It’s surprisingly easy to forget, in the thick of South by Southwest, just why you’re bouncing around town like a pinball to begin with.
Scanning Twitter and Facebook, reading the reactions of people at showcases and day parties miles from where you are at that moment, it’s a phenomenon with its own hashtag — #FOMO — or “fear of missing out.” Social media can make the SXSW you’re experiencing first-hand seem like nothing, a pale, passable attempt to run with the pack and hang with the cool kids.
Such an attitude defeats the festival’s purpose — you’re here to soak up music, and if you miss out on that day’s most OMG moment or musician, chances are pretty good, you’ll have a few incredible moments of your own, provided you peel yourself away from your smartphone long enough to appreciate them.
In other words: sometimes, less is more.
Out of the more than dozen musical acts I saw Wednesday, these six cut through everything and stayed with me, including a finale that I’ll remember for the rest of my life.
I started off in the Austin Convention Center, and grabbed a seat at the KCRW Day Stage, where I was promptly wowed by James Bay, whose appropriately titled debut album (Chaos and the Calm) drops next week. Bay, a British singer-songwriter, follows in the grand tradition of recycling American soul, blues and R&B into something fresh and captivating. His mellow voice grabs hold, and it’ll be a treat to watch others catch on in the coming months.
From the Convention Center, it was off to East Austin and the perenially packed Fader Fort. This year, in response to SXSW tightening up the rules for unofficial events, the scene isn’t quite as insane as it’s been in years past, thanks in part to the Fader Fort’s decision to make itself invite-only.
I arrived in time to see Nashville’s Bully ripping through its set before an enthuasiastic crowd. The foursome is led by Alicia Bognanno, a former intern for legendary producer Steve Albini, and whose no-nonsense snarl makes Bully’s fuzzed-out punk songs sharp enough to draw blood.
Another Fader Fort highlight was an artist who is all but unknown on this side of the Atlantic: Stromae. A Belgian singer-songwriter born Paul Van Haven, who raps in French, and has the most peculiar, rubber-limbed style — backed by a DJ, his music pings from jazz to hip-hop to house and back again — he gave an electric performance, even if the crowd was a fraction of what he’d draw at home.
That night, time seemed to stop at St. David’s, as it so often does inside this sacred showcase space. Oklahoma troubadour John Moreland, his acoustic guitar balanced on his stomach, previewed material from his forthcoming High on Tulsa Heat LP, and the silent, reverent audience cradled every syllable. His is a voice rough beyond its years, but the pain and wisdom streaking every track cannot help but linger in your mind.
From one church to another: I left St. David’s for Central Presbyterian, my final stop of the day.
On stage, the buzzy Torres (aka Nashville native Mackenzie Scott) was working through her intense, raw-nerved rock songs with nothing more than an electric guitar and a deceptively powerful voice. Her songs, which often unfolded like one-sided conversations, appeared to be hauled up from somewhere deep within, forcing her to step back from the microphone and unleash a wail that reached all the way to the rafters.
Brandi Carlile began her “pin drop” concert — the celebrated singer-songwriter has been performing in venues across the country without any amplification — surrounding the enthusiastic audience with sound: strings in the balconies, and her long-time collaborators, the Hanseroth twins, filing in from the back, harmonizing together to create an immersive, heavenly glow.
For the next 90 minutes, a perspiring, admittedly nervous Carlile (“Thank you,” she said after the first number.“I am terrified.”) and her band, lit only by Edison bulbs scattered about the nave, worked through her catalog, including material from her just-released The Firewatcher’s Daughter. It was never less than riveting — a performance stripped to its essence, and so full of feeling as to be overwhelming.
The crowd sat in total silence, letting the music wash over them, and erupting in a series of standing ovations as Carlile finished, taking everyone out with a muscular reading of Fleetwood Mac’s The Chain and the deeply poignant final track from Daughter, Murder in the City. Taken together, it was one of the most incredible concerts I’ve ever seen.
Just the music — nothing more, nothing less.
It was everything, and it was more than enough.
Preston Jones, 817-390-7713