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SXSW Band of the Day: Kurt Nilsen

Peter Blackstock

Editor’s note: This article was originally published February 6, 2014

It’s coming: For a glorious six-day stretch starting March 11, the music world will have all eyes and ears on the South By Southwest Music Festival in Austin. Leading up to the festival, we will be profiling a different artist each day.

Artist: Kurt Nilsen

From: Bergen, Norway, official SXSW page

SXSW shows: Friday, March 14, 11-11:40 p.m., at Rowdy, 604 Neches St. (official showcase), plus other appearances TBA.

About the artist

“American Idol” winners haven’t tended to cross over into the SXSW realm much – in many respects, their respective philosophies are polar opposites – but here’s an overseas “Idol” winner who actually makes sense at the festival.

Kurt Nilsen not only won Norway’s “Pop Idol” show in 2003, he went on to win a “World Idol” competition in which winners from other countries squared off. That afforded him instant stardom in his own country, though he has remained largely unknown to American audiences.

Perhaps that’s because he doesn’t quite look the central-casting part; he’s a bit on the heavy side with a baby face and a gap-toothed grin, not exactly Taylor Hicks smooth. He has a spectacular voice, though, and he’s shown an intriguing fondness for country music – enough to where he traveled to Texas a few years back to record the Hank Williams classic “Lost Highway” with Willie Nelson. (They shot a video together out at Willie’s fictional film-set town of Luck, Texas, in the hill country.)

He’s also proven his mettle at pop-country male-female duets. The video above shows Nilsen and fellow Norwegian singer Venke Knutson covering the Ryan Adams song “When the Stars Go Blue” with an earnest infectiousness that arguably surpasses the smash-hit U.S. version recorded by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. (Plus, how can you not love a music video in which the lead characters are cast as astronomy geeks?)

He almost didn’t even make the cut for that first “Idol” show back in 2002, as this YouTube video with 1.6 million views attests. Those judges might actually have been a little more lenient than the standard SXSW screening panel – but Nilsen ultimately passed both tests, and he’ll make “a number of appearances in an acoustic duo setup” in Austin, according to his website.

Could share a bill with: Declan Galbraith, Scotty McCreery, Mandy Moore, Kelly Willis