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SXSW 2019: Focus Wales and Seazoo, Matt Maltese, Jealous of the Birds, and Grace Carter and Sam Fender at BBC Introducing – 13th March 2019 (Wednesday, part 3)

 
By on Tuesday, 26th March 2019 at 3:00 pm
 

No SXSW would be complete without visits to your favourite country showcases and houses and seeing friends. For a second year running, Focus Wales put on a networking mixer on Wednesday night, this time at one of my favourite venues in Austin, Swan Dive, its stage bordered by white fencing like a perfect slice of Americana. There must be a good joke that all good mixers bring in the Irish and the Scots, but it’s also very true. I also wanted to hang around for as long as I could to see Wrexham, North Wales band Seazoo play as the showcase’s opener. In my Bands to Watch on them at the end of last month, I wrote about discovering their self-described “psych indie pop”. But there’s much more to this band than any boxes they or anyone else could put them in.


While many bands exist and continue on today on a foundation of long-held friendships, you get the sense from watching the band members of Seazoo that long after their instruments are packed away, they will actually go and get drinks at the pub together. (Indeed, I appear to have been invited to visit them in Wrexham the next time I’m relatively close, in Liverpool for Sound City.) The gangly, bespectacled Ben Trow, who fronts the band, is a more obviously humourous frontman than Jarvis Cocker. I was first confused by what he meant by introducing “the best baby head player”. That is, until I got a closer look at what Llinos Griffiths was playing: a head of a doll with metal switches on its surface that evidently are part of Seazoo’s musical success. The super poppy ‘Shoreline’ started the Focus Wales night with flair, as it was impossible not to get drawn in by the infectious earworm. Check out their debut album ‘Trunks’, you won’t be disappointed.

From the slap-happy sunny tunes of Seazoo, I departed for the uphill battle (literally) to Central Presbyterian Church and decidedly more subdued music. Matt Maltese was a last-minute addition to the SXSW 2019 bill; his announcing of his appearances leading to my many squeals. He is the 21st century heir apparent to the late Leonard Cohen and the ever declining in favour Morrissey. Accompanying his voice with only a piano or guitar, consummate crooner Maltese wowed an appreciative seated audience at the church with tunes from his debut album from last year, ‘Bad Contestant’ (review here), out now on Atlantic Records. Like Morrissey and Neil Hannon of The Divine Comedy, he has a rapier-like wit. He quipped that two of the songs in his set were based on unfortunate love triangles he found himself a party in and that he would recommend others to participate in love triangles of their own. (Guffaw.) Despite forgetting his guitar tuner, he was able to crowdsource a mobile phone with the infinitely well-named GuitarTuna app while also continuing his droll stage banter.


I hope he doesn’t mind me comparing his delivery style to Barry Manilow: only so many piano-playing singers have the gift of warmth in their voices, a lustrous quality that makes the pain of heartbreak that much easier to swallow. The languid nature of ‘Less and Less’ is the perfect foil for the chronicling of falling out of love with someone, while the more jaunty, happy chord-filled ‘Guilty’ is the full-scale admittance of his repeated returning to a selfish lover because he just can’t extricate himself from her. While his was not one of the most energetic sets I saw at SXSW this year, it was a great reminder that there is something for everyone at this festival, including the brooding introvert within me that just wants to revisit the strong feelings of love and heartbreak through osmosis.

The next act seemed to have made it their mission to bring brightness back into the church. Before coming out to Austin, I saw that Naomi Hamilton, aka Jealous of the Birds, had chosen to wear a fun purple tartan suit for their set on the Output Belfast boat party on Tuesday. She graced the church in the same outfit, while her bandmates were dressed less ostentatiously but still on theme in black watch tartan trousers. Gotta love a coordinated band! ‘Tonight I Feel Like Kafka’, which I previously saw Hamilton perform solo supporting The Divine Comedy in Birmingham in November 2017, had many more wonderful layers presented by her and her band.


Cracking jokes about having not yet burst into flames while in a house of worship is just one indicator that this is not the same Hamilton TGTF has covered in previous years. Her sound has evolved from ‘breaking’ into the indie world with ‘Goji Berry Sunset’ on BBC 6 Music 3 years ago that I saw performed live at Dublin Tengu at Hard Working Class Heroes in 2016. On most recent EP ‘Wisdom Teeth’, the dissonant guitar licks of ‘Blue Eyes’ throw you off for a moment before you surrender to its wild nature. Even better, Hamilton has described as a celebration of “femininity and strong women feeling empowered”. If you haven’t seen the music video for it, you simply must.

Following my time at Central Presbyterian, just like in the afternoon, I faced another daunting queue at the British Music Embassy for the BBC Introducing / PRS Foundation showcase. Onstage at the time was Grace Carter, a pop singer/songwriter from Brighton whose had a recent meteoric rise thanks to the attention of artists like Dua Lipa and Lana Del Rey. One of her most arresting singles, ‘Why Her Not Me’, documents the heart-wrenching realisation Carter came to when she learned from her single mother than her biological father wasn’t in her life because he chose to stay with the other family he had. While this isn’t the kind of music I’d normally choose to listen to, I can respect her ability to open up her personal life in her music.

