. It’s Thursday, the third of WSC’s four days in New York, and the Shady employee who has come to fetch us through the back entrance is a bodyguard-type with darting eyes and He-Man’s ripped physique who’s barking Spanish into a cell phone. Later, we’ll be asked to use discretion with the office’s address. “Nobody knows where we’re at,” we’ll be informed, followed with the anecdotal information that when 50 Cent’s career first blew up, Shady Records employees had to wear bulletproof vests to work.

Our escort deposits us outside the office of Shady artist and recording director Rigo “Riggs” Morales. His doorway offers a quick peek at a majestic platinum-gilded plaque celebrating 16 million units sold of 2000’s The Marshall Mathers LP, along with a daunting display of Em-related trophies and victory-lap hardware that represent a nearly extinct level of music-business success. “How you doing, little lady?” Riggs asks Kalyn, who is wearing sunglasses, children’s size-13 Timberlands, and a Roger Waters shirt.

Riggs shepherds us to a conference room, past a sprawled pile of Eminem-addressed fan mail and the receptionist, whom he introduces. “I met Kalyn at South by Southwest,” Riggs explains. “She’s a rap artist—and she’s pretty fucking dope.”

The office assistant is gracious. “You have to be something special because he doesn’t take many calls!”

This isn’t bullshit. Having received co-credit for signing 50 Cent along with a litany of other rap-music achievements, Riggs occupies an enviable place in the talent-scout pantheon. Somehow, miraculously, he stumbled upon Wheelchair Sports Camp when they played this year’s South by Southwest. “I hear the sax, over, like, boom-bap beats—that really attracted my ear,” he explains after we plop down in comfy chairs underneath a framed copy of 50 Cent’s 2002 Rolling Stone cover and a reverent painting of a much scrawnier Slim Shady. “Then I hear somebody rapping; I just can’t see who it is. I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, I’m not familiar,’ but I thought ‘This is cool.’ Finally when the [crowd] split, I’m like, ‘Oh, shit, that’s her!'” You can imagine his surprise. “It was a mixture of me doing my job, but also, I was personally interested in what the hell was going on: When you hear a boom-bap and a sax—that’s not common. I’m a big fan of the sax. And then the voice.”

Again, that voice. It’s so high, so childlike that someone on Facebook recently accused her of pitch-shifting the vocals. When her parents moved her to Burbank as a child, strangers approached her for voiceover work on Sesame Street and Bobby’s World. You can easily imagine someone trying to conjure the eerie gloom of Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life” for the new millennium and looping Kalyn’s voice into the chorus.

Even as a sidekick, the contrast is entirely plausible. “I got onstage with Obie Trice once,” as Kalyn tells Riggs. “I knew every word to every song: Cheers was like my album of high school. His bodyguard scoped me. And they’re like, ‘Hey, this girl over here knows all the words!’ So he came over. . . . They literally picked me up, put me on this stool, and I rapped the chorus of ‘Cheers’ with him. I still have people recognize me from that.” After the show, she went backstage to hang out.

“That’s cool that people fuck with you like that,” Riggs says.

“It’s the wheelchair, man,” Kalyn says.

Riggs pauses hard. “That’s the thing. . . .” he stops. Rap music isn’t known for exalting the weak. “Fine, it’s the wheelchair. But you have a really cool thing. I can kick it with you guys.”

Kalyn hands over her iPhone to play him the demo of “Justicesntright,” a scathing radical indictment of the prison system, Obama, and the September execution of death-row inmate Troy Davis. The track begins with a shrill elephantine trumpet squeal that leads into a creeping bass-line attack that builds momentum like a chopped-and-screwed robo-apocalyptic Jaws Theme. There’s something off with the sequencing—a xylophone tone floats into the mix, barging in like a doorbell; a sample of Neil Diamond bidding “play it now” from “Cracklin’ Rosie” pops up like a Whac-a-Mole head—and Kalyn explains sheepishly that the track’s mix isn’t finished. But Riggs keeps listening as Kalyn’s recorded voice rattles off breathless references to oppression, tyrants, courts, Wall Street investors, and corporations (Target, Microsoft, Macy’s, Motorola). Her phone craps out right after Hewlett-Packard.

“There’s an enormous amount of potential in what you guys are doing,” Riggs offers. “What you guys are doing is really fucking special. The entire setup: the sound, all the way down to the looks.” It should be noted that Isaac is wearing calf-length shorts, a Green Hornet T-shirt, and a Jets hat, while Jennah has on red pants. “It is a process; it’s not going to happen overnight. You’ve already come a long way from SXSW—SXSW led to this. Pretty interesting.”

