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SXSW 2014: Friday night at Communion showcase, British Music Embassy, and back to B.D. Riley’s – 14th March 2014

 
By on Tuesday, 1st April 2014 at 1:00 pm
 

After spending the entirety of my SXSW 2014 Friday afternoon at B.D. Riley’s on 6th Street for the Full Irish Breakfast, I had just enough time to dash up the hill to 8th Street to St. David’s Episcopal Church for a quick interview before the Communion Music Showcase. I had heard rave reviews of the acoustics inside the sanctuary at St. David’s, as well as the consistently amazing lineups sponsored by Communion Music, so of course I was fairly bubbling over with excitement by the time I reached the church.

Evening activity was just beginning to pick up in downtown Austin, and the outside of the church was still mostly quiet when I arrived. By the time I finished my interview with the lovely and laid back Nick Mulvey in the Holy Grounds coffee shop, music fans were beginning to queue for showcases in both St. David’s venues, the main sanctuary and the smaller Bethel Hall. I chatted cordially with a few other music fans in the queue, and the wait to get into the sanctuary seemed very short indeed.

Unfortunately, I was far enough back in the queue that I didn’t get a fabulous seat inside the sanctuary. To be clear, as far as the acoustics are concerned, there aren’t any bad seats. But I was hoping to snap a few photos, so I chose to sit along the center aisle, and even though I was several pews back, I think I managed to capture the ambience of the evening.

The first band on the showcase was London folk trio Bear’s Den, who stopped in Austin as part of a full North American tour. They had evidently become used to more raucous American audiences than the polite crowd at St. David’s Sanctuary, as lead singer Andrew Davie paused more than once to tell us that our stillness made him a bit nervous. His mild admonitions did lighten up the somewhat stiff atmosphere, and by the time Bear’s Den reached the last song in their set, which included singles ‘Agape’ and ‘Writing on the Wall’, they were comfortable enough to step forward and do it “unplugged”. I was so delighted by their echoing vocal harmonies, and the rest of the congregation were as jovial as they could possibly be while seated on wooden pews.

Bear's Den at St. David's 14 March 2014

The showcase was perfectly organized and running on a tight schedule, so there wasn’t much time for audience members to shift in and out of the church between Bear’s Den and the aforementioned Nick Mulvey. Luckily, not many people chose to leave, as we were treated to a set that spanned Mulvey’s short but impressive solo career. I smiled to myself at the sound of familiar tunes ‘Fever to the Form’ and ‘Nitrous’, but it was the new (or new-to-me) tunes that proved most captivating. This was my first time hearing ‘The Trellis’, from Mulvey’s November 2012 EP of the same name, and a pin drop would have echoed mightily in the sanctuary when he finished it. Also well received was the newer and more upbeat track ‘Meet Me There’, which is due for release in May along with his full length album ‘First Mind’.

Nick Mulvey at St. David's 14 March 2014

As Mulvey closed his mellow set, the sanctuary began buzzing with anticipation for Irish singer/songwriter Hozier. Having already gained radio play in America with his religiously analogous single ‘Take Me to Church’, Hozier was ready to preach his gospel to those in attendance St. David’s Church, and he certainly made a believer out of me. I was stunned by the power in every song on his set list, from the earthy, deceptively sweet folk of ‘In A Week’ to the visceral blues and overt sexuality of ‘Angel of Small Death and the Codeine Scene’. And while the gospel tinge of ‘Take Me to Church’ might have been appropriate for the setting, Hozier’s performance of it on the night was enough to steam up every single one of the stained glass windows.

Hozier at St. David's 14 March 2014

I needed some fresh air after the breathtaking sublimity of Hozier, so I stepped outside to gather my thoughts and check in with Mary via text. Once outside the venue, I quickly realized that I would have some difficulty getting back in, as the queue was growing for the final acts on the Communion roster, Tennis, Sam Smith and Vance Joy. I would later regret missing out on those artists, especially after seeing this video of Smith’s recent single ‘Stay With Me’.

In the end, I hedged my bets and headed to the British Music Embassy to meet Mary for another band I’d recently written about, Scottish duo Honeyblood. The queue outside Latitude 30 wasn’t much shorter than the one at St. David’s, but I did eventually make it inside. Mary was, naturally, down the front, but I wasn’t able to squeeze in through the enthusiastic crowd, and I had to settle for a spot in back near the bar. My photos of Honeyblood weren’t fabulous but for my money, neither was the band’s performance. Their single ‘Bud’ was the only song that stood out among their muddled, distorted grunge pop set. The sound at the venue had been fine all week, so I have to assume that this less than stellar show was a just a small blip on Honeyblood’s radar.

