Even if you’ve been going to South by Southwest for a while (28 of 30 holes punched in my own card), a new year offers an opportunity to discover something at the festival you didn’t know about. For me in 2016, that was SXSW Second Play.
A weeklong series that offers intimate early-evening sets in hotel bars by performers who are also playing bigger evening showcases at the festival, Second Play proved a great way to catch performers I might otherwise have missed during time slots that have less competition.
Saturday, I checked out 20-year-old English singer-songwriter Holly Macve at Liberty Tavern in the Hilton, SXSW’s flagship hotel across from the Convention Center. Switching between acoustic guitar and piano, Macve played at 6 p.m. to a crowd that was a mix of bar gatherers, casual diners and those who came just for the performance.
Macve’s clarion voice is her defining characteristic. If you find it appealing, you’ll probably love her music, but its unusual quality probably isn’t for everyone. Most of those at the Liberty Tavern seemed appreciative, even if the room’s acoustics were a bit too chattery to provide the intimacy Macve’s music needs.
She supplemented original material with a standout cover of Willie Nelson’s “Crazy,” a nice nod to the home crowd. “I’ve been in Texas for a week and I love it here, she said. “I went horseback riding today!”
A mile walk across the bridge to the Hyatt Regency brought a chance to hear Chicago troubadour Robbie Fulks, who joked about playing in the wide open atrium as glass elevators towered upward. Fulks played most of his SXSW shows with a full band, but he was a joy to hear as a solo act here, playing songs from an exemplary new album called “Upland Stories” that’s due out April 1 on Bloodshot Records.
Though he’s known primarily for his songwriting skills, Fulks also is a first-rate guitarist, as was evident on several songs. He noted that the presence of Austin roots-rock heroine Rosie Flores motivated him to push the envelope a bit with this playing, and then gave the audience a special treat by calling up Flores for a duet.
Elsewhere around town this week, artists such as Jack Ingram, the Quebe Sisters and National Parks played similar dinner-hour sets at hotels including the Radisson, the Westin and the Van Zandt. An extra bonus: These shows were free and open to all, with no badges or wristbands required.