Riggs pauses. “I’d like to take a crack at producing something for you guys,” he says. But he clarifies, gently, that he’d like to experiment with something more accessible, more deliberate than the patchwork of samples and underground tics they’ve been playing with, something more, to put it bluntly, radio-friendly. “It’s finding that left-fieldness, but in some ways—I hate to say this—dumbing it down to a point where people can get it for a second.”

Riggs has gotta dig through his stack for the right beats. “Today’s generation? They need something different. It takes a lot to get their attention.” In other words, if there were ever a time for a queer, disabled girl with a love for pot, rap, and revolution, it just might be now.

The next day, on the way to Kenny’s Castaways, the Bleecker Street bar Wheelchair Sports Camp was chosen to play for CMJ, someone mentions Halloween. “I’m running out of midgets to be,” Kalyn declares blithely. No one blinks. In 2010, she explains, Jennah dressed up as Dr. Evil, and Kalyn was Mini-Me; Jennah carried Kalyn in a tailored backpack strapped to her front. Over the years, they’ve been Yoda and Chewbacca, R2-D2 and C-3PO. Kalyn has also separately dressed up like Pebbles from The Flintstones, Chucky, the murderous doll from slasher-film series Child’s Play, and Timmy Burch, the handicapped fourth-grader from South Park.

We arrive at the West Village venue two hours before sound check. “Wheelchair Sports Camp” is scrawled outside on the chalkboard, and Kalyn takes a photo. We settle in the back by the stage. Jennah unpacks T-shirts to sell. Eventually, the soundman arrives. Kalyn pulls out her equipment and suddenly realizes that she has forgotten an essential cord.

It’s 7 p.m. In less than 60 minutes, they’re supposed to perform in New York City for the first time. This is, officially, the reason they’ve flown more than 1,800 miles, solicited more than a $1,000 in donations, paid for a room in New Jersey. “Oh, well, the show’s canceled,” Jennah jokes. No one laughs.

A frantic iPhone powwow ensues, everyone searching for a nearby Radio Shack. Kalyn and Jennah roll off an 11th-hour pilgrimage in a city where they don’t live, to a street they’ve never been, to a retailer who might or might not be open, to find a cord that might or might not be in stock.

Abi and Isaac shrug. It’s all they can do, really. “You’d think we’d be freaking out, like, ‘Oh, my God! She lost a cord!'” Abi says, seated next to her brother in front of the sound booth. “But I feel like it’s pretty typical.”

This is Kalyn’s modus operandi. It isn’t that she’s scatterbrained; it’s that she prefers grandiose thinking to the banality and boundaries of logistics. The definition of disability is limitation—and if a young woman who can’t walk focused on practicality, she wouldn’t be making vagina jokes in front of audiences, fronting a band, and flying by the seat of her child-size pants. Mechanics have failed her from the start—why let them dictate any other aspect of her life? Despite the occasional hiccup, this outlook has served her magnificently.

“It’s weird to me, having been in so many other bands,” Isaac says. His other longest-term projects were Whelk, a prog-rock trio that lasted about five years, and Lungs They Burn, a blues/experimental band formed with a college buddy and a rotating cast of bassists. “We really cared about little shit. Like, ‘Make sure all your equipment’s at the show! Show up to the show in time! Don’t get in trouble!’ That stuff Kalyn doesn’t give much of a fuck about.” Then again, none of his other bands ever played CMJ or SXSW. Lungs They Burn actually applied to both, but didn’t make the cut. (Isaac actually spent six weeks earlier this year living in Brooklyn, trying to sell a novel he wrote, and scoping out his long-term prospects. But then SXSW happened and they met Riggs. “Add to that the whole mess with the arrest; it was a pretty easy decision to come back to Colorado and give WSC a real shot.”)

“Like with this gig today,” Abi says. “Last night, she was asking us if we would do [Public Enemy’s] ‘Fight the Power.’ None of us have done it all together, she barely knows the words, and we’re like, ‘Not for CMJ.’ Our gigs at home? All the sudden, we’re doing a cover that we didn’t even know about.”

It’s 7:22. “OK, now is when I get concerned,” Abi says, shifting.

It’s 7:25. Still no sign of Kalyn. The room is otherwise empty.

It’s 7:28. Tick . . . tick.

