It’s not necessarily easy to turn a hotel ballroom into a place that’s conducive for great live music, but it helps if you start with charismatic performers. South by Southwest delivered that in spades with fellow North Carolina natives the Avett Brothers and Ryan Adams, who teamed up to give around 1,000 festgoers an SXSW-making experience Wednesday evening at the JW Marriott.
Playing first, brothers Seth and Scott Avett and their extended band used the occasion largely to introduce new material from the upcoming “Pure Sadness,” due in June. As the title suggests, it’s largely a dark record, with tunes such as “Divorce Separation Blues” and “I Wish I Was” sounding like documents of recent personal turmoil. Nearly all the new songs were winners, though, and they were different enough from the band’s past work to indicate the Avetts are still pushing themselves creatively.
Longtime fans appreciated the many favorites that were mixed in, from the early-career rapid-fire quasi-rap “Talk on Indolence” to Scott’s sentimental solo ballad “Murder in the City” to the inevitable dramatic apex “Head Full of Doubt/Road Full of Promise.” Best of all was “Die Die Die,” the pure pop gem that sparked the Avetts’ transformation from little band that could to big band that did when it led off their 2007 breakthrough album “Emotionalism.”
After a half-hour break, Adams and his backing band the Shining embarked on an 85-minute set that drew from the full range of his decade-and-a-half-long solo career. The rock numbers “Give Me Something Good” and “Kim” from his self-titled 2014 album meshed well with rootsier tunes such as “Let It Ride” and “Magnolia Mountain” from 2005’s double-album opus “Cold Roses.”
The crowd seemed to appreciate it most when he dug even further back. In addition to “New York, New York” and a magnificent “When the Stars Go Blue” from 2001’s “Gold,” plus the surprise inclusion of “Dear Chicago” from 2002’s “Demolition,” Adams completely hushed the often chattery room with a solo acoustic rendition of “My Winding Wheel” from his 2000 solo debut “Heartbreaker.”
"My Winding Wheel" solo acoustic: #RyanAdams at #SXSW@austin360pic.twitter.com/hG2R7vCaKX
— Peter Blackstock (@Blackstock360) March 17, 2016
He stopped short of reaching back into his 1990s days fronting Whiskeytown, whose SXSW performance 20 years ago this week at a nightclub on Red River Street was one of the first major steps in Adams’ rise toward stardom. But he still has the magnetism to make a cavernous, carpeted space feel like the back lot at Yard Dog that he played in 1997, thanks to push-pull banter with the crowd that included donning an audience member’s garish jacket.
And when he asked, near the end of the set, “Where is Mudhoney playing?”, you wanted to let him know that Bob Mould was about to begin a last-minute free solo show at Frank just three blocks away. He probably would have dug it.