Sun-Times contributor Anders Smith Lindall reports:
I suppose it can't be called an epiphany if I knew what I was in for. Whatever the phrase, the raw beauty and intense emotion of Thursday night's performance by the New York songwriter Sharon Van Etten felt like a spiritual experience. For me, it's hands down the high point of SXSW so far.
Fittingly, it happened in a church. Van Etten stood by the altar at St. David's, a modest old Episcopal sanctuary just up the hill from the mad carnival of 6th Street; here a few dozen rapt converts crowded in the front pews. Playing a hollow-bodied red Gibson guitar, she struck stark chords and let them ring or picked arpeggio patterns that glittered as they rolled. They perfectly framed her voice, which floated from a confessional whisper to a tingling ghostly cry.
Van Etten is a relative newcomer to performing and recording with just one album to her credit, last year's self-released disc Because I Was in Love. It's an intimate, inner-directed set of songs as the title implies, and it provided most of the fodder for this set. The standout track is the devastating, gorgeous "Much More Than That"; here its painstaking lyrics came to the fore--"I sigh and then I frown/I write this moment down/'Cause I cannot paint pictures with my tongue"--but the real magic was in Van Etten's ethereal, wordless sighs between each verse.
It's hard to imagine that she'll be playing for tiny clutches of listeners much longer. She certainly shouldn't be. Whether your tastes run to Sixties folkies Sandy Denny or Joan Baez, the pointillist intensity of Low or the elegant string-laden art-rock of The Velvet Underground and Nico, seek out Sharon Van Etten.
Elsewhere Thursday, I saw some new artists, checked out a few familiar faces, and caught several foreign bands.
That last strategy is always a good idea at SXSW, since it's never easy knowing when or even if those acts will make it to Chicago. One that will--for two sold-out shows at Lincoln Hall on April 8--is the xx. The minimalist Brit trio drew an only-at-SXSW throng that mobbed a tented stage outside the Mohawk nightclub, and everywhere else within earshot.
Having come to know the hushed songs of guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sims through bedroom listening, this was a jarring new context for me as a fan; given the band's shaky start last night, they seemed uncertain too. But the black-clad pair and their third wheel, Jamie Smith, soon found the groove--literally, thanks to the sharp rhythms Smith cut from his drum machine. I still prefer the album's spotless icy cool, but the band's ability to approximate that spell in such an inhospitable setting is no small credit to them, and it's a trick that with experience they seem certain to refine.
Also from foreign shores I saw successive sets from the Icelandic singer Olof Arnalds and Danish rock collective Efterklang. Arnalds has played with Mum and recorded with Sigur Ros, but at the grand, historic Driskill hotel with listeners sitting cross-legged on the floor, she presented a much different face of Norse music than those acts' elfin weirdness. Arnalds is classically trained; she played lilting traditional songs and originals on acoustic guitar and sang in a chirpy high register, while a sideman added piano, vocal harmonies and guitar of his own. The pair closed with covers of Springsteen's "I'm on Fire" and, in a nod to their host city, Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Tonight I Think I'm Gonna Go Downtown."
An hour later and across the street, Efterklang used layered vocals and an array of instrumentation--adding piano, flute and trumpet to the standard guitar, bass and drums--to craft spacious, rock songs. They felt dramatic but never bombastic, evoking a host of contemporaries who hail from another North Sea shore, Scots like Frightened Rabbit, Camera Obscura and naturally Belle and Sebastian.
Fans of the wave of psychedelic indie pop that crested in the late Nineties will welcome the return of both Jason Lytle (ex-Grandaddy) and Miles Kurosky (Beulah). I saw Lytle at a late-afternoon gig with Admiral Radley, a new project he shares with Grandaddy drummer Aaron Burtch plus members of Earlimart, while Kurosky and a five-piece band played under his name at Emo's.
From what I heard last night, these guys aren't breaking much new ground. As guitars, piano and synths surge, Lytle's still singing sad-eyed, wry stories of life amid the meltdown of post-millennium California. Kurosky's comeback includes the same stabbing keys and blaring brass that marked Beulah and so many other third-wave Elephant 6ers.
Not terribly dissimilar in sound but more exciting to these ears was Surf City, a power-pop four-piece from Auckland. They fit comfortably in the Kiwi rock pocket defined by bands like the Clean, with maybe a bit more grit in the guitars.
The 'new' category included Avi Buffalo, a quartet from southern California with a self-titled debut coming soon from Sub Pop. They're very young--front man Avigdor Zahner-Isenberg can't yet legally drink in the bar where he played--and so still figuring out how to put the songs across live. But they have potential, and their sound isn't following any current trend; think of Yo La Tengo's quieter, bossa nova-tinged pop tunes and you're in the Avi Buffalo ballpark.
Having heard all that quiet, arty reflection, I was glad to get a greasy plate of Southern blues-rock from the Hill Country Revue. A side project of North Mississippi All-Stars members Cody Dickinson and Chris Chew, plus members of the blues-royalty Burnside lineage, this quartet packed a heavy wallop in a ZZ Top or Allman Brothers vein. The set was dedicated to a pair of Memphis music legends lost recently and much too soon--Cody's dad the producer and piano player Jim Dickinson, and the man they called from the stage "Mr. Chilton."
Anders Smith Lindall is a Chicago freelance writer and longtime contributor to the Sun-Times.