Sam Fender returned to Austin and oddly enough, the same exact showcase at the British Music Embassy as SXSW 2018 and at the same time slot. The Geordie had a spectacular year in the meantime, his lyrics espousing social consciousness and the plight of young people today hitting a nerve and making him a critical darling and a must-see at festivals, including the inaugural edition of This is Tomorrow. There was a bittersweet poignancy as he and his band performed ‘Dead Boys’ on the brightly lit Latitude 30 stage, as if the song being performed was to honour those young men we’ve lost through suicide but also shame the society who failed them. 2019 single ‘Hypersonic Missiles’, in contrast, shows his knack for writing a melodious rock song, as well as his impressive vocal range. Having woken up at 4 AM, I called it an early night (and before midnight, shocker!) to be ready for what Thursday would bring.


 

SXSW 2018: Wednesday night with artists from the UK, America and New Zealand

 
By on Thursday, 12th April 2018 at 2:00 pm
 

My first stop on the Wednesday evening of SXSW 2018 was at the Townsend for the highly anticipated Focus Wales showcase. The Welsh lineup would prove to be a popular one, starting with a pair of singer/songwriters before moving into heavier rock and dance music as the night progressed. I stopped in for the early part of the show, and editor Mary took the reins for the later acts, which you can read about in her Wednesday night recap. Unfortunately the fates conspired against us, and we both missed up-and-coming alt-rocker Stella Donnelly. Donnelly is definitely one to watch: you can read our preview coverage back here.

Christopher Rees internal

First on the Focus Wales bill was Americana singer/songwriter Christopher Rees, who dressed appropriately for his part in a distinctive Western-style shirt. Rees has been around the country music scene for quite some time, but this was my first real exposure to his songs. I have to say that his cowboy vibe didn’t quite ring true for me, though I do understand the difficulty of capturing it in such a contrived setting as SXSW. Putting him in comparison to some of the truly amazing country/folk singers I heard through the rest of the week, I can’t really say that Rees struck me as outstanding. He did, however, appear to have a few dedicated fans in the audience, and I feel sure that they would have a different take on his performance.

Dan Bettridge internal

Next up was alt-rock songwriter Dan Bettridge, with whom I had a quick one-on-one chat before the showcase began (stay tuned for that interview, to post as our SXSW 2018 coverage continues). I was intrigued by his in-depth description of his current project ‘Asking for Trouble’ and eager to hear a few of the songs in live performance. Bettridge was affable on stage, even a bit goofy at times, which unfortunately distracted a bit from the music he played. But getting beyond that, his songs were emotional and engaging, even pared back as they were from their soulful instrumental arrangements to single voice and guitar.

Field Report internal

Though the remaining bill at the Townsend was a promising one, I was eager to head to Swan Dive to see American alt-rock band Field Report, who have been on my radar since I first saw them back in 2013. Frontman and songwriter Chris Porterfield has a very understated but viscerally effective way with a lyric, and he didn’t fail to bring me to tears here. Their new album ‘Summertime Songs’ is out now on Verve Records, and I can report after-the-fact that it’s a stunner. Their set at the Swan Dive was no less brilliant, encompassing several of the new songs, including ‘If I Knew’, which you can hear below courtesy of Baeble Music.

Colin Gilmore internal

After taking a moment to pull my wits back together, I peeked back into a favourite spot of my mine during SXSW, the Victorian Room at the Driskill, for a quick taste of a more local flavour. Texas country rocker Colin Gilmore seemed pleasantly comfortable and very much at ease on the stage, inviting friend and fellow musician Betty Soo to join him midway through. The smattering of fans in the small crowd were clearly happy to have him there, a couple of them even daring to shake up the formality of the room with a bit of country dancing to his tunes. Though the Victorian Room is a nice venue for singer/songwriters, I couldn’t help thinking that Gilmore’s jukebox sound might have worked better in a more casual setting. If you get the chance to see him play in a bar or pub, bring your two-stepping shoes along for a spin around the dance floor.

Emme Woods internal

My next stop was a bit off the beaten path at the Iron Bear, where Scottish rocker Emme Woods was on the Glamglare showcase schedule. It was late in the evening by this point, and unfortunately Woods didn’t appear to be at the top of her game. The combination of alcohol and her thick Scottish brogue rendered her between-songs banter almost completely unintelligible to my American ear. Musically, her songs were sensual and bluesy, and the added brass instrumentation was interesting, but the band’s performance felt rather sullen and uninspired, and I was just as happy to duck out after 3 or 4 songs. Still, I could see that this might have gone differently on another night, and if you like sultry rock led by a rich female singing voice, you’d do well to give Emme Woods a listen.

Marlon Williams internal

My favourite new act of the Wednesday night came at the very end, when I hit the Palm Door on Sixth Patio to hear New Zealand crooner Marlon Williams. Williams was predictably smooth and suave on stage, with a retro rock style that felt at once fresh and vaguely familiar. The younger women in the crowd were especially taken by Williams’ flexibility, which he displayed both in his serpentine dance moves and his remarkable singing voice. Taking full advantage of the breezy outdoor stage, Williams and his band played a brilliant high energy set that came as a most welcome surprise in this notoriously difficult 1 AM time slot. Watch for him to make waves with his recent album ‘Make Way for Love’, out now on Dead Oceans/Caroline.

 
 
 

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There Goes The Fear is where we tell you about the latest music, gigs, and tours we love and think you should too.

We love music that has its heart on its sleeve, tells a story, swims around our head all day or makes us dance like no-one's watching.

TGTF was edited by Mary Chang, based in Washington, DC.

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