SxSW Music Diary: Duncan Fellows, Joseph & Sylvan Esso

A lightning storm threatens to halt proceedings on a day where folk acts Joseph and Sylvan Esso are standouts, plus local band Duncan Fellows share their thoughts on surviving South-by craziness.

Article by Aidan Ryan | 20 Mar 2016

The sky is again a muggy white on Friday, unsettling the locals who expect unadulterated light and heat this time of year, but this doesn’t stop many of the rooftop acts popping off in downtown Austin. Lush, indie-inflected beach rock, drawing upon broad range of influences, is the order at the Duncan Fellows show on the roof of Shiner’s Saloon.

The venue is on Congress, a few blocks away from the musical mire of 6th St., and this local act pleases an audience that extends beyond the bar to business-types on rooftops and observation decks a few streets over; they sing to us about lying to lovers and the quiet triumphs of making breakfast. The lead singer Colin Harman, who looks like he’d be adept at trout-fishing, has a honeyed vocal that blends beautifully with Margot Stevenson’s subtly countrified tone.

You could name at least 20 acts that they sound similar to – from The Band to The Punch Brothers to Vampire Weekend – but none that they’re imitating. Fresh off four gigs with Houndmouth, they’re just coming into their own as writers and as a live act, and they share a well-earned ease on stage, evident when Stevenson picks up a trumpet and Harman reaches under the bell to play a few chords on the keyboard, leaning back to his mic to catch a few goofy whoops. They don’t feel the pressure put on most acts showing up to Sx, in part because they’ve seen it all before.

“We’re not super hyped on the whole South-by thing,” Harman tells us later, in the bar below. “It’s awesome, but it’s a whole lot of sprinting around, no soundcheck.” The only way to survive – let alone get anything out of – Sx, is to take it as it comes. “We kind of just got up there, plugged in, and said fuck it” – which obviously worked. They all have some advice for bands traveling to Sx. “Don’t stress yourself out, thinking ‘I gotta get signed at South by Southwest,” Harman says. “Have fun, jam out, cause that’s what’s going to get you noticed anyway.” Tim Hagen adds that bands should take the time to meet other acts, people like them – and to embrace the breakfast taco.

We head (with most of Duncan Fellows) to SxSan Jose, a venue on S. Congress known for drawing locals disaffected with the 6th Street moil and all the visitors it brings – odd, as the street’s a tourist destination for most of the year. “Local,” in this case, includes a heavy presence of well-heeled hipsters browsing stalls selling vintage concert tees, some upwards of $200, as well as families and Austin’s young professionals taking off early from work. We catch Joseph, a three-piece helped along today by friends on drums, bass, and electric guitar. This denim-loving harmony heavy act could come to set the standard for sororal folk: each one can sing the hell out of their indie tunes but together they’re magical, harmonies mixed with an ease and quality that comes but rarely.

Joseph play a cover of Hey Mami and plug the writers, Sylvan Esso, whom we didn’t know were playing Sx until now. That’s often the case – news spreads from stage to stage, over Instagram and texts followed up with “But don’t bring a lot of randos – OK?” This happened on Thursday night: following CHVRCHES' set, some of our number got the invite to a house party featuring Cage the Elephant. Cage had wanted to “play Sx without really playing Sx,” according to a source – and they tore up an hour-long set in an E 9th St. living room, Brad and Matthew Shultz headbutting each other and, miraculously, none of their fans, stopping only when the heat became unbearable.

So we strategise over guac and black bean dip, hoping to work Sylvan Esso into our lineup, as there's no better recommendation for a band than another great band's ace cover – but before long a storm rolls in and lights up the southern sky. Rumors of cancellations and delays fly; the Sx app buzzes with a warning to “Get inside!” We watch the light show – the best of the festival – from a berth in the C3 offices on the 21st floor of 300 W 6th St. 

Next up it’s back to Stubb’s for Santigold, but her set is delayed indefinitely – instead we’re treated to the ever-irritating Charli XCX. Refusing to endure this as the last act of our night, we (and many others) opt not to wait for Santigold and head instead to Sylvan Esso, playing up the street at the Middle West showcase at Mohawk at 1am. They’re no strangers to this city – the electro-folk duo (Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn) played sets at SxSW 2014 and appeared at ACL last summer.

The music is far from unengaging, but the set could be rearranged to draw in some in the audience unfamiliar with their music – it takes them a little long to hook everybody. Meath, known for her dance moves, is a bit more subdued tonight – and there isn’t much room in the packed yard for the rest of us to do more than sway. But we do sway, occupying Sanborn’s electronic landscapes along with Meath. Sometimes her voice swells to fill these spaces, sometimes she flits through – it becomes an instrument, so much that we’re almost conscious of her playing it. They’re an excellent and unexpected pairing, and witnessing them as part of an audience packed with other musicians come to pay their respects and be inspired is a true Sx privilege.