Wednesday at SXSW: Playing It By Ear

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We don’t usually do it this way. The idea of playing it completely by ear at SXSW—walking in to whatever venue is nearest and hoping to find something good—is a little daunting. To completely abandon any form of a plan is a risk, but in many ways, it’s what SXSW should be about: discovery.

So when we found ourselves without a clear agenda on Wednesday and a break from our Paste Riverview sessions, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to stumble upon some new artists we’d never heard before. The ground rules were simple: no bands we were previously aware of, and no lines.

We started at the Canadian showcase sponsored by Music Export Canada in Brush Square Park and violated our own “no lines” rule pretty much immediately when we discovered the queue for free barbecue. As one person in line noted, “I’m glad we came to Texas so we could get good barbecue…from Canada.” The music itself felt rooted in America as well, with The Bros. Landreth playing some soul that felt well-paired with the free food. Some strong vocals got the crowd to look up from their plates, and they held their attention with a cover of the gospel classic “Jesus on the Mainline.” From there, it was a little bit of July Talk’s set, then back out into the fray.

For much of the afternoon, it looked like the no-plan plan would be a bust. The thing about limiting yourself to small day parties with no lines is that a lot of times, what you find is pretty mediocre. After a stop inside the British Music Embassy (which was ALSO serving barbecue, weirdly, instead of bangers and mash), we were ready to scrap the idea and figure out Plan B, but then we stumbled upon Alice Phoebe Lou in the street.

The singer/songwriter was performing on Sixth Street, just accompanied by her Italian bandmate (Lou herself originally hails from South Africa, but the two of them live in Berlin now). A fairly large crowd had gathered around the pair, drawn to Lou’s straightforward and lovely voice, and she seemed genuinely surprised and pleased by it, at one point pausing to snap a picture of the crowd before gamely continuing to play for as long as people would stick around. We can call the no-plan experiment a success based solely on discovering her music.

In the evening, it was time to switch back and see some artists we specifically wanted to check out. First, it was Courtney Barnett at the NPR showcase at Stubb’s, where she played mostly new material, all of it as sharp-witted as we’ve come to expect from her. From there, we ventured to the YouTube showcase for The War on Drugs, who somehow manage to be even more mesmerizing live than on Lost in the Dream. The set was like a warm, familiar welcome home after a day spent off the beaten path. Tomorrow we’re back to the grind at the Paste house, so be sure to stay tuned for more sessions!

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