But out on the dance floor of Stubb’s Bar-B-Q on Wednesday night, lots of lips were moving. One of the most talked-about bands at this year’s South By Southwest festival was being talked over.
More than 2,000 acts have swarmed Austin for this six-night musical feeding frenzy, all hoping to touch the grail of buzz, even if that means playing over it. This year, newcomers and nobodies are trying to lure ears from Prince and Justin Timberlake, two galactic pop stars expected to materialize in Austin for cred-grabby concerts on Saturday night. Everyone wants to see it all, hustling from venue to venue with a frazzled glee that parallels the way we sample music online, in loud, quick bursts.
And that’s what makes the quietest acts at the 27th annual SXSW feel the boldest. They’re the ones daring us to do what we all came here to do in the first place: Listen.
Thursday afternoon, on the patio of a bar called Cheer Up Charlie’s, Austin songwriter Dana Falconberry found herself up against some shouty chit-chat. Prince! Jay-Teeeee! Free PBR!
Risa Piliere, 30, an Austin schoolteacher in the audience, couldn’t help but shoot a few zip-it glances.
“The artists, it means so much for them to be here,” Piliere said. “I’m not gonna lie, it gets a little under my skin when people are just shouting over them with no consideration.”
But a commanding performance will shush even the talkiest crowds, and Falconberry soon got around to doing just that. With backing vocalists Gina Dvorak and Karla Manzur helping evaporate Falconberry’s ornate ballads into a cappella curlicues, the audience fell silent enough to hear the afternoon breeze bending tree branches overhead.
“Of course I want a rapt audience. That’s the golden moment,” Falconberry said after the set — one of 12 she had booked at SXSW. “But sometimes, it feels really beautiful and also horrifying. It just makes me nervous. Like, ‘Oh my god, people are actually listening to what I’m doing!’ ”
So our thoughtless blah-blahs provide a sort of psychic safety cushion? Caitlin Rose might agree with that.
“Chatter has never bothered me,” the 25-year-old country singer said after her first SXSW show on Wednesday. “I grew up in Nashville, so I grew up with people yelling out filthy things.”
The babble during Rose’s set wasn’t vulgar, but it was steady enough to spoil “I Was Cruel,” a love song that ends by imploding in remorse. As her six-piece backing band faded out, Rose’s voice melted into something gorgeous, tender and mostly inaudible.
Later in the set, she seemed to be sending a coded shhhh by asking, “Y’all like quiet songs?” After the crowd let out a reflexive cheer, the one honest fan in the room yelled, “No!”