SXSW Review: Emily Barker, March 16, Swan Dive

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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.

SXSW Review: Moritz Simon Geist, JFDR, Hinako Omori, March 15, Central Presbyterian Church

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20240316 Moritz Simon Geist

Moritz Simon Geist’s approach to “sound ideation” is earnest if not eccentric and philosophical. This night, he was using a machine that senses tension/stress to make music. Technically, so does every string instrument, but I’m sure he has a very good reason to distinguish his creation. It is connected to what seemed like a small 16 pipe organ. However, I was not clear whether the music was LIVE, pre-recorded, or were the stress pre-recorded and then played-back and sampled to enable “live music.”

Regardless, the concert built a baseline drone like a bagpipe (baseline stress?) and then other phrases on top. While the music, if it can be called that truthfully, wasn’t exciting, the attending thoughts were interesting. Are we to hear the humanity buried in the algorithms only because a humanly intelligible tone or voice emerged? The accompanying visualizations are even more baffling in terms of how they were generated. Had I understood the process, I think there would be more appreciation of how/whether it is remarkable that the sounds/graphic parameters changed. As it was, the experience was meta-in-the-extreme: my mind tried to place reasoning into a void that I was never allowed to see. I guess that fits a church.

20240316 JFDR

Up next after Geist was JFDR, a duo playing ethereal, floaty folk with pop and electronic elements thrown in.

Their melody was not noticeable to me nor was it centered on creating hooks, but the singing is very strong. At one point the vocalist even swayed a bit too much and knocked the mic … we can never fault enthusiasm.

20240316 Hinako Omori

In comparison to the others this night, Hinako Omori’s performance was more stereotypical. It did not help the ambience that the set was delayed for 15 minutes, but seemingly not because of technical difficulties.

One could categorize her music as stream-of-consciousness and I think that really depends on your state-of-mind. She did not stop in between numbers, either, as light singing and spoken word numbers flowed into the next connected only by previous notes. To me, the point of live music was always to revisit it afterwards – especially for an album that one publishes. I find it hard to revisit states-of-minds IN ORDER to listen to music. And I don’t know which is the robot anymore – Geist’s algorithms, or the forced display of constrained, “creative” music from Omori.

SXSW Review: Enji, Tengger, Dasom Baek, March 13, Central Presbyterian Church

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20240314 Enji

Enji is a Mongolian vocalist from Munich, Germany. Her jazz-infused song repertoire had the warmth of a 1990s Miyazaki animation soundtrack, choked full of ebullience.

The songwriting is free spirited and at no point across the 45 minute set did I feel any redundancy in the numbers. Technically she sounded effortless as well, even if she was simply accompanied by bass and guitar. Only the occasional solos may remind you that, yes, this is still grounded in jazz. Overall, this was my favorite of the sets this night.

20240314 Tengger

Tengger has already been reviewed by Ricky based on another show they played later in the week, so I will be brief and honest – it was a bit too new age for me. I will spare you the Jackson Pollock analogy, but I heard a hodgepodge of elements thrown together like spaghetti on the wall. As described in our previous review, they performed a ceremonial cleansing of sorts on each of the audience members and took a good 10 minutes….

20240314 Dasom Baek

Dasom Baek is an artist utilizing traditional Korean flutes with a loop machine. She uses voice, speech, and three flutes of distinct ranges to mix her work on the fly. The biggest visual difference that I can spot was the apparent use of shoulder for the larger flutes.

She played from her album Mirror City, I believe. There is a tranquil quality to the set. One flute similar to a piccolo added flourishes in a similar way to how it would be used in other music genres. She can obviously play her own harmony, and those to my ears tended to be heard in the more western pieces. But those were also more expressive for me. Her use of distorted speech is something that I am still trying to parse. But it’s a great and thoughtful effort.

SXSW Review: Sofi Paez, Lisa Morgenstern, Grandbrothers, March 12, Central Presbyterian Church

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This night at the Presbyterian we have offerings from Sofi Paez, Lisa Morgenstern, and Grandbrothers.

20240313 Sofi Paez

Costa Rican pianist Sofi Paez showcased a string of hurried yet pensive numbers. If that seems contradictory, it’s because not only is her piano layered with other sounds, the music is also reminiscent of a classical acoustic guitar, polyphonic with fluent passages of a fairly simple melody.

This night she included pieces from her 2023 EP circles as well as previous works. It is world-building music, I would suggest, without end nor aim but still intense, pleasant yet tense to listen to.

20240313 Lisa Morgenstern

Berlin-based composer Lisa Morgenstern brought her powerful music, and it belonged nowhere else in SXSW except the church, or perhaps more appropriately, a sacred space.

Mixing classical elements and a folk-like expressiveness, her singing transformed into a chant in this space. That was unexpected based on the recorded music I had heard. Mixed in with a bit of baroque instrumental riffs in the background, her contralto voice became skinny with a slightly strange edge that contrasts well. I believe most of the setlist was drawn from her 2019 album Chameleon. This night there was a trumpet which added to the grandness. I would welcome it if she signs up for the next Disco Elysium soundtrack.

20240313 Grandbrothers

Grandbrothers do everything off of the grand piano. Whether you view it as a schtick or genuine exploration of an audio-landscape, they find different ways of hitting the strings, as well as utilizing the piano structures themselves, including the frame and other, to record any sound and weave the samples into electronic house music. To be very cheeky, by their definition, directing a trained elephant to smash a saxophone over a grand piano would also be playing the grand. It is fun that they thought about the sampling process, however.

Grandbrothers MADE the live sampling procedure into something in and of itself. Even though this isn’t necessarily just looping, they did not expose the listener to the building of the Lego blocks but arranged it to become additional passages … it could be segments out of order or more traditionally different parts recorded separately, but eventually you get enough to work with. To my ears, the music itself is not ground breaking and always proceeds with crescendo to end the same way. But the experience is enjoyable to watch.