Honeyblood at British Music Embassy 14 March 2014

Disappointed, I met up with Mary for a brief conference in what had become a customary spot for us in the alley outside Latitude 30. Our energy was waning by this point, but I convinced her (read: begged and pleaded with her) to make the short walk back to B.D. Riley’s, where we’d taken in the Irish Breakfast earlier in the day, to have another listen to Rams’ Pocket Radio.

It seems silly, at a festival like SXSW, to see the same bands over and over again when there are so many options so close at hand. We’d already seen Rams’ Pocket Radio twice, but both times I’d been a bit distracted, and I felt that I hadn’t given the songs their proper due, at least in my own mind. This late night show suffered from a few technical glitches and the wandering attention of the audience, which slightly marred the emotional connection of the music. Despite those frustrations, I was increasingly fascinated by his juxtaposition of beautiful, rich musical textures and curious, often strange lyrics. Maybe this is why the ever present ‘Dieter Rams Has Got the Pocket Radios’ appeals so much to me, but I did find myself missing the more straightforward ‘Love is a Bitter Thing’ when he left it off the set list. I didn’t walk away from this show feeling any more enlightened about Rams’ Pocket Radio, but my interest is most definitely piqued to see what he does next.

For the moment, I had to put my bewildered thoughts aside in preparation for the following day, which would be our last at SXSW 2014. But even weeks later, I find myself amazed as I mentally revisit the spectrum of mixed emotions and musical styles from that exhilarating Friday.

 

SXSW 2014 Interview: Nick Mulvey

 
By on Monday, 31st March 2014 at 11:00 am
 

The Friday of SXSW 2014 was a busy and eventful day for me, my schedule split between the Full Irish Breakfast at B.D. Riley’s during the day and the Communion Records Showcase at St. David’s Episcopal Church in the evening. It was actually in the spare moments between these two delightful events that I had a chance to sit down for a chat with Nick Mulvey before his Communion Showcase appearance.

Last summer, I reviewed Mulvey’s ‘Fever to the Form’ EP and was curious about the meaning of the title phrase. Fast forward several months to the interview at St. David’s Sanctuary, where I was able to ask him about the phrase over a surprisingly relaxed pre-gig cup of tea, as well as talking with him about the difference between the studio and stage arrangements of his songs and his increasingly high-demand touring and rehearsal schedule.

 

As I write this article, Mulvey has just previewed his next single, ‘Meet Me There’, which is available for preorder as well as to stream via Soundcloud.

Thanks especially to Ellie and Simon for sorting out the details of this interview.

 

SXSW 2012: Day 4 – Communion showcase at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary – 16th March 2012

 
By on Thursday, 5th April 2012 at 2:00 pm
 

While the catchphrase of most returning SXSWers to newbies is “pace yourself”, mine would be “be sure to factor in some downtime”. And “don’t apologise to yourself if your body says to go home”. Before I went to see the Burning Ear showcase on Wednesday afternoon, I stopped into B.D. Riley’s (not knowing I’d return for an interview on Friday, then later for the Music for Ireland showcase) for a lazy pint of Harp and a plate of fish and chips. Sometimes I regret not rushing over to see Lionel Richie at the Moody Theatre on Wednesday, or not extending my gig-going over to Creekside at the Hilton Garden Inn to catch a 1 AM show in the wee hours of Friday morning to see Ed Sheeran. I was just too wiped. So I looked forward to Friday night immensely: hours of Communion Records artists all under one roof, the main room at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary. I even stopped long enough to have a meal at the Roaring Fork on North Congress – some of the best corn bread I’ve ever had, to boot – before sauntering over to the church.

That was when I realized I probably should have arrived early so I could get the correct instructions on how and where to queue. After being directly incorrectly and having stood in the wrong queue for at least a half hour, someone kind finally sorted me out and sent me to the right door…and straight into the main room.

Matt Corby from Sydney, Australia had already begun his set, so I shuffled quietly into an empty spot next to a guy who was studying his iPhone. And then started taking photos with it. With flash. The nerve. I don’t have an DSLR, and unless I’m given specific approval to use flash, I avoid using my flash as much as possible. And here was this guy just snapping away! I guess our pew was too far back for security to notice. I knew nothing about him before seeing him and even know as I’ve been writing this, I had to look up for more information on this bloke: he was a runner-up in an Australian Idol competition, so I guess he’s reasonably well known back home. But boy, when he announced he was going to play ‘Brother’, the crowd let out a big whoop. Guess they know him here too! Below is a free mp3 of his song ‘Winter’ that you can listen to.

