Tobias Jesso Jr. — Central Presbyterian Church — 8:30 p.m.
Photo by Heather Kaplan
There isn’t a better venue for Tobias Jesso Jr. at SXSW than the Central Presbyterian Church. Forget for a second that it’s “God’s house,” as the Canadian singer-songwriter observed Friday evening, and appreciate the environment for its archaic offerings. There are the stained-glass windows with their earthly tones, the wooden pews that whine intermittently, and the vaulted ceiling where whispers turn to clatter. It’s intimate. It’s unique. It’s timeless. Fiona Apple staged her comeback there three years ago, and now the unlikely venue has claimed another historic performance.
For a little over 40 minutes, Jesso Jr. not only sold his music, but himself, to Austin. He did it all from behind a weighty grand piano, which was placed mere inches from the first pew. He wasn’t looking down at the hundreds in attendance; he was seeing them eye to eye. “I’ve only done one cover my whole life,” he admitted and then played it: Big Star’s “Thirteen”. It was a soft, minimalistic take that felt refreshing, which is quite a task given how often it’s been covered in the past. Oddly enough, Jody Stephens performed the same track only hours earlier at the ACC.
But something extraordinary happened soon after. Following “Bad Words”, Jesso Jr. attempted to play “True Love”, something he’d attempt to do again and again and again. Now, don’t reach for your LP copy of Goon, you won’t find this song there. This one currently exists as a demo, one which he originally sent to Chet White and one that was too late to squeeze into his Top Rated debut. What started out as a simple flub eventually turned into a charming, personal dare. “Lemme think it through in my head first,” he professed, staring down his keys with a grin. “I played it earlier today too — so it’s not for a lack of trying.”
After his third failed attempt, he shrugged and decided to “come back to it,” recalibrating his efforts toward album highlights like “Can We Still Be Friends”, “Just a Dream”, “Hollywood”, and “Without You”. Despite these diamond performances, he couldn’t shake off the enigma of “True Love” and tried a couple more times, speculating that it could be “the Devil’s song,” considering their holy surroundings. Eventually, a fan played good samaritan, handed him a cellphone with the lyrics, and … well, no, that didn’t work either because the feedback eeked in. Once that was amended, however, he pulled it off.
By then, it didn’t matter if the song was the theme to Fraggle Rock or the greatest piece of poetry Jesso Jr.’s ever written. He already won everyone over. His string of hiccups did more performing than any song ever could, introducing spectators and fans to a human being and not just another singer. Isn’t that more rewarding, though? Isn’t that what people want at the end of the day — someone worth believing? It’s only fitting then that they found such hope in a house of worship. If only every Sunday morning sermon could sound as soulful as “How Could You Babe”. It’d give the NFL a run for their money. –Michael Roffman
Laura Marling — Communion Showcase at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary — 8:45 p.m.
Photo by Ben Kaye
Explaining that this was her fourth South by, Laura Marling told a tale about sneaking through the bathroom window of an unnamed 6th Street bar to catch The Breeders, saying that it was “the first in a succession of mildly rockstar things [she’s] done in [her] life.” Now she can add providing one of the highlights of SXSW 2015 to that list. With “Strange”, she delivered one of the best, most ferociously strummed folk songs in recent memory. Shortly thereafter, she took it down (“Because we’re in a church,” she quipped. “We must behave ourselves.”) with the gentle acoustic romance of “Walk Alone”. Performed with estimable confidence and pulling at different strings, both wound deep in the heart; the two tracks proved that she’s one of the modern masters of folk rock.
Even as one of the greats, she messed up twice. The second was a hilarious slip in “David” where she sang, “He looks wasted and thinks of me,” instead of “looks east.” She covered her mouth, chuckled sheepishly, joked of her extreme exhaustion, and continued on right where she’d left off, even as small laughs still poked through. And the song, like the set, ended up gorgeous. She received a standing ovation, and though I know there’s one day left, my SXSW could’ve ended there with hers and I’d have been content. –Ben Kaye
Ibeyi — Central Presbyterian Church — 9:30 p.m.
Photo by Sasha Geffen
Twin sisters Lisa-Kaindé Diaz and Naomi Diaz make music together under the name Ibeyi, which means “twin” in the Nigerian language Yoruba. They are both only 20, and they released their self-titled debut last month. At Austin’s Central Presbyterian Church on Friday night, Ibeyi performed as if they’d been playing together for more decades than they’ve been alive. They filled the beautifully resonant chapel with hand percussion, synthesizers, and drum machines; during one song, Naomi snapped her fingers and slapped her body into a nearby microphone as Lisa pushed bass through a pair of keyboards. They were a gracious and inviting duo to watch, often encouraging the audience to clap along to their beats or sing along to their lyrics. They premiered a new arrangement of “Oya”, a cut from the debut, with sampled vocals, drums, synth bass, and their powerful harmonies. Before their last song, the Diaz sisters asked if anyone in the audience was a twin. No one was, so they asked everyone to think of the twins they knew as they sang a cappella while walking through the aisle between the pews. For such poised and practiced musicians, the sisters of Ibeyi carry a sense of fun with them that makes them magnetic onstage. –Sasha Geffen
Leon Bridges — Communion Showcase at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary — 10:45 p.m.