It’s 7:29. Kalyn and Jennah roll in, hooting. “We got it!”

It’s 8 p.m. Kalyn begins the set with the beatboxed blues number, “Harmonica Jones.” At first, besides the Voice, there’s only one other girl seated in the room and snapping along. Kalyn, outfitted in a “FREE MUMIA ABU-JAMAL” tee underneath a Boy Scout uniform shirt, barely notices—she’s laser-focused on her laptop. A male companion comes with beers to join the woman in the back.

They blow through “Cans” from WSC’s 2010 release Mainstream Cannot Spearhead Change, a smooth-jazz soul-hop song in which Kalyn turns the short-man chorus of 1995 Skee-Lo hit “I Wish” into a personal queer jam: “I wish I was a little bit taller/I wish I was a baller/I wish I had a girl/Oh, I do/I should call her.” They do the J. Dilla–driven “Cold Steel,” in which she twists Big Pun’s “You Ain’t A Killer” into a self-referential nod (“I ain’t a killa tho/I’m still learning how to walk”) and “Party Song,” a wiggly groove anthem that samples Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party & Bullshit” and functions as Kalyn’s unofficial mission statement (“The party starts when I arrive”) and beckons “Rock with the midget.”

Over the course of their 45-minute set, bemused gawkers in the front of Kenny’s drift back curiously but apprehensively—like cats sniffing out a new kitten. At the 37-minute mark, a couple starts dancing wildly stage right. When Kalyn introduces “Still Night,” a track about graffiti, the self-professed trash-talker gets a little sentimental. “We’ve traveled 1,800 billion light-years to be here,” she proclaims. “I love New York. So fucking much. Because it’s where graffiti started. And it’s where hip-hop started. And it’s where everything great started. We’re really honored to be here.”

A guy in the back of the bar keeps standing up between tunes and serenading Kalyn with a standing ovation. “You don’t have to stand up,” she insists. He claps even louder. “Thank you. I appreciate it.” He’s still standing. “OK, now you’re just rubbing it in. That I can’t stand up.” He sits down quickly.

“I’m so rude,” Kalyn says, somewhat proudly.

His name is Ryan Finger, and he works at JobPath on 38th Street, where he helps people with developmental disabilities find employment. He came to the show randomly with his JobPath co-worker, Erica Esper. “We saw the band name—Wheelchair Sports Camp—and we were like, ‘That’s fucked up.'” But it got them inside. “Then we saw them, and we were like, ‘Oh, OK.'”

They loved Wheelchair Sports Camp. “The music has to speak for itself,” Ryan gushes. “The draw can’t be, ‘Oh, I feel bad for her.’ But the music is awesome, she was jamming, it was sooooo awesome!”

On next is Esnavi, a shapely Milwaukee-bred soul singer wearing gloves and a vat of facial moisturizer. Backed by an acoustic guitarist with a tall forehead and a soul patch, she overemotes as if this were a Glee audition, promises (more like threatens) that someday, we’d brag about witnessing her greatness in such an intimate room, patronizes the people who were in the audience by talking down to them, and deigns to thank her opener, “Wheelchair Sports Champs.” Kalyn, Abi, and Jennah take turns rolling their eyes.

Meanwhile, in the back, Kalyn explains why she uses words like “crippled” and “midget” onstage. “I feel like I have every right to say that,” she says. “I deal with it on a daily basis. As much as I joke about it, I still know how serious it is: Obviously, like, when I’m the hospital. But I could be upset about that my whole life, be sheltered, and be in my room, and focus on the fact that people stare at me. A lot of [disabled] people do. But the way I was able to overcome all that was just to make fun of it. And cuss a lot!”

On the way out, Esnavi pushes a promotional flyer with her head on it at Abi, who politely declines, saying she’d already picked up one. Outside, Kalyn fantasizes about what she would have said. “‘I’ll take one,” she snickers. “So I can WIPE MY ASS with it!”

It’s now December. Miley Cyrus has released a video in support of Occupy Wall Street. SXSW has confirmed Wheelchair Sports Camp for 2012. Kalyn started writing an Esnavi diss track. Riggs sent Kalyn some beats. Last week, Kalyn and Jennah flew to Los Angeles on a friend’s buddy pass, visited Occupy LA, and within 10 minutes, Kalyn found herself being interviewed three times. If there were ever a time for a disabled rapper with a love for trash-talking, jokes, and revolution to be a star, that time just might be now.