Jammed shows with hundreds of hopeful attendees turned away are a given every year at SXSW. But this wasn’t Kanye at Fader Fort, or Lady Gaga at Stubb’s, or Jay-Z at the Austin Music Hall. This was at the Historic Sanctuary of St. David’s Episcopal Church, and the star causing all the stir was Leon Bridges, a name barely known outside of Fort Worth a year ago.
Bridges’ rapid ascent has been a big story in recent months. That he packed out the cozy C-Boy’s on South Congress during a January Austin visit was no surprise, but the main St. David’s Room is far bigger, regularly packing in many hundreds of churchgoers at Sunday services.
St. David’s is a special respite during SXSW, with a large banquet room that sells food and beverages at very reasonable prices adjacent to the Historic Sanctuary room and a second SXSW venue, the high-ceilinged Bethell Hall, down the corridor. Thus it was surprising to see such a tranquil haven turning into a flashpoint Friday night, complete with a visit from the fire marshal.
Venue staffers claimed the fire marshal was close to shutting the place down over concerns about exit space between lengthy badge and wristband lines a half-hour before Bridges’ 10:45 p.m. set. The marshal, Richard Thompson, downplayed the drama when interviewed a little later, saying that he’d done a count inside that showed the Sanctuary room right at capacity but not exceeding it.
Confusion reigned for much of the ensuing hour. Venue staffers at one point said there would be no re-entry, even for those who left to use the restroom; later, accommodations were made for those who needed to use the facilities. Staffers eventually announced that no wristband wearers would be able to get in, which mostly dissipated those in that line. Other festgoers arriving from the church’s downstairs entrance were basically turned away at the stairwell, though some of them may have been heading to Bethell Hall in the back.
Though a big crowd was expected, the sheer mass of the turnout seemed to take everyone off-guard. A representative for Bridges recommend getting in line by 10 p.m., but as it turned out, 9:30 p.m. still wasn’t early enough. The staffers at the Sanctuary entrance were allowing priority access for members of the press, though they made no clarification to that effect.
The sound from Bridges’ set was piped into the banquet room for those waiting outside. Inside, the fortunate hundreds witnessed the young star in a venue well-suited to his soulful sounds. I finally made it in for the last song of the set, a beautiful acoustic number:
Stops immediately before and after proved more sane and fruitful. An 8 p.m. set by North Carolina pop singer-songwriter Brett Harris at the Velveeta Room yielded a solo set full of tuneful and thoughtful compositions. Harris has played SXSW before as a member of the dB’s and with Chris Stamey’s Big Star tribute band, but this was his first showcase under his own name, and he won over an attentive and respectful crowd.
Just past midnight, Hawaii native Kawehi took the stage at a noisy Swan Dive on Red River Street, potentially a tough venue for a solo act amid a bill of bands including the anthemic and atmopheric Civil Twilight immediately before her. But her one-woman army of drum loops, vocal effects and guitar playing charmed those who were curious as to how she’d pull it off, and her cribbing of a few lines from Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” brought smiles all around.