Seeing a set at St. David's Episcopal Church is a must at SXSW; the atmosphere is wonderful, and the sound is glorious. I was excited that one of my must-sees, The Barr Brothers, had a set there, so I rushed over after Avalanche City.
I got their early enough to catch the end of Little Scream's set. I saw them last year at Swan Dive (another of my favorite venues, but admittedly heavy on the back half of the name), so this constitutes a step up for the band. Their orchestral indie features a bass flute (!) and is versatile enough to appropriate various disparate sounds. I walked in during a reverent, slow-moving, resonant tune, then witnessed them rock out the next one with distortion, drums and power. Their final tune was a mash-up of two of Mary Margaret O'Hara's songs, and the band treated both with a deferential, affecting awe that filled the chapel. Little Scream's unique sound fit very well with the space; fans of dynamic female vocalists and complex arrangements would find much to love.
The Barr Brothers
Credits: Stephen Carradini
The Barr Brothers took the stage and immediately stole the audience's heart. The sound's basis is the folky, wry strum of Josh Ritter with a harp added, but The Barr Brothers took this palate and expanded it, adding pump organ, rock-outs, and glorious guitar tricks. The last element there constituted a spool of thread: in certain tunes, the lead singer/guitarist would loop a piece of thread under a guitar string, then hand the string to a band member (or guest, as Richard Reed Parry of Little Scream/The Arcade Fire helped) and ask them to pull it. The vibration of the thread across the guitar string created a ghostly, warbling sound out the guitar that was mesmerizing. It was an incredible visual effect, as well.
But to not mention the harpist would be to short the band: she blew me away. Her cascading, emotive work gave The Barr Brothers' music a dimension that I hadn't yet heard at SXSW; her sounds tied all the elements of the band's sound together beautifully. She left the harp to sing back-ups on the band's final song, which was a whole song composed out of the guitar style with the string. It was a powerful, moving piece about death that ended with a surprising twist: the lead singer pulled out a lighter and burned the threads that were making the noise, ending the song with two concluding notes. It was a perfect end to an absolutely incredible set: the band received a rightfully-earned standing ovation.