SXSW Review: Emily Barker, March 16, Swan Dive

On the last night of possibly our last SXSW, a clearly Australian Emily Barker got ready on the small indoor stage at Swan Dive in a hurry, while stragglers from the patio were still trickling in. As if a confidence booster, not to herself but to the tens of us present who stood six feet from each other, she announced, “As you can see, it’s just me, and I’m quiet. In fact, I’m fucking quiet, so won’t everyone please gather in towards the stage?”

And after we did so, she proceeded to bore Ricky out of his mind with a poetry reading. The atmosphere was as stiff as the undissolved bodies left over from Earth Tongue’s set days earlier.

Had I not listened to her albums beforehand, I would have swam back to the patio stage at that point just to salvage my second last show of the year from descending into open-mic-night. But this is when someone who would traditionally have suited the Church or Sanctuary opted to play folk songs across the street from shawarma and taco vendors. It was a test from Austin.

Barker would go on to pull and hold the crowd from this seemingly dismal start, drawing from her new album Fragile as Humans and the highly praised A Dark Murmuration of Words. The songwriting is superb – literary, thought-provoking and set to memorable melodies. The singing was clean and articulated, with a voice much fuller and relatable in person than that in studio, as if they had recorded with an iPhone behind a bass-filter. And indeed it was just her, a guitar, and a harmonica. It was bare-bones to the point that she might have scored more attention busking on Red River Street under the sodium instead of stage lights. At one point it took 3 tries to start a song (I think it was “Feathered Thing”), and then she embarked on an a cappella number … because why not? There is nothing to lose and every chance to shine (which she did).

It was in the audience vocal exercise during “Wild to be Sharing This Moment” when I rediscovered just how fun SXSW had always been. During SouthBy, it could be a metalhead, a choir boy, a policeman or a blues man in the audience … we are not there expecting our favorite songs. We are there on a chance that the set could be surprisingly good, and we will score some new favorites. I’m glad to say that SXSW has not lost its magic.

Posted on by Gary in South By Southwest