SXSW Review: Robert Ellis, Sarah Jarosz, March 17, St. David’s Historic Sanctuary

Robert Ellis
A night for Americana (the music, not plastic items in antique collector’s cabinet) is never a bad idea at SXSW. Because there are great venues all along 6th street that at any other time should be amply full of tamer crowds of appreciative adults. But times have changed, and SXSW has been slowly devolving into just a checkmark on the rave calendar of teenagers. And so the less flashy and more substantive acts have been forced to move to quieter settings. This is the main reason why I can be found at the Sanctuary almost every SXSW, unless I feel the need to battle teenage antics for the music.

Robert Ellis has been performing since 2005, but only found a wider audience after having been mentioned by industry magazines. This night he played from his recent, 2014 album, The Lights From the Chemical Plant. With such a title, you would rightly expect a tinge of sarcasm that runs through the lyrics. Ellis has a twangy but thin voice, making those lyrics especially clear and meditative. There wasn’t over-the-top, emotional bellowing, and it’s really not necessary. The memorable numbers, I found, were “Only Lies,” “Bottle of Wine,” and “Elephants,” a new song that hasn’t been collected in an album. While the first two were more traditional folk/country pieces full of earnest story-telling that celebrates the ugly and pragmatic side of life, “Elephants” sees the cynicism seep even deeper into the melody. I look forward to hearing more of its like on Ellis’ new effort. Sarah Jarosz

When I last saw the Grammy-nominated artist Sarah Jarosz, there was a pane of liquid-crystal display and a time dislocation of one year separating our realities. It was a recorded Austin City Limits (ACL) broadcast on PBS, when she performed with the Milk Carton Kids (also memorable). Since her last album, Build Me Up From Bones, she has moved to NYC to pursue a new sound, and in the soon to be released Undercurrent, I’d say she has certainly found more variety to express her music. Obvious by the home-crowd support, she’s very comfortable performing in Austin TX, and covered quite a few songs from the upcoming album. There is still her brand of ye’olde construct floating through songs like “House of Mercy,” but then there is another, softer expression that worked well in a number where she collaborated with Aoife O’Donovan.

I’d recommend seeing her concerts whenever you get the chance. Not only is her singing voice powerful and resounding, her guitar (and yes, banjo) playing is crisp and superb. Case in point – her take on Bob Dylan’s often covered “Ring Them Bells” – the apt song by which she ended this session (because it’s in a church space called “Sanctuary”). Even without the crooked, world-weariness required by the lyrics, she manages to take another perspective and drive those lyrics home in an almost hopeful manner. While that dulled the cynicism built-up from Ellis’ concert just a little, stepping out of the Sanctuary and seeing the gathering mob was all it took to send me straight back into meditation. Or perhaps ignorance?

Posted on by Gary in Concerts, Everything, Reviews, South By Southwest

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