Though South by Southwest is, for me, mostly about seeking out the hidden gems in the less obvious places, sometimes it pays not to overlook the obvious, as Wednesday night’s two-hour stay at the Austin Music Awards attested. Though it was well worth the time investment, other priorities including Brandi Carlile’s highly-anticipated all-acoustic show at Central Presbytarian Church had to be foregone.
Earlier stops in the night did provide some of those hidden gems, though. At St. David’s Episcopal Church, one of the city’s friendliest SXSW venues, a set by Irish violinist Colm Mac Con Iomaire, best known for his work with the Frames and Swell Season, proved revelatory, a mash-up of tone-setting loops and melodic flights that filled the church’s Bethell Hall side room with beautiful music.Shortly thereafter, Nashville gospel quartet the McCrary Sisters threw down with righteous fervor in the church’s stately Historic Sanctuary, singing traditionals such as “By the Mark” and songs from their new album for a modest but wholly appreciative audience.
A few blocks east on Seventh Street, Holy Mountain may be a bit less holy than St. David’s, but it has become one of the city’s best venues for a variety of music, and a set by North Carolina duo Mandolin Orange proved how well the room works for acoustic acts, despite being in the center of the Red River cacophony. Guitarist/mandolinist Andrew Marlin and violinist Emily Frantz have visited Austin often in the past two years, and each time through, they seem more assured in their delivery of exquisite country-folk songcraft.
Not everything went like clockwork in the early search for something new. A first stop at Majestic found New York trio the Prettiots waiting nearly 10 minutes past 8 p.m. to start their night-opening set, which is kind of a cardinal SXSW sin when the schedules are tight and smartly constructed. The song or two I heard was decent enough before heading to another priority in the 8 p.m. hour, but I could have heard more had they started on time.
A quick walk over to Club 720 Patio for local garage-rockers the Zoltars proved similarly frustrating when the band finished up with 10 minutes left in their set time. What I caught was very good, at least, a reaffirmation of the quality of the songs on their new album.
One could at least partially forgive the band for the early departure given that they were crammed into a venue that wasn’t much larger than a broom closet. As welcoming as venues such as St. David’s and Holy Mountain are, the SXSW reality is that some spots just aren’t well suited for the event. Club 720’s indoor space might be more accommodating, but its patio spot could lay serious challenge to the cross-town spot that notoriously bills itself as the Tiniest Bar in Texas.
Speaking of the Tiniest Bar in Texas, actually, it’s worth showing up there at 4 p.m. on Saturday to catch the final SXSW performance by Richmond, Va., band Avers. Their set early Wednesday afternoon for a Blue Scout Media showcase at the Parish was the best thing I saw all day or night other than the Awards Show. A captivating psych-rock outfit with four singer-songwriters, a livewire young guitarist and the Head and the Heart’s Tyler Williams on drums, Avers is red hot and should be caught at SXSW by anyone who loves loud music with solid songs underneath.
SXSW registrants can catch them Thursday at 1 p.m. at Brush Square Park and at 10:30 p.m. at, yikes, Club 720 Patio (THAT ought to be interesting) before the Saturday afternoon Tiniest Bar event. Meanwhile, here’s a snippet of what they sounded like on Wednesday afternoon.