The Staves, three sisters from Watford, were second on the bill. They were really disarming, joking about things that had happened to them the last time they had played in Austin, opening for the Civil Wars the previous autumn. Judging from the cheers, many of those people were present, but we could all join in with a giggle as a sister explained that a burly looking man stood up after one song and said (done in an exaggerated Texan accent), “did anyone else cry?” Haha (evidence near the end of the video below). But early in their set, one of them claimed Matt Corby was the devil and warned us, “don’t look into his eyes”. The audience laughed, but I had a “err…” moment, figuring that had to be some inside joke between the sisters and him. ‘Mexico’ had many fans already; new song ‘Tongue Between My Teeth’ was so beautiful in its harmonies, it gave me chills. They ended with the sad yet so beautiful song ‘Winter Trees’. Good work, girls.

Next up is a man who longer needs an introduction in the UK: singer/songwriter Ben Howard. He came with his own cheering section. Seriously. Somehow I ended up in a pew with two Englishwomen and their guys, and the two women made it very clear they were there for Ben Howard, screaming every time he talked in between songs and squealing every time he played the first note of a song on his guitar. Watch ‘Black Flies’ below.

Before Ben Howard took the stage, there was a low yet noticeable murmur going through the crowd. I didn’t know what was going on until a teenage girl across the aisle pointed towards the far wall and shouted at her brother, “it’s Mumford and Sons!” And it was – Marcus Mumford, Ben Lovett, Country Winston and Ted Dwane were just chilling out on the side, as if you cheer on their folky friends’ performances. I was so sure that there was going to be a Mumford collaboration at some point during the night but sadly, there was not. The closest we got was an impromptu John Martyn cover performed at the end of Howard’s set, when he invited the Staves and later performer Michael Kiwanuka. I apologise for the quality of the visuals on the video below; the couple in front of me could not decide if they were going to snog (argh), talk (argh) or break away from each other.

Willy Mason had the unique (dubious?) characteristic that of all the Communion artists performing I this showcase, he was the only American. I’d not heard of him until he had been associated with Communion, so I had mistaken him for an Englishman. He has a Johnny Cash aura about him (“man in black”) but a bit of rough and tumble like the Jim Jones Revue too. The coolest thing about his performance? His drummer’s kit was connected to a strange looking contraption that stood in the middle of the stage, so that whenever the drummer hit something on the kit, something else was set off on the contraption. Sorry to say, I wasn’t moved by his performance at all.

But I was adamant about staying put for the next act. The band I was most excited to see in this showcase was Daughter. As soon as I saw their name on the SXSW bands list, I was ecstatic. And I was not disappointed one bit. Unlike the teasing nature of the Staves earlier, Elena Tonra was so shy and soft-spoken but was adorable in her shyness. “Our name is Daughter. Nice to meet you. This one’s about death.” Laughter from the peanut gallery before they started into ‘Landfill’.

That’s when I just about lost it. I think had I not been in such close proximity to strangers, I would have been a bawling mess on the floor. Through her words, it’s obvious she’s been dumped, she’s been hurt, she’s gotten her heart broken. In the song ‘Love’, she asks the lover that jilted her for some easy skirt, “did she make your heart beat faster than I could? / did she give you what you hoped for? / oh, loveless nights / I hope it made you feel good”. It’s like what they say, a woman scorned… All I can say is…wow. In my top 3 performances at SXSW, for sure.

After that emotional reaction to Daughter, BBC Sound of 2012 winner Michael Kiwanuka was a safe, if not super remarkable choice to watch after. Before he came out onstage, Ben Lovett, dressed to the nines in a debonair suit, gave a short and stirring speech on how appreciative he was of everyone coming to this showcase and their warm responses to all the performers. Kiwanuka was confident, broadly smiling through his short set. (Six songs. SIX SONGS? That’s it???) From the opener of ‘I’m Waiting’ to the song everyone knows him for, ‘I’m Getting Ready’; from ‘Tell Me a Tale’ to set closer ‘Home Again’.

I had a wonderful buzz from the magnificence I heard in that acoustically sound room, but my mind was in a state of relaxation that could not be matched anytime else during all of my time at SXSW. Thank you, Ben Lovett, for putting this showcase together and thank you, bands, for bringing me to an incredible moment of zen in Austin.

More high-res photos can be viewed on my Flickr.

 
 
 

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