Is Austin really the Live Music Capital of the World? That's a self-proclaimed designation, of course, and as open to debate as it is to change. Still, the city's decades-long reputation as a music town makes a difference in ways that go well beyond the big seasonal festivals. Two cases in point that stood out during this year's South by Southwest: Robert Ellis and Pat Byrne.
Ellis, who's originally from the Houston area, and Byrne, a native Irishman, both recently relocated to Austin as they've launched new phases of their careers. Providing a canvas for reinvention is a good role for this city, and the fruits of it were clear in both artists' full-court press of shows during SXSW.
We'll start with Ellis, whose new album "Texas Piano Man" is his fourth for prominent indie label New West. When he moved to Nashville to work on his 2014 album "The Lights from the Chemical Plant," he'd started to push outward from his guitar-playing troubadour roots. But after his return to Texas a couple of years ago, he remade himself as a piano-based songwriter. "Texas Piano Man" was recorded at Fort Worth's red-hot Niles City Sound studio (Leon Bridges' home base), but Ellis calls Austin home.
Ellis hit SXSW hard starting on Tuesday, playing an afternoon solo show at Cactus Cafe before his band joined him for a featured slot at Ray Benson's annual birthday bash. His commitment to the change from guitar to keys was clear as he loaded in a Yamaha CP-70 portable grand piano, which requires two large pieces to be assembled.
Wearing a white tuxedo at every show he played this week, Ellis explained that it was hardly worth getting all dressed up and just playing an ordinary keyboard. "Grand" describes everything about Ellis's new approach, from his ambitions and vision to the quality of his performances.
A 40-minute set in the Hotel San Jose parking lot on on a sunny Wednesday afternoon may have been Ellis's high point for the week. His three-piece backing crew provided perfect support, allowing Ellis to take flight with offbeat rhythmic improv on the lively "Passive Aggressive" or breathe new life into George Strait's breakthrough hit "Amarillo By Morning."
Friday night at the Mohawk, Ellis acknowledged being a little worse for the wear of the week, joking that "it's like this festival is meant to kill all of us." Still, he gave it his all, and earned the rest he'll have next week before beginning a three-week national tour that brings him back in time for an April 12 appearance at the Old Settler's Music Festival.
Byrne's relocation to Austin was more recent, but it's already paid deep dividends. After winning Ireland's version of "The Voice" a few years ago, Byrne didn't want to get pegged as just a reality-TV celebrity, and Austin's renown as a songwriter's town attracted him.
A record he'd started at Dublin's famous Windmill Lane studio was finished here with local guitarist/producer Rich Brotherton, known for his ties to Irish musicianship and Americana singer-songwriters. "Rituals" came out last fall and is a splendid record, but Byrne is even better live, as he demonstrated repeatedly during SXSW.
His official showcase came on Tuesday at the Saxon Pub, a room that's almost perfect for his band's careful mix of exquisite ballads and upbeat rockers. Byrne and guitarist Stephen Carolan, the other Irish import in the group, harmonize gracefully on "Beat as One," while Byrne gives a spot-on reading of Guy Clark's classic "Dublin Blues" and its fitting first line, "I wish I was in Austin…"
On Friday, Byrne played the Continental Club for the first time, a debut that meant a lot to him because of the venue's storied reputation. He's tuned in quickly to the places that make Austin such a music haven: frequenting old haunts such as Donn's Depot, playing extended sets with his band at Gruene Hall in New Braunfels, and launching a red-hot new "Irish Invasion" Sunday residency at the Saxon with Brotherton and Beat Root Revival's Andrea Magee.
Watching both Ellis and Byrne across the arc of SXSW — I caught each of them four times this week (and they played other shows I couldn't catch) — it was clear that both of them are at the top of their game. Recent years have found Austin's Americana output somewhat overshadowed by the rise of hot Nashville acts such as Margo Price, Jason Isbell and Kacey Musgraves. Either or both of these artists could tip the scales more in Austin's direction in the next couple of years. We'll be watching closely.