SXSW Music: Sam Smith is a knockout, while Eagulls roar and the Hold Steady charms

Posted 4:23pm on Saturday, Mar. 15, 2014

Music seeps from every conceivable corner of this city during South by Southwest.

From farm supply stores to coffee bars, restaurants to record stores, any place that can handle live music does — and it’s as disorienting as it is delightful.

The fourth day of SXSW got off to a slow start for me, but had gathered quite a head of steam by nightfall. I kicked off my fourth day at the Austin Convention Center, for a quick dose of the Hold Steady, in town to support its upcoming album, Teeth Dreams, due out March 25. It’s an appealing recalibration after the grand poetics (also great) of Heaven is Whenever — tracks like The Ambassador and Spinners were fantastic — and it was great to see frontman Craig Finn, bespectacled and boyish, bouncing around the sterile stage like it was last call in a dive bar on Red River.

From there, I caught a screening of the documentary Harmontown, a painful and funny look at Dan Harmon, the creator of NBC’s cult hit Community. An unsparing portrait of a man wrestling with his demons and mounting a national tour in support of his equally cult-y podcast, the Neil Berkley-directed film is an insightful peek behind one of TV comedy’s most original minds.

Then it was over to Waterloo Records, its parking lot surprisingly empty of bodies, but still attracting a decent crowd for its free day shows. San Francisco’s the Fresh and Onlys bashed out enthusiastic rock songs while I browsed the shelves, convincing myself to leave before emptying my bank account.

As the sun set, I found myself strolling along South Congress, where evidence of Austin’s ugly wrestling match between its past and its future is evident — that South Congress hotel slated to open next year looks as though it’s going to be a nightmare. As the city continues to erect sleek modern condominiums and office towers, the scruff and soul of the city is being pushed further out. How long before eclectic, edgy East Austin is a mirror image of the other side of Interstate 35?

All along the busy street, shops and restaurants and clubs were hosting some manner of party, often free, with food trucks and beer tents set up to sate the crowds. It was a loose, pleasant feeling to see people stopping to hear a little of each performer before heading on their way to get dinner, dessert or a jolt of caffeine. Stopping a moment to hear local octet Bamako Airlines, with its vibrant, Afro-pop songs (the crowd was literally dancing with abandon) was a restorative tonic before plunging back into SXSW-sanctioned craziness downtown.

Well, more like eased back into it — I started at the Continental Club, where I caught the tail end of idiosyncratic tunesmith Howe Gelb’s set (he wrapped up with a waltz, of all things) and a piece of Nikki Lane’s showcase (the Nashville singer-songwriter was clad in a Nudie-inspired jumpsuit). Each was solid, but I had a date with Rainey Street and the British post-punk buzz band Eagulls. The lads were loud — like, feeling the bass vibrate my skull loud — and refreshingly raw, tearing into material from their debut with a youthful abandon that was magnetic. Not for everyone, certainly, but for those like it fast, loud and almost out of control, Eagulls is your cup of tea.

I hustled over to one of my favorite SXSW venues, St. David’s Episcopal Church, to catch a bit of Denver indie poppers Tennis, before settling in to hear one of my most anticipated artists of this year’s fest: Sam Smith.

The British vocalist did not disappoint. Although his set was cruelly short at about 20 minutes and five songs, Smith was flat out dazzling. His voice hung in the still, silent air of the intimate room — a supple, weightless falsetto pouring forth with scarcely any effort evident. His debut LP, In the Lonely Hour, is out later this spring, and if there’s any justice, the affable Smith will become an enormous star. While it’s reductive to tag him as the “male Adele,” no doubt there are those who will. The comparison doesn’t quite stick, and not least because the two artists have little in common beyond Britain and a facility with pouring analog soul into the modern, digital world.

All you need to know is this: Smith finished his final song, Stay with Me, and I found myself exhaling sharply as the applause swelled to fill the room. I’d been holding my breath as he sang and not even realized it. Mark my words: Sam Smith is an incredible talent, and one deserving of massive success.

Preston Jones, 817-390-7713 Twitter: @prestonjones

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