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SXSW 2015: Brandi Carlile and the value of a quiet space

SXSW is usually loud, but some acts found a quiet spot Wednesday, including Fairfield Four, McCrary Sisters

There are far too many musicians at South by Southwest to keep them confined to the bars, clubs and theaters of downtown Austin. So all kinds of alternate venues get pressed into temporary service while the festival goes on, including restaurants, street corners and the two churches where I caught performances Wednesday night.

Neither, though, could be described as a make-do-with-what-you've-got affair: First, I saw a pair of interconnected Nashville gospel groups -- the Fairfield Four and the McCrary Sisters -- singing at the sanctuary of St. David's Episcopal Church. Then I wandered around the corner to Central Presbyterian Church for an unamplified gig by the Seattle-based singer-songwriter Brandi Carlile.

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With history going back, as the members noted proudly, to 1921, the Fairfield Four took an age-old approach to spirituals like "Dig a Little Deeper" and "Standing in the Safety Zone," singing in close harmony with only their stomping feet for accompaniment.

But that didn't mean the group, known to some from its appearance in "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," lacked for stagecraft. Dressed in tuxedo jackets over denim overalls, the four men cracked jokes and encouraged the modest crowd to clap along. During the group's closer, Levert Allison even came down between the pews as he riffed on a vocal chorus about God's mercy.

The McCrary Sisters -- featuring four middle-aged daughters of the Fairfield Four's founder, the Rev. Sam McCrary -- were more modern, with a four-piece backing band that got downright funky in "I John." They were more attuned to the demands of promotion, too: On at least four occasions, Ann McCrary reminded the crowd that she and her sisters have a new album out, "Let's Go," and that you should go get it. (Hey, it's SXSW -- not even the Lord's children can risk losing out on a bit of buzz.)

But like the Fairfield Four, the McCrary Sisters were delivering an ancient message that felt refreshingly out of step with SXSW's fixation on finding the next big thing. The exuberance in their voices told you they'd already found something big enough for them.

Later Wednesday, Carlile went even more old school than the Fairfield Four, doing away with microphones for the latest concert in what she's calling the Pin Drop Tour. It's her attempt, she explained, to hear what the rooms she's playing have to say, and she recognized that volume-drenched SXSW made for an unlikely occasion to try it.

"I've been wondering all day if it's crazy to do this here," she said. Yet the capacity crowd supplied all the hush she needed as she performed songs from her powerful new record, "The Firewatcher's Daughter," as well as a stunning rendition of the title track from 2007's "The Story."

As her voice rang out, bouncing off the church's high ceiling, you understood what she was after: a moment unimaginable amid the clamor of Austin's 6th Street.

We’re at South by Southwest until March 22. Join us at for ongoing coverage of the festival.

Twitter: @mikaelwood

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