Everywhere you turned inside the Soho Lounge on the packed Sixth Street on Thursday, there was the sound of Fort Worth music.
Over the bar, clips of singer-songwriter Luke Wade played on the TVs, while upstairs, the strains of Josh Weathers’ Mind, Body and Soul filtered through the house speakers, as Burleson native and The Voice alum Reagan James prepared to take the stage. It was, in miniature, a demonstration of just how much talent Fort Worth has to offer the world.
The first official South by Southwest showcase, overseen by the Fort Worth Convention & Visitors Bureau in conjunction with the new advocacy group Hear Fort Worth, drew a steady stream of people Thursday afternoon. (Full disclosure: I sit on the board of Hear Fort Worth.)
Upstairs, a selection of homegrown talent — James, Wade, Jake Paleschic, Green River Ordinance, Grady Spencer and the Work, Mike Ryan and the Quaker City Night Hawks — performed for the crowd, while downstairs, attendees could grab a free taco, play cornhole or pick up a CD featuring songs from several Fort Worth artists, along with other Fort Worth-branded swag, like sunglasses, bandannas and stickers.
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The “Fort Worth House” was part of an all-out effort, in coordination with the bureau’s efforts during the SXSW trade show earlier in the week, to market the city more aggressively not only to the rest of Texas, but also to the nation and world.
The musicians, for their part, didn’t disappoint: James, all controlled confidence, showcased her powerhouse vocals, and Paleschic’s disarmingly great folk-rock proved a nice contrast to GRO’s floor-shaking ebullience. Grady Spencer and the Work and Quaker City Night Hawks both mined bluesy, countrified rock to similar effect — a banner quoting a lyric of Spencer’s (“So bless my soul and take me back to Fort Worth”) hung along the wall near the stage.
The cumulative effect was one of undeniable civic pride, but also a sense of harnessing momentum — this, a year after Leon Bridges’ breakout SXSW, and this week, witnessing Arlington native Maren Morris likewise strapped to an SXSW-fueled rocket bound for superstardom. Such continued success, in and outside of Tarrant County, all but guarantees that official Fort Worth-focused showcases will only be bigger and better.
From there, it was over to St. David’s Episcopal Church, long one of my favorite SXSW venues, to take in some of the Garden and Gun showcase.
The night began with a superb performance from Aoife O’Donovan, who pulled from her most recent LP, In the Magic Hour. The audience, rapt and still, let her expressive voice chime like a bell in the silence, the tasteful accompaniment of her drummer and guitarist filling in. It was an utterly arresting display of restraint and set the tone for the artists to come.
Texas native Robert Ellis was up next, and his wonderfully free, seemingly on-the-fly set was one of my favorites this year, never mind just at SXSW. Working with guitarist Kelly Doyle (and, apparently, with a set list he was composing as he stood before the audience), Ellis pulled from his back catalog and previewed a handful of selections (Perfect Strangers, Maybe I’ll Move to California) from an album he said was due out in June.
My night ended on a heavenly note with Sarah Jarosz performing unaccompanied by anyone but herself, her fingers flying along the neck of her guitar as she sang sweetly, almost stunning the audience into awed silence, only to have cheers erupt at the conclusion of every song. Jarosz also has a new album, Undercurrent, on deck for a June release, and it should serve to further elevate this ferociously talented Austin native’s profile.