"We've been together since we we were 18 years old," singer Edie Brickell said proudly as she gestured to her four bandmates in Dallas band New Bohemians, who headlined a Verve Records showcase at St. David's Historic Sanctuary on Wednesday night as part of South by Southwest. It's so common for long-running bands to have lineup changes that, indeed, Brickell's statement was worth the extra attention she gave it.
And you could feel the connection between these players in every song of their 50-minute set, from new material off last year's "Rocket" to the title track of 2007's "Stranger Things" to, yes, their 1988 breakthrough hit "What I Am." From guitarist Kenny Withrow's endlessly artful solos and atmospherics, to the lively drums-and-percussion tandem of Brandon Aly and John Bush, to the bass and sax fluidity of Brad Houser, these players consistently push Brickell's lyrics and vocals to inspired creative highs.
Though the five original members are all still there, lineup's not entirely the same as it was back then, it's worth noting: Two Austin recruits came aboard more recently, when the "Rocket" sessions began to take shape a year or two ago. Multi-instrumentalist Kyle Crusham produced the album at Austin's Arlyn Studios and helps fill out the band's live sound, along with keyboardist Matt Hubbard.
Getting seven instruments to sound good in a high-ceiling church venue was a challenge, but the New Bohemians proved they could adapt their very danceable sound to a listening-room crowd packed into long wooden pews. If some SXSWers came out of nostalgic curiosity to hear a band they might have though had long faded away, they were in for a pleasant surprise; indeed, the room stayed full for the group's entire set, and the crowd responded with appreciation for both old and new material.
Brickell and her band have nothing to prove at this stage of their lives; it's all about making music for the joy of it, and to watch them perform is to understand how much their music, and their shared bonds, still mean to them. It's a joy to witness. Those without wristbands or badges get another chance on Saturday evening, when the band headlines the final day of South by San Jose in the Hotel San Jose parking lot. They'll also be playing two live radio broadcasts: 5 p.m. Thursday at the Hula Hut for Sun Radio, and 11:30 a.m. Saturday at the W Hotel for ACL Radio.
Earlier in the evening, new Verve Forecast artist J.S. Ondara helped to kick off the show with a half-hour solo set of enchanting material highlighting his recently issued debut album "Tales of America." From Minnesota by way of Kenya, Ondara has a clarion-bell voice and a gift for writing memorable folk-rock songs.
He still seems a little uneasy with crowd interaction, engaging in banter that was sometimes humorous but slightly awkward (like when he gave an extended introduction to a song that he then opted not to play). Still, it hardly mattered when he hushed the crowd with "Turkish Bandana," an a cappella number that also knocked out the crowd when he opened for Lindsey Buckingham at the Paramount Theatre last fall.
There's a few more chances to catch Ondara during SXSW as well. He's at the Convention Center Radio Day Stage at noon on Thursday, the Mohawk's indoor stage at 2 p.m. Friday and Lambert's at 10 p.m. Saturday. He also played Tuesday night at Elysium; that sort of jammed schedule suggests an artists who might have a shot at SXSW's prestigious Grulke Prize for developing acts. The only question may be whether he gets votes for U.S. or non-U.S. act, given his current and native residences. Either way, he's deserving. (And, for that matter, Brickell and the New Bohemians ought to warrant serious consideration for the Career Act prize.)