Three nights of free South by Southwest shows came to a close on Auditorium Shores with the songs of Austin's own Patty Griffin floating along Lady Bird Lake on a mild night that seemed a fitting finale for a SXSW that was marked mostly by smooth sailing.
Griffin, whose new self-titled album came out last week, headlined a four-hour show that also featured sets from Chicago multi-instrumentalist Andrew Bird, Arizona singer-songwriter Courtney Marie Andrews and Nashville guitarist William Tyler. Thousands of Austinites and out-of-towners relaxed on blankets or stood near the front of the stage to take in the music.
When Patty Griffin took the stage at about 8:45 p.m., you could almost hear the crowd come closer to her as she opened her set with “Mama’s Worried,” the first track from the new album. No one said a word, which was notable enough for the beer vendor passing through the crowd to remark, “This is the quietest I’ve ever seen y’all.”
“Boy, it’s good to be here,” she said after she’s finished, and everyone obviously agreed. Griffin had the kind of show that looked and sounded good from anywhere on the lawn. It didn’t matter if she was in your direct line of sight because her voice filled the space.
The hourlong set flowed by easily, featuring songs from her new album as well as older material. “Luminous Places,” dedicated to fellow musician George Reiff, who took her under his wing when they both had cancer, was genuinely affecting. Lighter moments of the show included a performance of “Getting Ready” — “this is the loudest song I’ve got, which isn’t saying much,” she joked — and allowing the crowd to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. Griffin turned 55 on Saturday.
“It’s so cool to sing these songs … four miles up the road from where I was writing them at my kitchen table,” Griffin said before introducing the new song “River.” She noted how Austin has been her home for the past couple of decades, saying she's likely to see some of the crowd at Wheatsville Co-op or on the trail around the lake she’s walked “thousands of times.”
SXSW might be the time of year when it’s hard to know who lives here and who doesn’t, but Griffin’s set felt like a love letter to the city and its people, there with her at a free and public show on her birthday. As she closed her set after a well-deserved encore with Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground,” it felt like the perfect way to say goodbye to SXSW and remember where it all started.
Bird, whose album “My Finest Work Yet” comes out March 22, is a man of few words between songs. But few words didn’t mean low energy or uninvolved. During his performance of “Capsized,” Bird danced along onstage, with the crowd following his lead.
He switched easily between plucking at his violin during “Pulaski At Night” and playing his guitar elsewhere. “I was excited to play this year just cause I want to pay for the citizens of Austin. I’m sure there’s some of you out there,” Bird told the crowd near the end of his set. “If I were you, I’d be pretty proud to be from here, so good job; congratulations.”
Earlier, Andrews and her three-piece backing band treated the crowd to a poignant set of country-folk music that highlighted her crystal-clear soprano voice. Andrews, an 2018 Americana Music Awards nominee for Emerging Artist of the Year, focused on songs from last year's "May Your Kindness Remain," closing her half-hour set with its magnificent title track.
Tyler kicked things off at 6 p.m. with a short set of solo instrumental music that served as ideal walk-in music for early-arrivers but also felt like a benediction for the festival as a whole. Expressing his appreciation for the chance to play in such a picture-perfect Austin setting, he finished with a simple sentiment similar to what Griffin and Bird voiced later: "Thank you for sharing your city with us."