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!”
Josh Rosenthal, founder of folk label Tompkins Square, didn’t want his acts being shouted down in Austin, so he hosted his label’s showcase at St. David’s Episcopal Church. Compared with the jostling rock-and-roll hordes two blocks down the hill on East Sixth Street, the setting felt magically serene. “I don’t want to put these artists in a bad position,” Rosenthal said. “You need a respectful environment for the work they do. . . . Maybe in the future there are some rooms that can come into being and support this kind of music at South by Southwest. . . . It’s counterprogramming.”
Daniel Bachman, a young guitarist from Fredericksburg, Va., said he tours quiet rooms like this almost exclusively — art galleries, yoga studios, group-house living rooms. “If you want crazy, the streets are right out there,” he said.
An hour later, Bachman tucked a bottle of beer into the front pocket of his faded chambray work shirt and ambled out to wow an audience of about 40 with a mesmerizing style of psychedelic finger-picking that descends from Appalachia and through the late, great John Fahey.
Before that came an equally stunning set from Hiss Golden Messenger, the stage name of M.C. Taylor, a North Carolina songwriter whose ballads aim to unravel the eternal tangles of faith and fallibility.
“I didn’t even want to come to this,” Taylor said when it was over. “I don’t feel like my music is really conducive to a situation like South by Southwest. . . . It’s hard to get people to listen to a songwriter with an acoustic guitar. But it’s hard anywhere.”
Except in the U.K., where Taylor said he savors the reverent silence of the British. Rose volunteered this same observation on Wednesday afternoon. Across the pond, they keep their gobs shut. For folk acts, anyway.
“I have some theories about that,” Taylor said. “I think it has something to do with American roots music being exotic over there. It’s something that they can’t quite do. They want to. But they can’t quite get it.”
During Hiss Golden Messenger’s Thursday night set at St. David’s, the audience was quiet enough to apply for a British visa. Quiet enough to hear the toe of Taylor’s left boot tapping out a downbeat on the linoleum. Quiet enough to hear the singer breathe melody into every syllable. Not quiet enough to hear the hairs rising off the back of your neck, but almost.