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Posted: 5:39 p.m. Friday, April 25, 2014

Austin's Penny and Sparrow are an ACL Fest band to watch 

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Penny and Sparrow
Eric Webb
Penny and Sparrow perform at 502 Bar in San Antonio on Thursday, April 25, 2014. The band will play weekend two of ACL Fest in October.

By Eric Webb

It's fun to root for the home team. So when Austin City Limits Music Festival rolls around come October, here's a local act worth some cheers: Penny and Sparrow.

The Austin duo (alter egos: Andy Baxter and Kyle Jahnke) craft gorgeous folk music with harmomies that make your heart hurt. Their debut album, last year's "Tenboom," was a hidden gem bound to draw comparisons to Bon Iver, David Ramirez and Laura Marling. Their sophomore effort, "Struggle Pretty," dropped just this week, a perfect pairing with the announcement that they're on the weekend two lineup of ACL Fest. The Austin band played an album release show at 502 Bar in San Antonio on Thursday, and if it's an typical picture of their live chops, that Zilker Park set could be something enchanting.

Even with few upbeat songs, Penny and Sparrow surges with energy, thanks to a talented, blues-savvy backing band and lyrics that seize the ear ("I've seen too much skin, and the souls that live in it"). Their songs "Brothers" and "Duet" in particular captivated the modest-but-healthy crowd. It is always a good sign when an up-and-coming band already has a cluster of fans who can sing every word. Their stage banter is on point, as well. On their newly released album, Baxter saids with a glint in his eye: "If you'd give us your allegiance, we would really appreciate it."

Baxter's voice carries a smooth clarity and a soul-piercing tone. The best part of watching him work the mic? When he goes for the big notes, he takes his glasses off and sticks his hands in his pockets. It makes the most powerful parts of Penny and Sparrow's songs seem both effortless and prayerful. The swigs from a flask in between songs don't hurt, either.

The band makes no secret of their spirituality. The highlight of Thursday's show was by far the encore, when the band soared on a sparse, soulful performance of the hymn "Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing." For the final chorus, the band pulled away from their microphones, allowing the corporate voices of the entire bar — the entire strip mall bar singing an 18th-century hymn — to warmly fill the space.

If you want to scope them out before ACL Fest, Penny and Sparrow play their next hometown show May 7 at Stubb's. They're the kind of band you almost don't want to see get too famous, just to keep their music all the more special. (Though we certainly won't begrudge them the success that's hopefully coming their way.) In a music industry currently riding an alt-folk high, Penny and Sparrow have the goods to get noticed.

Eric Webb

About Eric Webb

Eric Webb is a producer for statesman.com, austin360.com and mystatesman.com. He blogs about Austin culture, pop culture and anything that lives on the Internet.

Send Eric Webb an email.

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