SXSW 2015: The fifth time's a charm for Tobias Jesso Jr.

Tobias Jesso Jr. took his time getting a song right Friday night at SXSW

"If I was at this show," said Tobias Jesso Jr., "I'd want my money back."

That admission, which Jesso made after his third flubbed attempt to play his song "True Love," is hardly typical of the stage banter at South by Southwest, where it's more common to see an act address the race for attention by putting up a front of invincibility.

But then Jesso isn't exactly the typical SXSW act. A gangly, grinning 29-year-old who looks a bit like Andy Samberg, he plays delicate, sparsely arranged piano ballads about heartbreak and disillusionment -- no sleek dance beats or crunchy indie-rock guitars included. His debut album "Goon," released this week, has earned comparisons to old-guy favorites like Randy Newman and Harry Nilsson, neither an especially hot touchstone in 2015.

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And yet the buzz around Jesso heading into SXSW -- rave reviews, associations with taste-making producers, a rumored romantic link to Taylor Swift -- is precisely what this festival has evolved to accelerate. So, square peg or not, he might've been expected to use his gig Friday night at the Central Presbyterian Church (his last in Austin, he said) to buckle down and seal the deal.

Instead, he took five tries to get through "True Love," the fifth a success only because someone in the audience handed him a phone displaying the song's lyrics.

What made all this work, of course -- what made people stay in their seats rather than asking for their money back -- is the welcoming intimacy of Jesso's music, the way it invites you into his struggle.

Before he finally finished "True Love," he sang "Hollywood" -- about moving to Los Angeles from his native Vancouver, then moving home again when his first crack at music didn't pan out -- and "Without You," a totally unguarded description of post-breakup despair.

"How'd you get so high above me?" he asked his ex in the latter, about as simple (and as perfect) an evocation of that sorry mind-set as I've heard. The result was that he got us on his side, eager to forgive; indeed, it almost made you wonder if the "True Love" debacle wasn't a bit of the showbiz strategy that Jesso seemed so blithely to be ignoring.

But surely that wasn't the case.


Twitter: @mikaelwood

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