Photo by Ben Kaye
The house was so full for Leon Bridges’ late evening set that the fire marshal had to walk the aisles counting attendees with a clicker app on his phone before staring the show. The young Texas musician has only a small handful of singles out, mind you. But the appeal was instantly recognizable. He lined up on stage with his seven-piece band in the way you see in old photos of Otis Redding or even James Brown. You could picture the 1960s’ record exec walking into a smokey club, discovering him, and getting him his first big gig. If there’s one thing that exec could still teach him, however, it’s a bit of stage presence, as the circular arm dancing can only take one so far when the soul music played is so emotional.
But no one need teach Bridges a thing about vocals. His effortless, smooth singing voice seemed almost more natural than his speaking one. Most of the songs referenced Louisiana, Mississippi, love, and/or his family, sometimes all at once, like with “Mississippi Kisses Down in New Orleans”. Regardless, each was a soulful, stunning throwback to R&B’s golden years. “I’m going to take you to church with this next one,” he quipped before “Shine”. The song, like much of the set, would’ve certainly brought the crowd to worship — if we weren’t all seated in pews already. –Ben Kaye
Elder – Black Smoke Conjuring Showcase at The North Door – 11 p.m.
Photo by Jon Hadusek
Boston’s Elder have played a ton of sets this week, mere open rehearsals compared to what went down at Boss Tweed Backline’s Black Smoke Conjuring Showcase at the North Door. Backed by a line of Orange cabs and under a lighting system that’s Red Rocks-level lavish, the band delivered a set that will forever live in the memory of whoever bore witness. Elder’s songs push 10-minutes apiece, weaving in and out of various time signatures, bombastic riffs, jazzy breakdowns, and ambient guitar passages. From a songwriting perspective, it’s remarkable how well these various parts are assembled, laced with transitions that would make Richard Wagner nod in appreciation. Nobody’s writing heavy music that’s this romantic, this complex without being convoluted, much less playing it live note for fucking note. Singer/guitarist Nicholas DiSalvo and bassist Jack Donovan are bonafide virtuosos, sonic craftsmen capable of spiritual transfixiation, and for 45 minutes, they captured eyes, ears, and soul. If we’re in the post-metal era, as the genre’s declining presence at SXSW would indicate, then consider Elder the harbinger of a brighter, if uncertain, future. –Jon Hadusek
Tanya Tagaq — globalFEST Showcase at Speakeasy — 11:00 p.m.
Photo by Sasha Geffen
You know those deep bass notes that rattle your sternum? Imagine someone doing that to you with only her voice. I had watched Tanya Tagaq’s Polaris performance after she won the 2014 music prize for her album Animism, so I thought I knew what I was in for. I didn’t. On Friday night at Speakeasy, Tagaq stood in the crowd while her two accompanists soundchecked, and I didn’t even notice her until she climbed onstage. She’s unassuming in person, with a friendly, relaxed demeanor. And then she sings.
Tagaq is an Inuk throat singer, which means she can do more with her breath than most people can do with their whole body. She whips air around like a weapon, sucking it in and crying it out. Her death growls hit like a bass drum, while her trebles carry high and piercing. She performed a single piece of music backed up by drums, violin, and a network of electronics. I think the whole range of human emotions must have occupied her body in that half hour. Her singing was rhythmic, pulsing; unlike lyric singing, throat singing doesn’t mask breath. The breath isn’t a pause you try to hide between phrases — it’s a part of the music, a human necessity integral to the art. Her compositions moved from throes of sexual desire to deep, bodily grief to snarling aggression. She clawed at the stage, howled at the audience, ran her hands over her body — her instrument — as she poured out sounds that felt natural and primal, and yet otherworldly, transcendent. She had no inhibition. There was only her and the sounds she pushed through the air around her, like the earth itself had opened up to scream. –Sasha Geffen
Weedeater – Dirty Dog Bar – 12:30 a.m.
Photo by Adam Kivel
The pairing of stoner metal outfit Weedeater and one-third of the Geto Boys, Bushwick Bill, would seem unlikely, but the four seemed to get on swimmingly, as the aging rapper introduced the North Carolinians’ massive riffs. They’re all niche genre mainstays that have been entertaining their respective crowds for decades. Though tonight was more than a brief introduction: Bill even got a few verses — sure to note that his balls are big, in case you were wondering — during that hazy gray time between waves. Tracks like “Gimme Back My Bullets” and “Weed Monkey” have a slow, burning power, digging their heels in and fighting against the insane blur that is a SXSW Friday night. –Adam Kivel