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Gemma Ray played her guitar with a knife at SXSW. That sums it up, yeah?

Eric Webb

Let’s call it desperado pop: Music you play with a knife stuck to the front of your guitar.

One second you’re in an Episcopal church in downtown Austin with Gemma Ray, and the next you’re glaring suspiciously at the next booth over in a last-chance diner. Or, maybe you’re on the bone-dry highway somewhere between here and El Paso, with a grudge sitting in your passenger seat and a sidearm sitting in your glove box. Heck, you could also be in the midst of a gin-soaked tryst between a Brylcreemed man in a slim-fit suit and a woman with Jackie O hair and Maybelline-streaked cheeks.

That’s what Germany-based “pop-noir heroine” Ray does to your mind, if you have an active imagination. Playing a South by Southwest showcase Tuesday at St. David’s Historic Sanctuary, Ray overcame some fritzy sound woes to deliver a transporting performance worthy of the coming dusk outside the church’s historic walls.

With a voice that sounded less like a wound and more like a particularly clean scar, Ray sang about anxiety and hoping there’s something “more than this.” Her guitar work stalked through the space with high noon theatricality. All woozy twang and insistent rhythm, it’s the kind of music that makes you pretty sure you’re going to have to go defend your dead loved one’s honor in some gulch. Even when that faulty sound ended a song with an unintentional sizzle, it added a little industrial edge that didn’t seem at all out of place.

Though it likely owed something to a shared space on the 1960s-influenced spectrum, Ray’s dangerous shadow-rock brought to mind the flip-side of the same coin that First Aid Kit’s sundress folk lives on. In the last third of her set, Ray descended into a jam session, a mad Watusi with the devil, before taking the knife out and running it up and down and back and forth on her strings. Her frenzy ended in a smile.

What, you thought the knife was a metaphor?